The price of a conscience


The price of a conscience

We admire heroes who change the course of history, but whistleblowers pay a high price, sometimes even with their lives. ELSABE PEPLER tells the stories of local and international whistleblowers who have exposed corruption, theft, crime, and other dangers and threats to ordinary people.


WE are woven together by stories. That is why we know, individually and collectively, that there must always be villains who will undermine and destroy everything that is good. Fortunately, we also know that stories consist of binary poles of light and darkness, good and evil, holy and wicked. Although it may seem that criminals are multiplying faster than we can count, we always hope that a hero, heroine or saviour will emerge from the murky darkness of South Africa's corrupt underbelly.

On 23 August 2021, Babita Deokaran, the executive head of finance at the Gauteng health department, dropped off her daughter at school like any other morning. Thirty minutes later, she was shot nine times in her car in the driveway of her home in south Johannesburg, and she  succumbed to her injuries in hospital.

Deokaran's life was violently ended for one reason: her painstaking investigations and reporting on the years-long corruption at Tembisa Hospital, as well as the health department's questionable accounting of suspicious contracts in general. She had a collection of 20,000 emails as evidence. Deokaran chose to be a whistleblower and paid with her life.

The same story took a shocking but not entirely unexpected turn. Zweli Mkhize, the Minister of Health, was exposed after investigations into extensive corruption within the Department of Health (known as the Digital Vibes scandal). If you search for “Deokaran & Mkhize" on Google, you'll find that the alleged assassins claimed in court that Mkhize and his brother were responsible for orchestrating Deokaran's assassination.

And if anyone doubts how prevalent state capture fraud and corruption are in South Africa, just know this: Mkhize and his followers, despite the dark allegations swirling around him, still believe he can become the president of South Africa next year. According to research (Mojapelu & Faku), South Africa lost more than R700bn to fraud and corruption in 2019 alone.

Just under a decade ago, South Africans had to undergo a mental shift to internalise the concept of state capture. Previously, it was referred to as a “kleptocracy". It is a society where leaders enrich themselves and become untouchable by stealing from the rest of the country. We have gradually learned more about South Africa's super-captors, the Guptas and Zuma, and their insatiable greed.

Our sense of storytelling has been affirmed: a hero has emerged to try to unravel the mess. Chief Justice Raymond Zondo, after three years, millions of rand, thousands of testimonies and three reports, has named the culprits. As recently as June, Zondo once again cracked the whip by admonishing the outraged government and warning citizens that parliament is doing nothing to prevent State Capture 2.0.

But our homes have grown darker this year, darker than ever. There was no cowboy, heroine or saviour on the horizon. Who would come to save us from the greedy ones who tear and plunder everything, even stealing from the poorest of the poor? Would anyone even dare to continue reporting on the endless mess ad nauseam?

Then, on February 23, we saw and heard someone in an interview with Annika Larsen (watch it here) who sounded and looked like a hero. His name is poetic: De Ruyter, André de Ruyter. The saviour with silver hair appeared to help us fight against the old and new waves of evil forces and State Capture 2.0 (which we hadn't heard of at the time).

The interview began with a reference to the assassination attempt on his life through cyanide poisoning, right in his own office and in his own coffee. The only problem for some was that the saviour's story sounded so far-fetched that we didn't know if we could or should believe it. It was difficult to grasp the extent of the ruthlessness and deceit at Eskom — once again since the reign of terror by Zuma and the Guptas. De Ruyter calmly declared that at Eskom, up to R1bn disappears every month into the pockets and accounts of at least four criminal syndicates.

A deep sense of disappointment and betrayal has since taken hold in many people. All naive belief and hope have been extinguished in thousands of South Africans. How many people suffer from hunger and die daily — and then we talk about billions being stolen? To put it in perspective: there are eight billion people in the world, and at Eskom, R1bn simply disappears every month? Because things like knee pads that usually cost a few rand are  being sold to Eskom for around R80,000? Many people who watched De Ruyter's interview wondered: will he ever be safe again, anywhere on Earth, after these shattering revelations?

