South African whistle-blowers who speak up about fraud and corruption are often vilified, losing their jobs and even their lives for exposing criminality. There is limited legal protection for those who blow the whistle on wrongdoing, as Bain & Co. whistle-blower Athol Williams reveals.
Please outline your experience as a whistle-blower and what led to your leaving the country to protect yourself and your family?
Within hours of publicly announcing concerns over Bain’s involvement in state capture, my cell phone and laptop were deactivated, and I was blocked from communication with my colleagues. I was given three days’ notice that my health benefits were to be discontinued and was given a few days to repay a bonus. I was harassed to delete documents and received offers of cash to maintain my silence. This hostility was hard to accept, but was expected.
What was unexpected was the abandonment by corporate South Africa. After losing my job, no company in
South Africa would employ me or financially support my efforts to keep exposing the transgressors I implicated.
It was distressing to hear CEOs and heads of business organisations publicly praise whistle-blowers and condemning corruption, but privately refusing to support me.
The South African Government offered no support or protection either. I had to pay my own way from Cape Town
to Johannesburg twice to testify at the Zondo Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture (Zondo Commission). I have written to the Presidency more than ten times without reply. My crowdfunding campaigns are all washouts. The hostility has been widescale – by corporates, the government and by South African society at large.
An international whistle-blower organisation and a former government official warned me that I was in danger.
When Babita Deokaran was assassinated, I left South Africa. My danger comes from powerful political and businesspeople I implicated through my evidence to the Zondo Commission, and their supporters. I’ve had to sell my car and home to fund my living expenses and campaign costs.
What are some of the consequences whistle-blowers face when they speak out against corruption and other wrongdoing?
I’ve mentioned some of them above. I haven’t been able to earn an income for more than three years now. I even
lost my lecturing job at the University of Cape Town, where I was a senior lecturer in ethics.
With more than 15 years’ international executive experience and master’s degrees from Harvard University, MIT Sloan School of Management, Oxford University, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and London Business School, no one is willing to employ me.
South Africa has comprehensive legislation and regulations to encourage whistle-blowing. How is the Protected Disclosures Act and other legislation failing?
The legislation does not cover all aspects of whistle-blowing. There is no protection from retaliation, for example.
The legislation only has any force while the whistle-blower is still employed.
The moment you leave the employ of the company, which is the case for almost all the state capture whistle-blowers, the legislation is powerless. There is no law to which I can appeal for support or protection.
What non-legislative failures contribute to the climate of fear among whistle-blowers and impunity among wrongdoers, as well as those failing to protect whistle-blowers?
The law firms, companies and individuals whom I’ve approached for help all say they’d love to, but they’ll suffer
repercussions for assisting me. We seem willing to see good people like whistleblowers suffer to protect our self-interest.
The fact that perpetrators are not prosecuted gives them the boldness to continue their wrongdoing and makes us unwilling to stand up to them. Those who do, like whistle-blowers, suffer the consequences because they stand on their own.
What measures should be put in place to ensure that whistleblowers have access to legal advice, protection, representation and financial support?
All we need is the will by business. The measures are simple – the services whistle-blowers need already exist, all that is lacking is funding. Corporate South Africa can very easily remedy the situation. A fund that companies
contribute to would solve the problem overnight. The protocols and administration of such a fund are not
What measures should organisations put in place to encourage and protect whistleblowers?
Right now, it is unethical to encourage anyone to be a whistle-blower on a major issue, since doing so would place them in harm’s way without any support or protection. This is the reality we face. We can encourage whistle-blowing on small internal issues, but not high-value corruption involving powerful people. Most big-ticket corruption is committed by senior executives within companies, yet most whistle-blowing programmes are designed to capture fraud and corruption by lower-level employees.
Companies need to involve completely independent parties, not only in their whistle-blower lines (whose reports come back to managers), but also in action against perpetrators, especially when the perpetrators are senior managers.
Founder of the Institute of Social & Corporate Ethics (ISCE)