LESSONS FROM A WHISTLE BLOWER
By Bianca Goodson
*I have made this blog a downloadable file. Click here *
Everyone has 20/20 vision with hindsight and I am no exception. Today I got inspired to write a handbook on blowing the whistle. It’s a list of things that I have learnt over the past four years; informed either by my own mistakes or actions that I have seen others take.
My intention behind this handbook is sincere and pure – I wish to encourage people to do the right thing but in a way that could prevent unintended consequences as much as possible.
If you intend to blow the whistle, I hope this will hep you make wise decisions during the process.
DO YOU HAVE A WHISTLE?
I have read much about whistle blowers and watched many interviews of such. Many whistle blowers refer to a ‘Damascus moment’ and similarly I referred to my moment as ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. Regardless of the reference, there appears to be this instantaneous moment in which a person makes the decision to blow the whistle. Although I agree to the moment, I know that the moment is preceded by a strenuous process. In this handbook I refer to this process a the “conflict of discovery”.
The conflict of discovery involves a person pondering if it’s their imagination or it is a real issue? In other words, do you even have a whistle to blow? How can you be sure or not? As a potential whistle blower, you will and should go through a deliberation process in which you first satisfy yourself that something is wrong.
My advice on this process: take all the time that you need and don’t rush it. Indulge your insecurities and speculation – this is the only way that you will be able to back yourself if the odds are turned against you at a later stage. Your personal truth has to be solid and unshakeable.
I share this lesson with you in hindsight of my own experience and I hope that your experience of blowing the whistle will have the same personal results as mine – I love myself more and sleep brilliantly!
When I resigned from Trillian in March 2016, I was resolute in my decision to leave the organisation but not to blow any whistles of any kind. At that point in time I was not a whistle blower. I was simply someone who didn’t want to work in an environment of dodgy dealings. Although, my “whistle process” started before my resignation and categorically informed my resignation.
Post my resignation the whistle process was emphasized and relentless. I was in the spin cycle that is the conflict of discovery.
The conflicts that I experienced were informed by the media and their stories on the Gupta family. It was later validated by an inquiry conducted by Geoff Budlender and later still, the revelations of the GuptaLeaks. Through all these events, I was still not sure. I doubted myself constantly. When I sought guidance from family and friends, I was encouraged to not blow the whistle and remain quiet.
This process is difficult and mentally and emotionally traumatic. But it’s necessary. If you don’t survive it and never reach your ‘Damascus moment’, I will advise you to not blow the whistle. If you do survive it, know that your strength lies within you and you will survive the processes to follow.
Herein are my nuggets of wisdom for your consideration whilst going through this conflict process.
Lesson One: Record keeping
I am the kind of person who always interrogates facts. I trust my ability to pull things apart to eventually give me confidence in what I hope to be, an objective outcome. The process of blowing the whistle is very much an emotional one and as much as possible, needs to always be considered factually and objectively. For this reason, record keeping is key. Records are what you can always refer to when you think you’re going crazy or simply misinterpreting something.
Remember the value that Angelo Agrizzi’s video added to the State Capture commission when it showed Gavin Watson counting out the millions of Rands on a table?
Consider the value that the GuptaLeaks have added to unravelling state capture?
Keep in mind that information always changes. With every day, there is new information. As much as reasonably possible, keep records of the changes. There could be value (obtained in time) that suggests a pattern or someone other than yourself, could supplement the information.
There are a few reasons why this lesson is so important to me:
I had no idea that other people would speak up later and that their information would give credence to mine and vice versa;
The facts and data spoke to my intention for blowing the whistle – I elaborate on this further in the handbook.
Others may see something in your information that you may not be able to as yet.
If the matter proceeds to some sort of judgement, the person making that judgement would need both objective and subjective views.
Some things to consider when keeping records:
If possible, keep your information in ‘native’ format i.e. without any distortions. This includes saving emails in *.pst formats, keeping all the metadata of electronic copies of documents i.e. don’t be in a hurry to print them or save as *.pdfs. Rather save them as is, on an external device;
If you’re making notes, consider recording additional facts like what people were wearing, the details of the room etc. This information supplements the crucial facts of the engagements which I assume you would record in as much detail as possible;
Maintain the integrity of any hard copy information that you receive – to this end, consider writing in pencil, who gave you the material, what was the context and for which engagement.
In my experience:
In my case, I didn’t know that the information that had would support any investigations into State capture because it was a term that had just been defined at the time and no one really knew what it actually was.
However, when I left Trillian, I kept a copy of my computer and all my emails. Later, my blowing the whistle spoke to these facts and these facts alone.
