🔒 Roger Jardine on whistleblowers, Talking to Strangers and The March of the Folly

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited South Africa earlier this month she told students at the University of Pretoria that the youth should stand up against corruption and “name names” and added that they would be surprised how people would come forward and support them. If it wasn’t for the whistleblowers who came forward to tell the stories of state capture like Cynthia Stimpel and others; South Africa could still have been in the dark about many of the dodgy deals that happened under former President Zuma’s watch. Many lost their jobs and talked about the severe stress they experienced when they decided to point fingers. In a discussion with Biznews founder Alec Hogg, the chairman of FirstRand, Roger Jardine talks about a book he is reading by Tom Mueller, Whistleblowing in an age of Fraud and suggests that whistleblowers should not only enjoy better protection, but that they should receive incentives to come forward in South Africa. The other book under discussion that Jardine links to, is Malcolm Gladwell, the author of Outliers latest book Talking to Strangers and he has a recommendation for all policy makers, The March of Folly. – Linda van Tilburg

Roger Jardine, the FirstRand chairman said when he was growing up his father used to read newspapers and enjoyed books, and growing up in that environment taught him that reading, and learning was valued and treasured. Jardine says he reads several books a year, but it is intermittent because he goes through very busy patches and reads long form articles, but his wife is an author which means he is surrounded by books, writing and literature.

The FirstRand chairman’s current read is a book called Crisis of conscience which is a book about whistleblowing and whistleblowers and looks at several major corporate events or scandals, and the people who essentially brought them to light in the first place. Jardine says it is quite a timely book given where we are currently in South Africa and indeed the state of the world. “The shout-outs in the backseat of the book caught my eye as they were written by Daniel Ellsberg who wrote Doomsday Machine and said that whistleblowers were the lifeblood of a republic.” Jardine said this proves what an important aspect of democratic discourse whistleblowing is and it should be taken more seriously.

Biznews published Alec Hogg commented that South Africa had unbelievably brave people, brave whistleblowers and most of them were female, and asked Jardine if he found a similar trend in this book.

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The whistleblowers mentioned in A Crisis of conscience were mixed and what fascinated Jardine was the case of a whistleblower in the state of Pennsylvania. It is about a man who worked for the office of the Inspector General, and he picked up a $2,000 deposit into someone’s account and this person happened to be part of a team that approved pharmaceuticals to state hospitals and children’s homes. The author takes you on a journey into what he uncovers, which is the relationship between Big Pharma who recommend pharmaceuticals for hospitals and orphanages and “are driven essentially by getting these decision makers into the loop and to be part of a system of growing state procurement.”

Alec commented that South Africans were still ‘babes in the wood’ when it came to the sophistication of bribery as was seen in so many instances, most recently with the Guptas. Bribing in places like the United states was far more entrenched; it was a more sophisticated society as judged by the number of lobbyists. In Washington there were 30,000 people to influence politicians.

Jardine said he had just started a chapter on the 2008 financial meltdown and “it opens brilliantly with an e-mail from one of the underwriters at a major bank who sends an email to his board in 2007 to say to some members of the exco and the management team… look I’ve been studying the situation and there is a problem here.”  He takes the reader through what happened a year later, which was the financial meltdown and this man’s journey and how he was treated. “What is in it for whistleblowers; how are they treated; where do they end up?“

He came across a law in the book that exists in the US which is called the ‘False Claims Act.’ The False Claims Act has its origins in the eighteen hundreds, 1863 where defence contractors were defrauding the military and “Abraham Lincoln was really upset about this and with a congressman that was actually an abolitionist; they introduced the False Claims Act which allows a whistleblower to share in the proceeds of what you recover.” It’s an incentive for whistleblowers; it is not malicious and if something is found or retrieved; the whistleblower could get a percentage of what is recovered.

“In this story in the book; you see this act being used recently to reward a whistleblower. Jardine said whistleblowers tend to be victimised. He mentioned an article in a recent Sunday newspaper a few weeks ago, where whistleblowers told their journey and what happened to them institutionally. “They need to do something more creative around whistleblowers. We do have the protected disclosures act in South Africa, but this False Claims Act which allows an individual to sue on behalf of the state or the king way back; puts an additional incentive in the system for whistleblowers to act based on their moral courage but also to be rewarded financially at the end of the day.”

