Solly Moeng exposes South Africa’s exodus: Athol Williams and whistleblowers escape corruption threats

In post-apartheid South Africa, a disheartening trend has emerged as individuals, including whistleblowers, media professionals, and activists, find themselves compelled to leave the country due to threats, both direct and indirect, against their lives and livelihoods. This departure, reminiscent of the historical exiles during apartheid, is fueled by a variety of factors, including exposure of political misconduct, racial discrimination under BEE and Affirmative Action laws, and the lack of protection for those who speak out against corruption. The departure of figures like Athol Williams highlights the grim reality faced by those forced into post-apartheid exile, where the threats may not always be overt violence but can manifest as professional blacklisting, denial of employment opportunities, and heightened stress. The silent exodus of skilled individuals poses a risk to South Africa’s development and sovereignty, echoing the historical significance of exile in a different era.

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Corruption Turns Whistle-blowers into Post-Apartheid Exiles

By Solly MoengBrand Reputation Strategist

Upon hearing the word “exile” or “exiles”, many South Africans make an automatic association with the countless individuals – known and unknown – who left the country throughout the harsh years of apartheid to flee possible incarceration or assassination in the hands of the much-feared apartheid state security agencies and their notorious killing machines.

They also associate such exiles with known political organisations, especially the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO), the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the African National Congress (ANC), the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), and the South African Communist Party (SACP). 

A political environment has been carefully nurtured over the almost 30 years since the formal end of apartheid to venerate those who fled into exile.

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There were also many South African exiles who came from the ranks of independent media and were forced to flee after being threatened with arrest for exposing the many lies and treacherous acts of the apartheid machinery. Investigative journalism was not born in the new era.

Many others, including young white South African men, also fled the country after facing threats of imprisonment for refusing to serve in the South African Defense Force (SADF), also known to this day as the apartheid army. They were either active members of or inspired by the call of the South African Conscientious Objectors Movement not to let themselves be used to make the lives of their fellow citizens, black South Africans, even more unbearable.

Following those early days of the new order, ably and empathetically led by the magnanimous late former president Nelson Mandela, no one could have imagined that over the next decade or so, under differently wired state presidents from the ANC, South Africa would slowly become haunted by a different kind flight. It almost feels wrong – disrespectful of those who left to flee the horrors of apartheid – to use the word “exile” to refer to the more recent phenomenon of South Africans fleeing the country of their birth under all forms of threats, direct and indirect, aimed at their lives and livelihoods.

Yet there is a flight, of sorts.

Those fleeing range from those who reported sexual attacks by powerful politicians – such as the late Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo (named “Khwezi” to protect her safety), who accused Jacob Zuma of having raped her. Zuma was subsequently acquitted in the court of justice but, arguably, not in the court of public opinion for what happened in that bedroom.

Many have also decided to leave South Africa because of BEE and Affirmative Action legislation aimed to correct the imbalances of the past but resulting in unfair racial discrimination against innocent citizens from minority groups simply wanting to make a living in and contribute to South Africa’s development. 

Others are whistleblowers, media professionals, and activists who spoke truth to power, against abuses of office and public resources under ANC (mis)governance over the years. 

South Africa might boast about laws protecting rights to freedom of expression and of having no journalist in prison for their views, but the existential threats many face are real. Some have been killed for standing in the path of corruption. For those who are still alive, post-apartheid exile becomes the only option left. 

Never an easy decision

Leaving everything behind; family, friends and, in some cases, a relatively comfortable life, to subject oneself to the uncertainties of starting all over in a foreign land is not a decision that comes easily to anyone. No one wakes up one day and decides to simply leave a whole life and loved ones behind without reason. 

It often follows a lot of confused thinking, self-doubt, fear, procrastination, indirectly seeking the endorsement of friends and loved ones to be sure that the decision to leave, once taken and activated, would not have been arrived at on childish impulse.

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Athol Williams is not alone

Athol Williams, an author, business professional, social philosopher, and literacy activist, announced his departure from South Africa following a realisation that despite lip service from the authorities, there was no protection for people like him. His fear had been heightened at the time by the brutal assassination of another whistleblower, Babita Deokaran, who was shot dead after dropping off a child at school. She was not the first; she will not be the last.

Williams took time to explain his departure, but many others did not. It is almost as if he was making a last plea for assistance, or that he felt bad for the decision he had taken, as if the decision to pack up and go were a betrayal to something, family, friends, and other loved ones, even to the country he loves. Only he can explain what was going on in his head in the days and moments before, during and after he drafted the statement and after he decided to go ahead and press “enter”. And only he knows if he experienced any regret after making the statement public and upon seeing the public’s response to it.

But, just like during the fight to end apartheid, not everyone who left took the time to explain their decision before they acted on it.

There are countless South Africans who have quietly packed up their belongings, usually the little they could take, and left the country.

As Williams noted, the difficult circumstances faced by those who are forced to leave the country in the post-apartheid era do not always come in the form of direct threats of violence. They’re also hard to prove in a court of law. In many cases, as we have seen in the literary accounts of Themba Maseko, Mosilo Mothepu, Vusi Pikoli and several others whose accounts are well unpacked in journalist Mandy Wiener’s book, such people go through many months, often years, of being professionally blacklisted, denied employment and income earning opportunities. 

The intimidation of whistleblowers and the businesses/organisations that try to come to their aid can take many forms. It very often results in heightened stress and potentially deadly hypertension. 

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It is a sinister kind of environment because it is only if they are ‘lucky’ that those targeted get told why they have become untouchable, despite their professional pedigree and experience.

This is also the reason for which many South Africans choose to remain quiet or to look the other way even when they see wrong being done by the powerful in politics and business.

For as long as this continues, the number of silent post-apartheid exiles will keep rising, draining needed skills and potential tax revenue for South Africa, placing it at the beck and call of opportunistic new era “colonialists” from the East. 

Williams will not be the last one. Many others are quietly biding their times below the public radar, either hoping for things to change for the better in South Africa or for an offshore offer they cannot refuse, whatever comes first. 

Athol Williams and countless others others like him are post-apartheid exiles. Let us honour their acts by calling them what they are.

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