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Whistleblowing — A role for the Church?

We are presented with examples of corruption and wrongdoing at every turn. In our workplaces, governmental and non-governmental institutions, our churches and our schools – none seem to be immune to the prevailing scourge. Mike Batley, is an ethics practitioner and a new contributor to He looks at the role that whistleblowing has in our public institutions, the inordinate courage and the role of churches and people of faith.

“South Africans owe a debt of gratitude to a handful of courageous individuals who stood up against state capture and put their lives and careers in jeopardy. Without them, so much would have been allowed to continue unobstructed, and we would probably be living in a very different country today. Society owes them gratitude.”

This opening statement from a recent article of the Ethics Institute brings into focus something many of us are probably only vaguely aware of. Indeed, it is likely that thanks to these actions SA has been pulled back from the brink of systemic corruption that would have been virtually impossible to break.

Whistleblowing in SA is in the spotlight again due to the proceedings of the Zondo Commission at which a number of high profile whistle-blowers are testifying. There have also been well-publicised media reports and conferences where whistle-blowers have related their experiences. Google names like Mcebisi Jonas, Vytjie Mentor, Bianca Goodson and Suzanne Daniels to get a sense of this.

Whistleblowing in SA is governed mainly by the Public Disclosures Act, 2000, as amended in 2017. It refers to

the disclosure of information related to corrupt, illegal, fraudulent or hazardous activities being committed in or by public or private sector organisations – which are of concern to or threaten the public interest – to individuals or entities believed to be able to effect action.

The focus on the public interest is important. Whistleblowing should be undertaken for the purpose of protecting the public interest, not to undermine it or to settle personal or political scores.

There is concern at present that there are insufficient inducements or protections for whistle-blowers, which may prevent people from coming forward. Whistle-blowers are seldom rewarded in any way for their trouble. There have also been many accounts of how the personal safety of whistle-blowers has been threatened and the enormous toll it takes on their personal mental health and relationships.

A recent article by the Helen Suzman Foundation pointed out that whistle-blowers often “undergo discrimination, attacks on their reputations, harassment, and in extreme cases, threats to their personal safety and that of people close to them. In some cases, a person who suspects wrongdoing may report it and, after investigation, be proved wrong, but then suffers harmful consequences for his or her good-faith actions. He or she may be taken to court for breaching confidentiality.”

Incredibly, many whistle-blowers pay the ultimate price for their actions.

The Open Democracy Centre relates the story of Tlholo Phakoe who is planning his father’s memorial for early next year. It will be 10 years since Moss Phakoe was assassinated, apparently for trying to expose corruption in the Rustenburg Municipality. The number of people being killed in these situations has increased dramatically in the past six years in SA (see:

Looking at these realities one can understand why people may be reluctant to come forward to disclose acts of wrongdoing of which they are aware, and that those who do are people of unusual moral character and courage. This is where the role for people of faith and followers of Jesus begins to become apparent.

Part of loving our neighbour and working for the common good means that we need to nurture an ethical culture in our workplaces – structures of grace and righteousness rather than structures of sin. As we grow in character on our journey of discipleship, we are called to discern clearly and make wise choices about courses of action.

These are exactly the qualities required of whistle-blowers: they need to perceive situations and actions that are illegal and immoral clearly and be able to discern the best way to respond. They need to be steadfast in their commitment to building an ethical culture in their workplace and to pursue truthfulness, honesty and accountability; rather than being distracted by appeals to be loyal or by the promise of benefits.

Embarking on such a journey can be extremely challenging and dangerous. Local church communities can play a critical role in supporting someone who is grappling with making a decision about whether or not to report a situation and how.

More generally, churches can teach about the scourge of corruption and related illegal activities, their impact and why we depend so much on people of faith and conscience to build an ethical society. They could arrange shared workshops with other local faith communities to hear the stories of whistle-blowers and encourage spaces for reflection on workplace issues that people face.

The same applies when one is faced with a situation of wrongdoing in the church – whether that be fraud, theft or sexual abuse. We need to be prepared to see it for what it is and discern a wise course of action in response.

If we do nothing, we become enablers who perpetuate the wrongdoing.

We need to recognise the remarkable qualities of whistle-blowers, honour them for the price they are willing to pay for the public interest and be aware of what we can do to support them.

Some useful resources:

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.