The likes of Deokaran and De Ruyter are the whistleblowers. The guardians on the walls, the conscience of the people. Those they blow the whistle on are usually politicians, directors, “mafia" leaders. They are thieves, criminals, the corrupt; the ones whose turn it is “to eat". A judge is not a whistleblower. Is a police informant a whistleblower? (Yes.) Is a journalist or writer a whistleblower when they uncover and report on wrongdoing, like Pieter-Louis Myburgh of AmaBhungane/Daily Maverick? (No, that's their job.) (Myburgh heard persistent rumours of Zweli Mkhize's involvement in corruption. He delved into reporting on the Covid-19 fraud — and Digital Vibes appeared prominently in the picture.) Whistleblowers and informants have exposed numerous dangers and threats to ordinary people: from contaminated nuclear power working conditions to polluted water; from police abuse of prisoners to ruthless drug cartels; from war to priests who abuse children. None of these was too big for whistleblowers in history.

Whistleblowing has always occurred, in various contexts, countries and sectors. It typically involves an individual, often an employee, who has access to evidence of corruption and fraud (or large-scale theft or improper political connections) that can harm the organisation or group. The first law protecting whistleblowers was enacted on July 30, 1777, after 12 aggrieved soldiers in the US accused a commodore of torturing prisoners of war and he responded furiously.

So when exactly does the typical whistleblower decide to open Pandora's box and expose the dirt? Related research suggests that such a person goes through a period of intense self-doubt before acting. They know that if they remain silent, they cannot live with themselves. However, if they reveal the truth, they often become targets for revenge and even murder. Nothing in their lives is ever certain again.

It is logical that any company or organisation capable of allowing such massive amounts of money to disappear could also focus that same capital on destroying the whistleblower and maintaining the sick system. We must keep in mind that any organisation is a brand that relies on people's loyalty and purchasing power. Therefore, the same organisation or company that makes headlines because someone blew the whistle should still want to protect their brand and reputation. In the modern marketing world, a brand is essentially only as good as its financial value. But not Eskom — for years it has been indifferent to what any customer thinks of its brand and ethos.

Academic research proves that the lives of whistleblowers are never the same after they dish the dirt: they are always seen as troublemakers, struggle to find employment, constantly have to watch their backs, and their previous lives with family and friends are lost. Scientific studies on this topic are not abundant and have been sporadic over the past 30 years. There have been relatively few recent research papers, little concrete empirical evidence about who and what the typical whistleblower is, what motivates them, and what ultimately becomes of them. However, there are numerous films and books that serve as anecdotal evidence, providing us with more insight into whistleblowers, their lives, and their inner turmoil over what they plan to reveal.


Daniel Ellsberg recently died at the age of 92 in California. The tributes and accolades in numerous media outlets tell his remarkable story. He was the classic whistleblower and hero who, through moral courage, succeeded in changing government plans and stopping a war.

Ellsberg earned his PhD in game theory from Harvard (the Ellsberg paradox is still referenced). While working at the RAND (Research and Development) Corporation, he was contracted by the Pentagon and spent two years in Vietnam.

Ellsberg and 33 analysts then worked on a 7,000-page document known as the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of government decision-making about the  Vietnam War. Ellsberg began to experience a deep sense of despair, something that's typical of many whistleblowers. After listening to a talk by a pacifist, he collapsed and wept for hours over the senselessness of the war. “I had no doubt that my government was involved in an unjust war that would continue and escalate. Thousands of young men were dying every year. It was pure American aggression."

Ellsberg made multiple sets of copies of the Pentagon Papers and showed them to people he believed would sympathise with the cause. Neil Sheehan of The New York Times, without Ellsberg's permission, published the contents in nine instalments. (Read more here about Daniel Ellsberg's long and colourful life.) And all hell broke loose.

