Mandy Weiner is a celebrated journalist and author. In 2020, she released her fifth book titled, The Whistleblowers published by Pan MacMillan- South Africa. In this Q&A, Mandy reflects on why she wrote this book, the mental state of some of the whistleblowers she interviewed, and calls on the South African government to protect whistleblowers.
Question: First, congratulations on your latest book titled, The Whistleblowers. How has the
feedback on the book been since it was released?
Thank you so much! I do hope that the book has started a crucially important conversation in South Africa around whistleblowers in the context of the fight against corruption. There have been a flurry of books from whistleblowers in the last few months and I am so encouraged to see that there are more and more platforms for whistleblowers to share their experiences. I found that the book resonated with others who have considered blowing the whistle or have been through the experience themselves.
Question: Mandy, talk to us about what or who inspired you to write this book?
It started with a meeting with one whistleblower who wanted to write a book. That didn’t materialise but it did make me aware of the plight of whistleblowers. It made me look at other experiences and I thought it was important to shine a light of various personal experiences. We all know about the stories in the news, the headlines, but I wanted to know the human stories behind the headlines.
Question: What message(s) were you trying to convey with this book?
I wanted to remind people that there are human stories behind the fight against corruption and that these people risk their lives, their careers and their sanity in their acts of patriotism. I also wanted to use the platform to advocate for a change in how society views whistleblowers, what our culture is around them and also to advocate for a change in legislation in how we protect them.
Question: Talk to us about the process you went through in selecting the whistleblowers in this
There was no clear process at all and there are others I would have liked to include and should have. Many argue that there are some who should not have been included. This is by no means an exhaustive collection of whistleblowers. I just wanted to represent a cross section from SOEs, the private sector, the everyman and with good and bad experiences.
These are stories that interested me.
These are not the ‘best’ or most obvious people – I could have chosen so many others to include. This selection is entirely subjective with no clear criteria. I just wrote about those whose stories captured my attention for some reason or another.
Question: In interviewing the whistleblowers, what did you pick as a commoner from the
majority of them?
There are certain personality traits that come through in most of them – they are sticklers for the rules, they have enormous attention to detail, it’s black and white, they are profoundly ethical. Many of them are women or the men have a strong maternal presence in their lives. Sadly they also suffer from some form of depression or PTSD or addiction because of what they have been through.
Their lives are clearly altered by their experiences in many ways. In most instances they are treated as pariahs, pushed to the fringes of society, condemned, unemployable, tainted in some way. But incredibly proud of what they have done.
Question: In interviewing whistleblowers like Bianca Goodsen and Thabiso Zulu, who are still
having to deal with the consequences of blowing the whistle on corruption. How did
you manage to convince them to talk to you?
Some of them took ages and ages to convince and it was a process of attrition really. I just kept persisting and eventually they agreed. Obviously I was diplomatic about it though! With others they were so keen to get their story out because as with Thabiso, his life remains at risk and the more attention he can draw to that the better. Some also wanted to tell their stories in their own books which we have seen come out recently.
Question: There are critics who stated that the likes of Angelo Agrizzi and Suzanne Daniels
should not have been included in the book as whistleblowers as they colluded in
some of the corruption they open a lid on. Talk to us about why you decided to
include them in the book?
There are various motivations for whistleblowers who speak out. In different circumstances, it was different things that motivated them. For some it was a deep rooted commitment to the truth and doing the right thing. For others it was self-preservation. In some instances it was accidental. I think there is a spectrum of whistleblowers from those who have enormous integrity and principle and do it out of a sense of justice to those who are pushed into a corner and on the other end there are those who have a change of heart late and are perhaps motivated by ego and act to save themselves. At this point, there is no financial compensation as we see in the US.
Suzanne’s story is a contentious one but in many ways it is the typical story of a whistleblower in South Africa. She had a proximity to wrongdoing and for that reason she has been crucified in the media for not speaking out soon enough but you have to remember the circumstances at the time when the board, the minister, the executive and everyone else was captured, it is difficult to know who you can speak out to. But were it not for her we would never know the inside workings of Eskom, the Guptas, the Optimum deal and so much more. Yet today she is tainted, unemployed and suffering from the trauma of her experiences
Question: In the book you mention how the Protected Disclosures Act is failing to protect the
whistle-blowers. Which parts of the Act do you think need to be revised to ensure
the full protection of the whistleblowers.
There has to be fundamental, systemic changes to the legislation and to the framework of whistleblowing if we are going to encourage others to come forward. The current system is not sufficient to protect whistleblowers in a practical, real life way unfortunately. We also have to change the way society treats people who speak up – instead of ‘othering’ them or treating them as impimpis or trouble makers, they need to be placed on a pedestal, celebrated and employed.
I do really hope that this book raises awareness about the failures of the legal system and the framework in place. I do hope to use this exposure to advocate for some kind of change.
There are examples of legislation in other countries that we could follow – perhaps a Section 9 type set up – an independent, government funded ‘whistleblower house’ such as in the Netherlands, which protects whistleblowers.
Question: Unlike many Western and European countries where whistleblowers are celebrated
and fully protected by the government, in South Africa, there are not. What is your
message to the South African government and the general public about how we
should see whistleblowers?
Unfortunately the way we treat whistleblowers in South Africa is not ideal. We treat them as pariahs, impimpis and see them as troublemakers. We push them to the fringes of society and nobody wants to touch them. They are unemployed and unemployable. I do think that in the past few months a conversation has started around this and that needs to gather momentum. We need to have a societal revolution in how we treat whistleblowers in this country.
Question: What is your message to the many Bianca Goodsen, Brian Currin, and Simphiwe
Mayisela’s out there, who have some information that might expose corruption, but
are scared to come and share it in public?
I do hope that this book will serve as a guide to whistleblowers who are thinking of coming forward and will provide some lessons and advice to them. I do hope it encourages them to speak up and see the value of their potential contributions. There is advice on this in the book and it is different in differing circumstances. It’s important that if you’re thinking about speaking up you get good, solid, informed legal advice particularly on the Protected Disclosures Act and how it works and that you know what requirements there are legally.
Question: Finally, should your readers expect a new book from you anytime soon?
Nothing planned! Too busy with my radio show at the moment.