Blowing a union whistle on corruption

Posted on November 20, 2010


(Published November 19, 2010)

Public protector Thuli Madonsela’s revelations about the victimisation of whistleblowers and the protection of corrupt officials caused a minor sensation this week. But the revelations came as no surprise to many trade unionists — and especially not to members of the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu) in Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

At a two-day “whistleblowers’ conference”, organised in Johannesburg by the Open Democracy Advice Centre, Madonsela noted that there was inadequate protection for those who exposed corruption. She gave examples of whistleblowers at a national level being fired without reasons being given and who continued to be victimised even when reinstatement was won through the courts.

“There is nothing new in that; it is something we have been complaining about for a long time,” says Samwu regional secretary for Mpumalanga, Kgokegi Mphahlele. However, like a number of other unionists, he welcomes Madonsela’s call for greater protection for those who expose corruption at all levels and in all sectors.

Having all too often exhausted official channels, the unions are also now more committed to a policy of name them and shame them. “A free and critical media is essential in this regard,” says Cosatu spokesperson, Patrick Craven.

However, he points out that the focus should not be on the public sector only; that such corruption amounts largely to the introduction of “business morality” into this sector. And he stresses that those individuals doing the bribing and those taking the bribes are equally guilty.

“In the labour movement, we say that an injury to one is an injury to all; in the business sector, they see an injury to one as an opportunity for another,” he says.

As the unions see it, gangsters in the corporate and political worlds, operating across all sectors, are behaving like a herd of pigs, fearful that the feeding troughs may soon be empty. They are gouging one another and trampling on anything in their way in order to gorge themselves to gain more fat, faster, in case the troughs run dry.

The label of gangsters is seen as appropriate for those who bribe and are bribed in the public sector and for those in the corporate sector indulging in what often amounts to little more that legalised theft. Hypocrisy is usually all that differentiates them from armed gangs that rob and murder since the effect of their actions also often results in tremendous suffering and death.

It is a mad scramble for rapid personal enrichment that sees company executives sacking thousands of workers while salting abroad large amounts from obscene pay packages; former wildlife conservationists turned rhino horn poachers; and municipal managers passing on bloated contracts to friends and relatives for the provision of inadequate community services.

But it is municipal workers who often face the crossfire on the ground, attacked by angry citizens because of service delivery failures and threatened by the managers who cause the failures. And protests through official channels have often proved futile.

Mphahlele’s counterpart in Limpopo, Alfred Sithole, for example, this week presented evidence of municipal officials who were shown to be corrupt, and who were then simply moved to another local authority. “Some of these managers who were involved in corrupt activities have been transferred to municipalities with a much larger budget then the ones they left,” says Samwu media officer, Tahir Sema.

In short, having been caught out, they were rewarded. And even where media publicity has named names and given details of corrupt practices, there was little or no action, let alone any prosecutions.

Now Samwu plans to increase the pressure by adopting a “resist and protest” policy at municipalities where corrupt managers are being deployed. The union in Limpopo says it has provided “dossiers of information” to back allegations of corruption in Musina, Vhembe, Tzaneen, Molemole, Phalaborwa and Sekhukhune.

Similar allegations come from neighbouring Mpumalanga where Samwu officials say they provided “a large lever-arch file” of documentary evidence of the corruption of a senior manager to both provincial and national authorities. “But many months later, the manager is still there,” says Mphahlele.

“Something must be done, because this thing is getting out of hand,” he adds. He should know: Mpumalanga is the province where 12 deaths over the past year have been linked to “tenderpreneurs”, those groups battling to secure lucrative provincial and municipal tenders.

Along with the deaths there have been reports of houses burned down, and of the torture and harrassment of community leaders, all amid a swirl of accusations and counter-accusations involving the police, municipal and provincial politicians and officials. “There is no politics or ideology [involved]; just factions fighting about money to live a high life,” says Mphahlele.

He points out that the mayor of one of the province’s poorest districts is this week “in Brazil at council expense attending some meeting that seems to have nothing to do with anything here”. Such junkets are also par for the corruption course, he says.

But speaking out does seem to carry a cost: Mphahlele says he has recently received death threats, but remains optimistic that the tide can be turned. He and other campaigning trade unionists are heartened by Madonsela’s statements and also by the announcement by justice minister Jeff Radebe this week of a new anti fraud and corruption programme.

But most hopes are pinned on the possible establishment by Cosatu of a high-powered “Corruption Watch” unit. The concept of this “civil society institution” was announced in September by Cosatu general secretary Zwelizima Vavi.

Speaking in Cape Town, Vavi outlined a plan to establish a team of lawyers, accountants and auditors, to “conduct preliminary investigations and process these with the relevant authorities”. However, because this seems to undermine the functions of the police and other official units charged with investigating corruption, there have been “some legal problems”.

A decision is expected to be made at the federation’s executive meeting next week. But what does not seem to be in doubt is the commitment to support a free and critical media.