Richard Nixon was deep in trouble. Intense court cases, denials and accusations followed, but the damage to the power-hungry, deceitful US government was done. Ellsberg was undoubtedly the catalyst for the events that intertwined Vietnam and Watergate into one long story from 1961 to 1975, ruining multiple administrations. (The so-called White House Plumbers, currently the subject of a Netflix series, were supposed to eliminate Ellsberg, among other things.) Ellsberg received dozens of awards, and six films told his colourful story. Perhaps our heroes, the De Ruyters and Zondos and De Lilles, will one day also become the subject of books, films and awards.

The US government and president were no match for the events brought about by Ellsberg and Deep Throat. Watergate was the other implicated incident that remains the subject of books and films/TV series. The Washington Post's front-page reports on  election fraud in the US from 1971 to 1974 will always stand out. An anonymous whistleblower, Deep Throat, provided detailed information to two journalists about the theft of secret election materials orchestrated by Nixon from the Watergate complex. The two reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, struck gold and pursued the story for years.

Nixon denied everything again but ultimately confessed to being guilty of deception and manipulation. The whistleblower's facts and position in this case were highly authoritative: he was an FBI agent, Mark Felt, who later became the deputy director of the FBI. His identity was revealed in 2005. (The TV series The White House Plumbers and Gaslit continue to unravel the deception of that time. In the latter, Martha Mitchell (played by Julia Roberts), the wife of US Attorney General John Mitchell, is examined for the first time in her significant role as a whistleblower.)

We admire our heroes who change the course of history, often on an international level. Dark Waters (2019, see IMDB) tells the story of attorney Robert Bilott, who took on the chemical giant DuPont in West Virginia and Ohio over contaminated water. After many years of legal battles, DuPont was forced to pay $671m in 2017 to 3,550 people who had lost numerous family members and friends to cancer. The lesson here is that people's very survival often depends on the courage of  whistleblowers.

There are many stories of South Africans who have fought for their lives at times, despite the so-called protection of the Protected Disclosures Act (No 26 of 2000, see the clauses here). Most first-world countries have similar laws that are supposed to protect whistleblowers from any retaliation and consequences, as well as to provide them with financial rewards (refer to this website to find out more about countries with such laws).

Mandy Wiener, a political writer and winner of numerous journalism awards, has written a book about whistleblowers in South Africa (2020, The Whistleblowers). She has no doubt that whistleblowers should be supported, protected and rewarded, rather than being ostracised, punished and even killed. Many whistleblowers lose their jobs and benefits, friends and social memberships, and are marginalised in society while personally broken in certain ways. The profound trauma includes  loss of income, despair, threats, insults, ostracism and unemployment. Personal relationships become battlegrounds of blame.

In 2000, a traffic constable (named Jakes) from Springs obtained explosive video footage. His sense of justice prevailed, and he handed the video to the SABC. It revealed how members of the South African Police Service K9 unit set dogs on Mozambican refugees. Everyone was shocked. Police commissioner Jackie Selebi promised that “Jakes" would be safe, justice minister Dullah Omar said he would be protected and rewarded. But in fact the traffic constable's career was destroyed, and he is still waiting for any form of reward from any politician. The K9 unit was temporarily shut down due to the scandal.

Some of the most notorious international whistleblowers are Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Snowden, who worked for the CIA in 2012, gradually realised that governments, with the help of certain laws (such as the National Security Act in the US), could find out anything about ordinary citizens and keep everything on record without the public being aware of it. Snowden struggled with this realisation and came to the conclusion that he did not want to live in a world that functions in such a way. If any government has the power to know everything about every person, individuals should at least be aware of it, he argued (watch this TEDx talk on Snowden).

In these cases, the motivation for the whistleblowers was primarily moral and ethical, as is often the case. It is rarely financial. Snowden had to flee for his life and lives in Russia, where he was granted asylum and citizenship in 2020. Politicians in the US still want him extradited for legal proceedings. Manning also disclosed state information and was found guilty of treason (although former President Barack Obama commuted her sentence).

