🔒 Cynthia Stimpel: Whistleblower who saved SAA R250m – and got hounded out the airline

South Africa is battling to turn around its economy after the complete erosion of the state-owned enterprises and many state institutions by corruption. The corruption that would not have been exposed where it not for whistleblowers who bravely stood up to expose the rot. They are the people who have uncovered wrongdoings or shortcomings, but many are punished for speaking out and some have even taken their lives. Most whistleblowers lose their jobs following their revelations and even those who are taken back are often subjected to informal and subversive tactics to punish them. When it comes to re-employment at other companies, many firms appear to be reluctant to employ a whistleblower. In many other countries of the world governments are starting to look at ways in which whistleblowers can receive better protections. In the United Kingdom MPs are considering the creation of an Office for whistleblowers where complaints and a crackdown on corrupt countries and individuals could be investigated. The office would also offer counselling, free legal advice and job protection. In South Africa, we also need to protect whistleblowers like Cynthia Stimpel who spoke to Biznews about her ordeal at SAA, where she tried to halt a fraudulent transaction. We should create mechanisms that  provide safety for those who have saved South African tax payers billions of rand and are helping to rid the country of corrupt leaders. – Linda van Tilburg

Cynthia Stimpel was a Group Treasurer at South African Airways, who questioned procedures at SAA when a decision was made by the board, chaired by Dudu Myeni to bring in BnP Capital as  transaction adviser on a R15bn contract. Stimpel says she looked at the contract procedurally and after she initially resisted, relented as she thought that a second opinion was not always a bad idea. But as she studied the details of the decision and the board had subsequently decided to change the scope of the transaction, she realised this was no longer just an ordinary transaction.

Stimpel says SAA had a history of working with the banks and was questioning why the board was bringing in an outside party; the fees they were going to pay amounted to 5% of the deal. She said the Chief Financial Officer proudly told her that he negotiated the rate down to which she replied, “Well, let me look at the fees.” Stimpel found that the fees offered were extraordinary and told her bosses that there was no way she was going to sign it. “We are all tasked to save funds for this organisation and be as prudent about our decisions on what it will undertake.”

Stimpel suggested phoning the banks to see what rates they could offer to do a full comparison; she questioned the wisdom of increasing the scope of a transaction adviser that she hadn’t work with and said she had no idea of what their capacity or capabilities were. She then took leave to mull over the deal but by the time she left on holiday, she was informed that it had been signed by the CFO. She told Biznews she asked CFO, “Please don’t do this deal, it’s too expensive and we don’t even know if they can do it.” Other steps she took included taking it to SAA’s risk department, who responded that it was noted. Alarmed, she sent a WhatsApp whistleblowing message to the National Treasury. Stimpel also tried to set up a meeting with the interim CFO to discuss the deal, telling her the deal could still be stopped before it goes to the board.

___STEADY_PAYWALL___

The next step Stimpel took was to phone three banks to get a hypothetical quote for R15bn funding. Two came back with their prices and they were substantially lower than the price BNP was offering. She drew up a spreadsheet to cost the various options and tried to set up another meeting with her bosses asking them to please meet and reconsider, but she couldn’t get another meeting. Stimpel was suspended for whistleblowing and eventually settled for roughly six months’ salary and early retirement. Since her ordeal, she has done research on whistleblowers and says they never ask you back. She says even when a court rules that you have been unfairly dismissed or suspended, and the company should give you your job back, “if they do take you back, they put you in another area and then they either rule for incompetence or something, but they find something else to get you out.”

After leaving SAA, Stimpel walked from Lisbon in Portugal up to the Camino de Santiago in Spain, “mainly to think because I didn’t want to be carrying this burden of hatred.” Eventually she wrote to the people at SAA, including the interim CFO telling them she had forgiven them. The former treasurer then shifted her attention to her other passion which is yoga and now she teaches yoga and has started a yoga qualification for children, because she wants to teach them ethical behaviour. “They will push one another off a mat.” Stimpel wants to teach them that is not the way to behave. She has also become a certified director and is hoping to get a couple of board positions, so that she could influence proper governance ethics and compliance at board level.

The SAA whistleblower says if she had to choose again, she would definitely become a whistleblower again, but will tackle it differently. Her suggestion to other whistleblowers is to contact as many people as possible before you reveal misconduct, so you can get proper help. One of the issues that she faced, was sleepless nights. She also found she could not speak to her family. Stimpel says whistleblowers need to find people to talk to and she now has a support group that she offers to other whistleblowers, “I’ve already started with a few others and we’ve reached out to one another.” They are looking at a broader base to offer help as one of the issues that whistle blower fear, is losing their jobs; they are also worried about legal fees and how to deal with the trauma they go through.

Stimpel wants to encourage South Africans to stand up and speak out as a community for better values. “There’s a saying… when you stand up in unison, you’re as strong as a rock.  She says it is easy to push out an individual who speaks out; they become the outcast. “You ignore them and you forget about them.”