Ramaphosa vows to protect whistleblowers following Babita Deokaran’s murder

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

We South Africans are no strangers to political violence—holding a rich history over both the old and new Governments. However, a light has been switched on across the country with public servants coming forward and calling out corrupt governance. 

But at times, ugly political violence extends to these brave souls, as witnessed in the murder of Gauteng Department of Health Acting CFO Babita Deokaran.

Deokaran was shot outside her home in Johannesburg South, shortly after dropping her child off at school—later succumbing to her injuries in hospital.

Investigators believe her tragic demise was an orchestrated assassination due to her involvement in a R332-million PPE scandal, allegedly involving political figures and business people. Last week, Gauteng Premier David Makhura pointed out that information Deokaran brought to light had led to dismissals, and the Institution of Civil Claims to recover public funds from businesses and government officials responsible for misconduct and corruption. 

Recently speaking to TimesLIVE, Makhura’s spokesperson Vuyo Mhaga said Deokaran played a crucial role in the investigation. She provided key information into how specific tenders were awarded.

Mhaga further divulged that Deokaran had testified against certain individuals, including in their disciplinary hearings.

Exactly a week after Deokaran’s tragic death, six people have appeared at the Johannesburg Magistrates’ Court in connection with her murder.

Appearing in court on Monday, 30 August 2021, Phakamani Hadebe, Zitha Hadebe, Nhlangano Ndlovu, Sanele Mbhele, Simphiwe Mazibuko and Phakanyiswa Dladla were charged with murder, attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition.

NPA Regional Spokesperson Phindi Mjonondwane explained that the accused were arrested on 26 August 2021 in Rosettenville, with a seventh suspect not charged due to lack of evidence against him.

According to Mjonondwanee, the attempted murder charge stems from the fact that another person was in Deokaran’s company during the brutal murder. The individual was Deokaran’s domestic worker, who had just arrived at work when her employer was slain in a hail of bullets.

All accused were remanded in custody until 13 September 2021 for bail application preparations.

While the court case is ongoing, President Cyril Ramaphosa highlighted that as the government’s fight against corruption gathers momentum, it is clear the state needs to urgently review its current approach to witness protection and the broader protection of whistleblowers. The President, making the declaration on Monday, 30 August 2021, in the latest edition of his weekly newsletter. 

Reflecting on Deokaran’s death, he said her murder was a stark reminder of the high stakes involved in government and society’s collective quest to remove and eliminate South Africa’s cancer of corruption. “While numerous systems are in place to enable whistleblowers to report anonymously, we need to tighten up existing systems and provide greater support to those who publicly come forward with information.”

Ramaphosa further highlighted that as a society, we need to identify where existing laws and policies are inadequate in protecting the livelihoods, reputations and safety of whistleblowers – and work together to address these.

He added, “The intent of the criminals who target whistleblowers is not only to silence particular individuals – it is also to send a message to other potential whistleblowers.” Further stating, without whistleblowers’ bravery and principled interventions, the government would be unable to unmask those committing corruption.

“Though much focus in recent times has been on whistleblowers in the public sector, we also owe a debt of gratitude to those in the private sector whose actions receive less attention, but are equally important.”

Emphasising the importance of whistleblowers, describing them as “guardians of our democracy”, he said they raise the alarm against unethical acts and practices in government and organisations.

“They speak out in good faith and with a reasonable expectation not only that action will be taken on their disclosures, but that they will be protected and not suffer victimisation or prejudice,” said the Ramaphosa. 

Over the past three years since the Commission of Inquiry into State Capture started its work, President Ramaphosa said the country had heard of the lengths to which the perpetrators of corrupt acts had gone to conceal their misdeeds.

“It has been an extremely complex undertaking to unravel the networks of influence that enabled corruption. Among other things, vast webs of front companies were established to move funds around and disguise payments made to politically-connected individuals.”

Furthermore, similar patterns had emerged in several corruption investigations by the Special Investigating Unit, the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, the NPA’s Investigating Directorate and others.

As these investigations progressed and the net began to close on implicated individuals, witnesses began to be threatened, their families intimidated, forced into hiding, and even killed, as was the case in Deokaran’s assassination last Monday.

“While we do not yet know the motive for her murder, she was a key witness in a SIU investigation into the procurement of personal protective equipment in the department,” said the President.

He commended the police for apprehending seven suspects in connection to the murder. The docket has been transferred to the Hawks, and the investigation will yield further information on why Deokaran was murdered.

“Regardless of the circumstances behind this tragedy, Ms Deokaran was a hero and a patriot. As are the legions of whistleblowers who, at great risk to themselves, help to unearth instances of misdeeds, maladministration, cronyism and theft.”

He further stressed that South Africa has extensive legislative protection for whistleblowers, including the Protected Disclosures Act, Labour Relations Act, Companies Act, Protection against Harassment Act, and the Constitution itself.

In addition, the Department of Justice and Correctional Services, working with other law-enforcement agencies, administers the Office of Witness Protection to provide support to vulnerable and intimidated witnesses in any judicial proceedings.

The President said while entering witness protection was voluntary, and neither the SAPS nor the NPA can compel a witness to do so; he highlighted that should a witness receive threats to their life or feel unsafe, they have to inform investigators and apply for admission to the programme. “This successful programme has played a vital role in securing successful prosecutions since its inception, particularly with regards to organised crime.

“Day by day, brave South Africans like Babita Deokaran are standing firm that they will not be party to corruption and they are prepared to bear witness against it.” Additionally, the President stated whistleblowers like Deokaran should be saluted for exposing corruption to the harshest of glares.

“They are doing so without expectation of acknowledgement or reward. Theirs is the highest form of public service. We cannot let them down. We must, and we will ensure that their disclosures result in prosecutions and do much more to ensure that they are protected from harm.”

Ramaphosa warned that those behind the killing of witnesses and whistleblowers would be arrested and face the might of the law, as will all who are found guilty of the very corruption these assassins are trying to cover up.

With the President highlighting the importance of protecting whistleblowers, the NPA and Hawks have now placed extra emphasis on protecting the identity of witnesses who fear reprisals.

What are your thoughts on Babita Deokaran’s death? Share your views in the comment section below.

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