When it looks, smells like a pig – usually is. Tale of the SAA whistleblowers.

Alec Hogg was on the money when he said, it’s a win for the small guys. This soon after pressure from Wayne Duvenage’s OUTA saw South African Airways terminate a deal with BnP capital, which had a R256 million handout attached to it. Duvenage and his team were instrumental in shutting this down, and in a piece, first published on Daily Maverick, he looks at the ups and downs of the ordeal. And what it does show is the true value of when whistleblowing is enabled and supported through civil intervention. A good read. – Stuart Lowman

By Wayne Duvenage*

Headline after headline, month after month, had pointed to SAA’s leadership spending too much time focused on strange and questionable activities, instead of energising its people, suppliers, partners and processes to pluck the organisation from sinking deeper into the stinking quagmire. So it wasn’t long after OUTA set its sights on the South African Airline’s (SAA) leadership shenanigans when the information sought became abundantly available. When it looks and smells like a pig, it normally is. One’s hunches in situations of repetitive and brazen activities are never far from what one expects to find.

Wayne Duvenage, chairman, OUTA
Wayne Duvenage, chairman, OUTA

The drivel of last-minute trumped-up board decisions for revised funding transactions and new deals with unknown financiers had become irksome, not only for the public, but for many honest and hard-working people inside the once proud entity. Amidst the questionable dealings, the staff and management have witnessed lost opportunities of beneficial partnerships and contracts with international airlines, suppliers, maintenance companies and others. Worst of all, they witnessed the loss of talent from the airline.

Highly experienced and qualified senior managers of good standing were purged through resignation, suspension or dismissal, all for doing an honest day’s work. This is just another tragedy and it’s almost impossible to quantify the damage and long-term loss for an organisation when talented people with years of experience exit for the wrong reasons. Their departure drains the organisation of institutional knowledge, expertise and coachmanship.

Each time a committed and energised manager or employee exits, the organisation dies a little. The real rot and cancer sets in when leadership’s behaviour displays a tolerance for mediocrity, bad judgement and dodgy dealings. This is the plight of SAA and other State-Owned Entities, whose disdain for the public’s rights and transparency have become a disgrace to good governance.

Read also: Russell Loubser: SAA – only voters can stop the plundering by ANC cronies

Naturally, it wasn’t long after OUTA’s team began to enquire about the goings-on at SAA that we discovered a number of willing people with all the information to corroborate our suspicions. Factual information with damning evidence required to halt the BnP Capital transaction, one that should have had no place within an ailing institution that ought to be serious about saving money.

But more enlightening (or worrying) was the evidence of frustration and anguish of employees and managers who were blocked from doing their work by those caught up in the dodgy transaction. Nothing frustrates honest and committed employees more than when they see leadership hard at work to circumvent the policies, procedures, checks and balances which have been institutionalised over time to prevent the wrongdoing. This makes coming to work a terrible ordeal, where inspiration and energy are sapped and they know all too well that if they get in the way, they will be sidelined and worked out of the system.

Chairman of the Jacob Zuma Foundation Dudu Myeni - real life example of the way "entrepreneurial politicians" pull State levers of power for personal benefit.
Chairman of the Jacob Zuma Foundation Dudu Myeni – real life example of the way “entrepreneurial politicians” pull State levers of power for personal benefit.

We knew, and know even more so now, that the courageous actions of effective whistle-blowing is made easier when the information provided is put to safe and good use. Safe being when the whistle-blowers involved get to know and understand their powerful rights and laws available to protect them from victimisation.

Good use is when something is done with the information and their moral conscience is given the immense boost of knowing that this will not be another headline, here today and gone tomorrow. Encouragement is provided when the organisation they have put their trust into offers meaningful support to ease the decision and take bold action that will ultimately play a meaningful role in holding those who are out of line to account for their actions.

Read also: Paul O’Sullivan: Exposing fresh Myeni corruption at SAA. Documentary proof.

Incredible relief and courage to blow the whistle comes when knowing that aside from the meaningful support, professional action to follow through will take place. Effective civil intervention removes the dilemma facing many who do not trust the normal internal “ethics channels” available to them. They’ve heard the tales of supposed safe and anonymous exposure of corruption through these “externally managed” processes, which have culminated in the witch hunt and eventual scolding, demotion, suspension or dismissal.  Following the recommended internal whistle-blowing route provided within these dubiously managed entities is often not worth the risk.

We were not surprised when after attempts by SAA and their lawyers to fob us off with statements of “placing the deal on ice”, our decision to lodge court papers to interdict the transaction at 2pm on Thursday led to SAA’s announcement to cancel the transaction two hours later. We knew that it would not have taken their lawyers long to realise the extent of the damning evidence was a mountain too high to defend.

The extent of the damning evidence, however, was only made possible by thoughtful, safe and structured support to provide the time and ability to gather the necessary evidence. Amusing to us was SAA’s lawyers’ claim that this information was classified. However, they and everyone else who has a slight understanding of the law in this regard knows that there is no such category to classify, as secret, that information which exposes gross misconduct or corruption.

What has become of government’s repeated chants to tackle corruption?  Despite countless evidence and numerous blatant incidents of corruption within senior ranks of public service, we have not witnessed corresponding action to hold those involved to account. We’ve certainly seen many a golden hadshake and the escape hatches opened in instances where government had great opportunity to display their seriousness to tackle corruption. “Hollow words come from weak and often complicit leadership indeed,” one might say.

The time has come to take the internal flawed mechanisms of whistle-blowing away from ineffective organisational leadership, and to enable the courage of meaningful whistle-blowing to flourish amidst the support and safety nets provided by effective civil intervention.

Yes, there is always the worry of what might or can go wrong when taking these courageous journeys, but when they are made and the outcomes sought are achieved, the reward is incredible for those good people who chose not to stand by and allow evil to prevail. These are the champions of a more prosperous South Africa and we need to enable more of them.

  • Wayne Duvenage is Chairman of OUTA