Alec said the financial services act did provide that witnesses who changed their story or told the truth; could not be held liable as long as they had shown to be telling the truth, which actually broke open the whole VBS saga. “There were six or seven of these witnesses who changed 180 degrees when it was explained to them that they cannot be held liable if they tell the truth.” He said what Jardine touched on was something else; that whistleblowers needed to be given an incentive. He said he interviewed a lot of them, and they always indicated that if they knew the consequences, the social consequences of what was coming, they might have thought twice.

Jardine said it really drew attention to the fact that the country should be looking at whistleblower protection legislation and incentives because if you agreed with Daniel Ellsberg that whistleblowers were the lifeblood of our republic; “we need to make sure this is an environment for people to feel that once they’ve resolved that they need to let wrongdoings be known, that they are stepping into an environment which will not leave them worse off for having told the truth.”

Turning to Gladwell’s new book, Talking to Strangers; Jardine said he realised that there was a connection between the two books.  When whistleblowers first raised the alarm; he read about incidents of people who would contact their superiors or a hotline and “there’s generally, for a whole range of reasons an initial silence or no-one gets back to them.” They have this information and “no one is listening to me or they tell me they’ll get back to me and I don’t hear from them. Now in Talking to strangers, Malcolm Gladwell has an entire section on what he calls ‘defaulting to the truth.’ You are talking to somebody who know that there’s a problem with what you’re hearing but you think well maybe it’s just me.”

“So, this book really is about the exchanges that happens between strangers and he tells the story by looking again at several incidents that people have read about in the popular press.” One of the stories told in the book is the Sandra Bland story about the woman who was pulled over by a policeman and ended up dead in a prison cell a few days later. The author also looked at the Amanda Knox case; the student who was accused of murder and the use of a very famous spy who was really highly rated by the Department of Intelligence in the US, and even though they knew there was a spy and despite interviewing her many times; the early investigators just couldn’t believe that she was the spy until things dramatically pointed to the fact that it was her.

Jardine said it was really a book about helping one understand the deep linkages between culture, history and personality and how you talk to someone. He looked at the Boston bomber, the young man who was on death row in the US and the jurors said he showed no remorse. He also unpacked the kind of emotions that a young Chechen Muslim male was expected to display under adverse conditions. And it could be asked whether it was stoicism or was it lack of remorse?

“So, it’s fascinating; it leaves one wondering. I mean how many times have you been in a meeting…and then later on you discover that you were in a different meeting because people have different understandings of what was said or agreed, or what the outcome was.” Alec said it was especially true in London where they talked in code.

Jardine said he saw a link between the two books, the whole notion of defaulting to the truth. Asked whether he read the other books by Malcolm Gladwell, Jardine said he gave him a break, but read the latest as it was an easy, engaging read. His favourite Gladwell book was The Outliers.

Jardine’s all-time best books that he went back to from time to time was a one by the historian Barbara Tuchman, called The March of Folly, which is really an historical overview, and looked at the events in history where policymakers took decisions despite being told at the time that they were the wrong decisions. It’s not about hindsight; it’s about taking decisions despite empirical evidence at the time telling you it’s the wrong way to go. He said, “we are at a very important moment in South Africa for our policymakers and we’re going to choose between the March of Folly or doing the right thing as we get out of the situation that we are in. So that’s the book I would recommend every policymaker should read.”

Alec talked about a book he read about World War One and said a similar theme emerged. “There were similar stupid mistakes that were made which caused what was then supposedly the war to end all wars.” He said the stupidity in the decision-making leading up to First World War had to be understood to be beholden and right now it was all over the world where decisions were made perhaps on the fly, “perhaps for ideological reasons or perhaps because of a lack of open-mindedness.”

Jardine said if you want to link Talking to Strangers to the March of Folly; there was a fantastic chapter about Neville Chamberlain making overtures to Hitler before the Second World War, and he went to Germany to meet Hitler “and basically says this man doesn’t want to go to war. And off course that was absolute folly at the time and a lot of people were saying… Don’t do it, don’t meet with him; this man is insidious you know… he met with him and he saw something that the rest of the world did not see. He thought he had found peace for all time and he was wrong.”