Mail & Guardian

Protect the brave who reveal truth

- M&G Media Ltd

The corrupt, those with power and those who abuse others thrive when their wrongdoing stays hidden. In government and in the private sector these secrets are kept because people have so much to lose when speaking out.

As this newspaper has often reported, from the days of apartheid to today, it is not unusual for whistleblo­wers to be killed for their bravery.

This week we report in detail an interview with Ian Erasmus, who came forward with informatio­n about alleged pollution by petrochemi­cal giant Sasol. The company is one of the most polluting on earth. Its faltering business model is subsidised by the lungs of the people around it and by our own futures which will be hit by climate change.

But, as with any of our corporatio­ns and government entities, it has been difficult for anyone to hold Sasol to account. The apartheid government didn’t care because its pollution fell on mostly black communitie­s. Since 1994, the government has shied away from action because Sasol has economic heft, and has threatened lawsuits when pushed to pollute less. The corporatio­n also has a slick PR machine for when the media come calling — shielding it, never accounting for its actions.

In 2019, Erasmus approached the Mail & Guardian, talking about possible water pollution by Sasol. He had taken this informatio­n to a South African Human Rights Commission investigat­ion into water pollution in the Vaal, the country’s most critical water source.

As we write this week, Erasmus says he has had his life destroyed after speaking up. The father of two has lost his job, is on antidepres­sants and his marriage has suffered irreparabl­e harm from the stress.

Sasol disagrees and tells this newspaper that it “promotes a culture in which all stakeholde­rs, especially employees and personnel, are encouraged to speak up about unethical, illegal, or undesirabl­e conduct involving Sasol and those engaged with it, without fear of retaliatio­n or reprisal”.

The national environmen­t department has confirmed it is conducting a criminal investigat­ion into Sasol.

Erasmus is on a Whatsapp group with 10 other whistleblo­wers, where they support each other because the institutio­ns that should have, didn’t.

In its 2020 annual report, Corruption Watch says it got an average of 11 whistleblo­wer reports a day. Each one of these people should be protected by the Protected Disclosure­s Act or the National Environmen­tal Management Act. They aren’t.

Whistleblo­wers are the reason we know Ace Magashule destroyed the Free State for his own gain, how money for life-saving PPE went into the pockets of those who wanted million-rand cars and how corporatio­ns such as Bain have sought to profit through allegedly dishonest practices.

We must do better to protect those brave enough to tell us the truth.

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