South African politician Patricia de Lille is a remarkable individual who also walked the path of exposing corruption. In September 1999, she received a thick dossier from anonymous “concerned ANC members" about corruption in the government, specifically referencing an unauthorised arms deal involving several high-ranking officials. She immediately blew the whistle with all her might (whistleblower testimony on the arms deal). However, it was only in 2014 that she was able to testify in court, but she declared that nothing would come of it since Jacob Zuma, the former president, enjoyed protection against such allegations. De Lille feared for her life and lived very cautiously for two years; today, she is the Minister of Tourism. Like Wiener, De Lille believes whistleblowers are the only solution to combat the endemic crime and corruption in South Africa. (You can access the original dossier De Lille anonymously received on the arms scandal here.)

Is there a specific type of person or typical personality inclined to blow the whistle on deception? Can a company identify these rebels and troublemakers in advance? Can one predict who may turn against an organisation or institution and expose the truth? Who are the kinds of people who risk their lives to expose deceit, lies and crime? Was De Ruyter ever such a candidate?

According to an article in Forbes (Travers, 2019), typical whistleblowers are often highly educated men with a good salary and managerial authority within organisations. They tend to have dominant personalities and are not easily part of ordinary groups or cliques, but they are typically extroverts who enjoy communication. The type of information typically revealed by whistleblowers is indicative of sudden large-scale corruption rather than small-scale phenomena that grow and expand slowly.

In other empirical research, it has been found that the typical whistleblower cares more about moral justice than loyalty to others. Eastern countries have fewer whistleblowers compared to the West, which is related to the distinction between collectivist and individualist societies. This is why the #MeToo movement had relatively less traction in the East. The ostracism and rejection by society pose too much risk in collectivist countries. It's important to note that South Africa is known for ubuntu, which is rooted in a collectivist ethos. The #MeToo movement, although met with scepticism by some, is an example of how a massive shift in corporate gender politics occurred after one woman after another blew the whistle on famous and wealthy men who  sexually exploited and harassed women. Thanks to these women, Harvey Weinstein is now imprisoned, and Jeffrey Epstein, who abused hundreds of girls, took his own life.

Regarding whistleblowers elsewhere in Africa, only seven out of 54 countries on the continent have laws that protect whistleblowers. One might almost ask if it is coincidental that Sudan, where a humanitarian crisis is  unfolding in an endless cycle of death, poverty and despair, is among the most corrupt countries in Africa (see list here).

Corruption and fraud lead to widespread misery for all those who are not part of it. Where there are politicians, leaders and money, there is a significant risk of deceit and theft. There are individuals whose courageous actions, even unknown to us, have changed history. has compiled the stories of several South African whistleblowers in this publication.

Netflix, Hulu, HBO and Apple TV+ are filled with documentaries and docudramas about deceit and its exposure, even in the food industry and food supply chain. One of the most poignant stories told about a whistleblower was the 1973 film Serpico, which depicted the journey of an ambitious, idealistic young police officer in New York whose testimony against hundreds of corrupt colleagues cost him his career and nearly his life. To this day, he remains an activist in Albany, New York. He is a lonely outsider, however, pushed to the fringes of society.

If you're curious to explore more about the dark experience of whistleblowers, you can find the names of 20 films about these heroes and heroines here. Perhaps these types of stories will inspire us with new courage to take a stand against lies, deceit and corruption. What is certain is that the issue of whistleblowers should be discussed more openly, and large organisations should consider providing financial benefits to these heroes and heroines who sacrifice their lives for the greater society.

It is true that the reality for any genuine whistleblower who feels morally obligated to expose the truth is not always a walk in the park. And without wanting to sound overly sentimental, one wants to believe that your contribution as a whistleblower can make the world a better place for thousands. Take a breath, exhale, and sound that whistle.

By doing so, you might just be making the world a better place.

♦ VWB ♦

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