Exposing corruption, abuse of power and criminality pits those who take the risk against powerful vested interests in government at all levels.
Whistle-blowers have a critical role to play in upholding democracy, but typically they are callously pushed to the margins of society and subjected to humiliation, ostracisation, stigma, fear and anxiety.
Grassroots activists and whistle-blowers rarely make national headlines unless someone is assassinated, as was the case when four unknown gunmen killed Fikile Ntshangase, 65, at her home near the Tendele coal mine in KwaZulu-Natal in October 2020.
Ntshangase, a prominent activist from the Mfolozi Community Environmental Justice Organisation, was working with lawyers against the expansion of an opencast coal mine at Somkhele, on the southeastern border of the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game park, in violation of environmental and other laws.
"Most people in the cities don't know what is happening in a small village in [KwaZulu-Natal] until something bad happens, and then lawyers get involved and then it becomes public," said Stha Yeni, a PhD student at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS). "But the question is how do we create awareness before somebody dies?"
Wherever there are mining activities in South Africa, it is common for mining companies to bribe traditional leaders and local politicians, Yeni added.
The battle in Xolobeni
In the Wild Coast region of the Eastern Cape, members of the Xolobeni community have resisted titanium mining in their remote rural area since 1996. They have accused the Australian company Mineral Resource Commodities and its local subsidiary, Transworld Energy and Mineral Resources, of trying to buy them off. Local traditional authorities, provincial and national black economic empowerment (BEE) players and the minister of mineral resources and energy, Gwede Mantashe, have sided with the mining companies against the community.
"When it comes to mining, there is a lot of money involved and some members of the community are bribed. Right now, our chief is driving a 4×4 from the mining company," said Amadiba Crisis Committee activist Nonhle Mbuthuma.
The government is appealing a judgment handed down in favour of the community in November 2018, which states that any mining rights can be granted only after the people of Xolobeni have given their full, free and informed consent. "It is shocking that the government is appealing against its own people, saying they have no right to decide, they have no right to choose how they want to live," Mbuthuma said.
The court hearing is currently on hold. "Our lawyers are trying their best but you can't argue with Covid," she explained.
A non-governmental organisation is paying for guards to protect Mbuthuma, who is regularly intimidated, harassed and threatened. "I am under protection because they are trying by all means to threaten me. The threats are coming from the so-called BEE faction mostly, from all over the country... They count the people who are already dead and they say I am next."
Two Xolobeni activists have been assassinated: Mandoda Ndovela in 2003 and Sikhosiphi "Bazooka" Radebe in 2016. Others have died in mysterious circumstances, like Velaphi Ndovela, who suffered a brain haemorrhage in 2006. "People have died in a very strange way, but we don't have the money to do all sorts of tests," Mbuthuma said.
As with Ntshangase's assassination, there have been no arrests to date.
Fight or flight
Yeni says communities taking up the fight against powerful mining interests can be a double-edged sword. "All these cases, even if sometimes they [cause] death, they do make a difference because people can see that they are able to stand up and fight," said Yeni. "[But] it also creates fear because people don't want to be killed. People are scared. They say if we fight this mining we may be killed. And often lawyers and outsiders only come in when there has been a disaster."
The Zondo commission has honed in on state capture at a national level, but state apparatus includes national, provincial and local spheres - and the corruption is happening in all of them.
Mzwandile Banjathwa, project coordinator at Corruption Watch, says whistle-blowers at a local level often suffer more than those in the national government sphere because they are more exposed in their communities. "People come to us and say they have suffered detriment because they have reported internally at municipalities or schools or health services. They may lose their jobs or be unfairly demoted or be transferred to other departments where their skills are not necessarily used, and some are even moved to other provinces.
"They tend to suffer personal detriments, which is even worse, where their lives are threatened and those of their loved ones and people who are closest to them."
Politicians at local level "take their cue from the national government", adds Banjathwa. They cover for each other, particularly in councils where the ANC is in the majority. "We see this in the national government, particularly in Parliament, where people are accused of corruption and nothing is done about it."
The agony of delays
Kwazi Dlamini, an investigative reporter at Corruption Watch, says whistle-blowers suffer while their cases are being investigated. "Our job is to carry out investigations and this takes time, but when you are out of a job you want to get back to work as soon as possible. That has been our biggest frustration. People lose jobs because of blowing the whistle, and there is not really much we can do about that as Corruption Watch."
Luvuyo Mooi, a whistle-blower who has been working with Corruption Watch for years, echoes this frustration. "I have been living in fear for the past five years," he said. Mooi used to work for the Emalahleni Local Municipality in the Chris Hani District in the Eastern Cape, but he was essentially forced out of his job after exposing alleged corruption in 2016.
An ANC councillor from 2006 to 2016 and chairperson of the municipal public accounts committee for the last four years of his term, Mooi says he unearthed significant proof of irregular expenditure. Documentation is available to support his claim. "Even my close colleagues were afraid that I was going to be killed because the reports were very sensitive," Mooi said.
He followed all the approved internal processes to report the corruption and has reported the matter to the police commissioner over the years, even meeting with several investigators from the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the Hawks. However, the matter has been taken up and dropped time and again because of a lack of cooperation from the implicated persons.
"Imagine the trauma," said Mooi. "I was trying to be honest to my government and to my organisation. This has affected me dearly. It has affected my marriage and my family."
According to Corruption Watch, one of the difficulties in its investigation of this case has been that, year after year, the municipal officers implicated do not respond to requests for information and fail to take up their right to defend themselves against the allegations. "It has been frustrating for us because it is difficult to get anything out of the municipality. [The Eastern Cape] is the hardest province for us to work in," Dlamini said.
Too worn out to care
In one NLC initiative, the plan was to build six old-age homes in different locations at a cost of approximately R26 million each. Maila village, about 30km southeast of Louis Trichardt, was one of the sites selected.
According to Van Zyl, approximately R20 million was allocated and paid out by the NLC over the course of 2017. An additional R6 million was paid in 2019, although no real progress had been made in completing the homes. Half-built structures were abandoned two years ago. Looters are rapidly reducing them to a pile of rubble.
The Maila village project is a prime example of how impoverished communities are abused in corrupt schemes, Van Zyl said.
"This is a village where, according to the latest stats, only 116 of the almost 2 000 families have a toilet in their houses, yet someone from outside decided they needed a R26m old age home," said Van Zyl.
Old-age homes are an alien concept in Venda villages, where elderly people are generally integrated into the family structure and not looked after by strangers. "That is absolutely not what happens," Van Zyl said.
"The NLC has wasted hundreds of millions in the past few years. Why don't communities revolt? Where are the whistle-blowers? If you go to the village and speak to people who have effectively been cheated out of R26 million, you would think they would be up in arms, but they are not. The dynamics are sometimes way more complicated... Whistle-blowers appear once investigative reporters have started scratching," said van Zyl.
Communities are reluctant to stand up as a collective, seemingly afraid that if they speak out they will lose the little they get. But they are willing to come to the fore and leak documents to support an investigation when reporters take the initiative.
"This community is so neglected that they get a promise of something and even if it is not what they want, they just accept it," he said.