As the fight against corruption gathers momentum, South Africa needs to urgently review its approach to witness protection and the broader protection of whistleblowers, President Cyril Ramaphosa says in his weekly letter to the country.
“While numerous systems are in place to enable whistleblowers to report anonymously, we need to tighten up existing systems and provide greater support to those who publicly come forward with information,” Ramaphosa stated.
“As society, we need to identify where existing laws and policies are inadequate in protecting the livelihoods, reputations and safety of whistleblowers — and work together to address these.”
Ramaphosa referred to the recent murder of Babita Deokaran, a senior finance official in the Gauteng health department.
He said that her murder is a stark reminder of the high stakes involved in the quest to remove the cancer of corruption from our society.
The President commended the work of the South African Police Service and the private security teams who apprehended seven suspects for Deokaran’s murder last week.
“The intent of the criminals who target whistleblowers is not only to silence particular individuals — it is also to send a message to other potential whistleblowers,” Ramaphosa stated.
“We cannot let them down. We must, and we will, ensure that their disclosures result in prosecutions and do much more to ensure that they are protected from harm.”
Ramaphosa said that as South Africans, the government wants to send a strong message that we will not be intimidated.
“Those behind the killing of witnesses and whistleblowers will be arrested and face the might of the law, as will all who are found guilty of the very corruption these assassins are trying to cover up.”
Ramaphosa said that without whistleblowers’ brave and principled interventions, South Africa would be unable to unmask those committing corruption.
“Though much focus in recent times has been on whistleblowers in the public sector, we also owe a debt of gratitude to those in the private sector whose actions receive less attention, but are equally important,” the president said.
“Whistleblowers are important guardians of our democracy. They raise the alarm against unethical acts and practices in government and organisations.”
Deokaran was reputed among her colleagues for uncovering irregularities and fraud at the Gauteng health department.
Gauteng premier David Makhura on Wednesday confirmed there was a link between her assassination and the people involved in a dodgy R332-million tender to procure personal protective equipment for several hospitals.
Police apprehended seven suspects from KwaZulu-Natal aged between 24 and 31 after tracking one of their vehicles back to a suspect’s rented home in Gauteng with the help of surveillance conducted by Fidelity.
Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported that the hitmen accused of gunning down Deokaran spied on her phone and used remote tech to disable CCTV cameras close to her home to avoid detection.
Some of these cameras supposedly pointed at the complex gate and could be used to identify the suspects.
Deokaran was shot at least five times at her home in a townhouse complex in Winchester Hills in Johannesburg on Monday morning, shortly after dropping her daughter off at school.
Ramaphosa said that in South Africa, there is extensive legislative protection for whistleblowers, including through the Protected Disclosures Act, Labour Relations Act, Companies Act, Protection against Harassment Act, and the Constitution itself.
The Department of Justice and Correctional Services, working with other law-enforcement agencies, also administers the Office of Witness Protection to support vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in any judicial proceedings.
“Entering witness protection is voluntary, and neither the SAPS nor the NPA can compel a witness to do so,” Ramaphosa said.
“Should a witness receive threats to their life or feel unsafe, they have to inform investigators and apply for admission to the programme.”
Ramaphosa said that this programme had played a key role in securing successful prosecutions, particularly with regard to organised crime.