Former employees of state-owned enterprises and big corporates who blew the whistle on State Capture sacrificed their careers and livelihoods to do the right thing. But many of them are now desperate, destitute and unemployable, reduced to extending begging bowls to survive.
First published in Daily Maverick 168
Cynthia Stimpel was the group treasurer of South African Airways (SAA) — until she blew the whistle on an unlawful R256-million contract in 2016 and lost her job. Unable to find employment elsewhere, she was giving yoga classes to make ends meet until Covid-19 put an end to that meagre revenue stream.
The former Eskom head of legal and compliance, Suzanne Daniels, who revealed the extent of the Guptas’ involvement in the parastatal to Parliament in 2017, says she “literally ran out of money” in December last year. She has received a summons for her car.
Masimba Dahwa, who was the chief procurement officer at SAA until his refusal to sign an unlawful R1.5-billion Swissport contract cost him his job in 2016, has been unable to find permanent employment since. In 2019, his family home in Pretoria was auctioned by the bank.
Now a number of other whistle-blowers are joining Stimpel, Daniels and Dahwa in calling on the major banks to write off their debt.
In a letter authored by Stimpel, the whistle-blowers state: “Most of us will lose our cars, our houses for doing what is right… Corporates and banks should show that standing up [against] corruption and wrongdoing does actually have a positive outcome.”
Stimpel told Daily Maverick 168 that the banks are “hounding” the whistle-blowers to pay off debt they have no way of settling, because they appear to be effectively unemployable.
“When I left SAA I obviously looked at my debt and thought I would get a job: I have an MBA, banking experience, treasury experience. Every time I sent my CV out I got not even a reply,” she said.
“People google you and they don’t like what they see.”
In letters sent to the banks and seen by DM168, Stimpel has offered to work off her credit card debt “as a clerk, filing, researcher, teller, inquiries — any work which will assist me in paying off my debt”.
Other State Capture whistle-blowers report the same difficulties in getting hired again.
“I am one of the pioneers of supply chain [management] in Africa,” said Dahwa. “I have over 25 years experience; I did my PhD in supply chain. All that has now come to a heap of nothing. I’ve applied to government and private companies: they think maybe you are not one of the good ones.”
Dahwa said he is scraping by with intermittent consulting work, but every semester he struggles to pay his children’s school fees.
I interviewed many whistle-blowers who were successful executives, who sacrificed their life savings and financial security, and have now cashed out their pensions and are living off family members. It’s very sad.
Stimpel believes South Africa’s banks should offer debt forgiveness to the State Capture whistle-blowers, not just to send a positive anti-corruption message, but because the banks “were all complicit in State Capture”.
She said: “I know, because I’ve worked in the banks, you need to follow policy. If [a client] is getting a million into their account and their salary is R50,000 a month, you need to be asking about it.”
Contacted for comment on the whistle-blowers’ plea, FNB, Absa and Nedbank all told DM168 they could not comment on individual clients’ debt situations, but assessed requests for debt relief measures on a case-by-case basis. Standard Bank did not respond to a request for comment.
A Nedbank spokesperson added: “Nedbank denies any allegations of being complicit in State Capture.”
Abba Omar, head of strategy and communications at the Banking Association of South Africa, described the debt forgiveness proposal as “interesting”, but said individual banks would be better placed to comment.
The legal framework in South Africa for protecting whistle-blowers, the Protected Disclosures Act, has long been criticised as inadequate. Unlike in other countries, it does not make any financial provision for those who blow the whistle and find themselves out in the cold.
In the US, the False Claims Act entitles individuals who assist a prosecution to receive some of the money recovered by the government as a result. Ghana’s Whistle-Blower Reward Fund works in a similar way.
Legal consultant Gabriella Razzano, who has worked extensively with whistle-blowers, said the fact that Stimpel and her colleagues are having to petition the banks for debt relief is “an indictment of the whistle-blowing system”.
Razzano said that although one might think a demonstrated desire to do the right thing would make whistle-blowers highly sought-after employees, it is often extremely difficult for them to find new jobs.
“There are certain business leaders who don’t want what they see as ‘difficult’ people in their organisations,” she said. “Others are under pressure from partners in their sector to not open their doors to people who have burned certain businesses.”
Investigative journalist Mandy Wiener, who has just published a book titled The Whistleblowers, said they are also often bled financially dry through legal processes.
“I interviewed many whistle-blowers who were successful executives, who sacrificed their life savings and financial security, and have now cashed out their pensions and are living off family members. It’s very sad,” she said.
Business ethics lecturer Athol Williams, who has not worked for a year since going public to reveal Bain & Company’s involvement in State Capture, says another aspect that is seldom acknowledged is how time-consuming it can be to be a whistle-blower.
Williams, who is due to testify at the Zondo Commission next month, said: “Being a whistle-blower sounds like a once-off: you say stuff and then you carry on with your life.”
The reality, he said, is very different.
“I had to trawl through hundreds of emails and documents to put together my affidavit [for the Zondo Commission]. I’ve had to spend hours and hours with lawyers and investigators. It becomes a full-time job.”
The financial toll of whistle-blowing is exceeded only by the emotional tax it exacts on those who go public with wrongdoing at major institutions. All the whistle-blowers who spoke to DM168 said their personal lives had been turned upside-down in the aftermath to their disclosures, which, apart from the strain of lengthy unemployment, also meant living in perpetual fear of retribution. Two reported that their marriages had collapsed as a result.
For Dahwa, the most depressing aspect of his situation is the message it sends to those wondering if they should report corruption.
“There were people across Africa who looked up to me when it comes to procurement,” said Dahwa.
“I don’t know what they think now. If you want to be a whistle-blower, do you end up being like Dr Dahwa, who lost his house and couldn’t send his children to schools of choice?” DM/DM168