Chelle Waters: From Fort Hare to Tongaat, SA whistleblowers deemed guilty until proven innocent

Many South Africans feel ignored as they call for accountability in widespread corruption. Whistle-blowers face grave dangers and are presumed guilty before proven innocent. Despite evidence, fraudsters often remain unpunished. Courageous individuals like lawyers Bradley Conradie and Sarah Burger continue to expose fraud at the University of Fort Hare but face severe retaliation and little support.

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By Chelle Waters*

Many South Africans yearning for an end to fraud and corruption feel like they’re shouting into a void. Calls for those responsible to be held accountable and for whistle-blowers to be vindicated are often ignored despite the facts presented.

The dangers of whistle-blowing are well-documented, but what’s more perplexing is the presumption of guilt. The legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ appears forgotten. Why is it human nature to readily believe the worst about others? And even when innocence is established, the vindication is rarely as loud as the initial accusations.

This human tendency to relish negative stories and then stay silent when those stories are proven wrong is a significant hurdle in the fight against corruption. It allows those in power to continue unchecked, while those who speak the truth face an uphill and often dangerous battle.

I recently wrote about the plight of two incredibly courageous lawyers who despite enduring an unimaginable arrest and mistreatment following their work for the much written about University of Fort Hare (UFH), continue to stand up and speak their truth. Bradley Conradie and Sarah Burger began investigations into the UFH in 2018 and despite sharing substantial evidence of rampant fraud and corruption with not only the UFH but also other authorities such as the Hawks and Special Investigating Unit (SIU), saw very few steps taken to punish those committing these crimes. Instead they, in fact, received ongoing abuse. While much has been written about this extensive fraud, what bothers me the most is why are the fraudsters still walking free despite all of the evidence at hand and at a loss of R60 to R70 million to the University – and where is the Vice Chancellor (VC) in all of this? 

Vice Chancellor, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, has done nothing but pass the blame and express his grave disappointment at the happenings at the UFH – firstly, he should be taking responsibility for the rampant fraud that has gone on over the years and secondly, he can’t be a worthy leader if he claims ignorance of what was happening at the University while under his watch. In any event, we have seen factual proof that he knew exactly what staff were doing and yet remained silent while doing nothing to stop it or bring those committing fraud to justice.

In 2019 Alec Hogg, Editor of BizNews, interviewed former banker turned shareholder activist Dave Woollam about his involvement in warning the Tongaat board of directors about what was looming ahead. Woollam, for his troubles, was apparently shown the door – politely though which can’t be said for many others.

What interested me about this was Woollam’s observation that during his time researching every document ever published by Tongaat over the previous 10 years as well as all TV and print media interviews, he noticed that “I only ever saw Peter Staude as the frontman or spokesman for the company. Never once did the Chairman offer any public comments, the CFO was strangely hidden in the background, and the other key executives were largely unknown to investors and other stakeholders.  There is a similar trend amongst the other fallen angels such as Steinhoff, Resilient, EOH, Brait and Net1”. 

Again, where are those who remain hidden? Fortunately there are many business leaders that don’t avoid taking responsibility but for those that do, it is highly concerning and sadly, very often indicative of what the future holds for their business.

Having said that, the climate of silence surrounding whistle-blowing and those who investigate fraud and corruption extends beyond the inaction of powerful figures. For those with the incredible courage to speak out, protection is a rare commodity. The emotional toll is immense, the fear of retaliation a constant shadow.

But the betrayal goes deeper. Often, the very organisations designed to support colleagues and whistle-blowers turn their backs, distancing themselves or even abandoning these brave souls. This can happen before any investigation, before innocence or guilt is established, leaving the whistle-blower utterly isolated and ostracised.

This lack of understanding, especially from supposed allies, is a devastating blow. It silences others who might come forward, perpetuating a culture of corruption where wrongdoing thrives.

One example of many is a recent post on LinkedIn about the UFH matter by ICFP (Institute of Commercial Forensics Practitioners) committee member, Jacques van Wyk, who quoted a Daily Maverick article and then publicly praised VC Buhlungu saying “We need more people with the bravery, integrity and commitment to justice displayed by Professor Sakhela Buhlungu.” He also ended by saying Buhlungu is “an inspirational example to us all”. I can assure you that he is not. How can someone in the forensics profession who is a committee member of the Institute publicly speak out without first contacting and questioning his own colleagues and instead support someone who I assume he does not personally know and worse, laud Buhlungu for having the same attributes as Nelson Mandela, details incidentally which have since been deleted. If van Wyk had done any research he would have known that Conradie and Burger identified extensive fraud over their time consulting to the UFH. My point is here is someone in the same profession and a committee member of a body for forensic practitioners and yet who himself has been quick to judge and assume guilt before innocence.

Perhaps the waste of tax payers’ money in some of these investigations will produce more of an outcry. For example, in Conradie and Burger’s case, more than 20 police officials were deployed from the most elite unit to arrest both of them (Conradie who is in no way a danger or aggressive and Burger, a petite woman) after which a private jet was used to transport them from Cape Town to East London. In another related arrest, a single person was flown from Johannesburg to East London in a private plane. In fact, most of the accused were jetted to East London all at substantial cost to tax payers.

Bheki Cele’s comment in the media (News24) about the UFH matter where he said “We will use whatever resources are available to us” was very true and sadly, an unnecessary and outrageous squandering of tax payers money.

A substantial price to pay

The reality of being a whistle-blower is keenly felt in a hard to watch BizNews’ interview with Mzukisi Makatse, the attorney who first blew the whistle on corruption at the National Lotteries Commission and who lost everything because of it, as even though he was vindicated by the SIU who eventually uncovered R1.4 billion in corrupt dealings, it came at a substantial price to him.

Was it worth it? I believe for someone like Makatse it was. Truth and integrity even while floundering in a cesspool of deceit. And the same will apply, in time, for Conradie and Burger.

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*Waters is an independent consultant to corporates with extensive experience in the legal sector.