In hindsight, I wish that I kept better records of meetings that I attended. But I am kind to myself now, and realise that at the time, I didn’t have a reason to be suspicious and so I didn’t. However, if I could do it all again, I would be meticulous in my record keeping.
Lesson Two: Injustice or Prejudice?
I am not a lawyer and it is only through my involvement in State capture did I learn the legal definitions of corruption, fraud, racketeering etc. But blowing a whistle is not always related to these ‘huge’ issues. Yours could be blowing a whistle on a behaviour that does not always result in financial gain to a few. A person could consider blowing the whistle on behaviours that are not always tangible and for this reason, I would encourage any potential whistle blower to invest their time in deriving the equivalent of a business case. Again, this could support you in possibly arriving at your ‘Damascus moment’ or not. Regardless, it allows you the objectivity to determine if you should blow the whistle or not.
Here are some things that I would consider, and as much as possible, attempt to establish:
a. How long has this behaviour been in place and exercised?
b. If this behaviour does not stop, what will happen?
2. Who is involved?
a. Try to identify the initiation of the behaviour – where does it start?
b. Who enables it? are there any people who are turning a blind eye or getting threatened as part of it?
c. Make a list based on your understanding, separating the list into what you know for sure and what you suspect.
a. Who and or what is prejudiced by this behaviour?
b. Can you quantify it?
c. Can you identify victims?
d. Can you identify benefactors?
e. Can you identify beneficiaries?
I could be wrong, but I appreciate blowing the whistle on behaviours in which others are harmed in some way. If you can not identify the harm, what are you really trying to do? Perhaps discussions with people that you trust could assist?
In my experience: Eighteen months after leaving Trillian I publicly blew the whistle on Trillian’s involvement in State capture. At this point, other entities and people were able to determine the corruption and their efforts helped me to conclude my “Damascus moment’. I could not categorically prove money laundering based on my own experience, but I could add credence to investigations and assist in proving fraud. It was only years later, that the financial aspects associated o my evidence, were made public.
WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO ACHIEVE?
For me, this was the worst part of this conflicted process off discovery. In my case it was particularly difficult because I didn’t have a wholistic view of State capture and at the time that I blew the whistle, very few people did. I survived this process because of information made public and most importantly, because others were speaking up against State capture.
To blow the whistle means that something has to have a light shone on it. You may not be able to stop bad behaviour nor change it. The best that you can hope for, is that at least its known. The rest you can only hope for.
To help you answer this question, I will pose to you the questions that were posed to me:
What do you think will happen?
What do you hope will happen?
Are you covering your arse?
What do you think will happen if you don’t do anything?
Why would you do this?
I found these questions daunting because my logical answers spoke against my gut and here’s why:
I didn’t know what to think in terms of what could happen. I just knew that I was scared.
I hoped that my blowing the whistle would stop corruption but I even knew that that was a utopian hope;
I knew that I didn’t do anything wrong but feared that I would still be complicit, although that was not my intention. And lastly, I didn’t even know why I wanted to do it apart from simply wanting change…
This is why my lesson three is so important – the most important of all!
Lesson three: Your intention
You have to ask yourself this question as you brush your teeth, shower, eat, drive, have a drink of water and breathe. If you mess this one up, you’re going to see your arse in the biggest possible way. I can not stress this enough. Blowing the whistle could alter the course of your life so make sure that you can back yourself when making this decision. Here’s some examples of what not to do:
1. do not leverage the information that you have to get ahead in whatever you may be doing;
2. do not use the information that you have to threaten anyone or anything;
3. do not assume that you are law enforcement;
4. do not attempt to protect people who may be complicit in wrong doing whilst outing others;
5. do not try to be a hero; and
6. do not attempt to commercialise your actions.
There is a saying that goes something along the lines of this:” once the cat is out of the bag, you can not get it back in”. In the case of whistle blowing, I believe this to be mostly true and because of this, your intentions have to be filled with integrity, truth and sincerity.
Depending on the complexity of the matter that you wish to expose and your proximity to the matter, you could be the first person interrogated in the matter and its vital that if you sincerely want change, that this is your only intention and motive for doing what you are contemplating.
In my opinion, the purer your intention, the better you will overcome this conflict and obtain the best results for yourself.
I have seen people blow the whistle with the slightest of ill intentions and it has gone horribly bad for them. They are chastised through the process. In one instance, someone was willing to walk away from corrupt behaviour as long as they received financial gain. This person saw the inside of way too many courts for both civil and criminal claims. I also know someone who has blown the whistle to hide their own complicity and this too has resulted in personal degradation and reputational loss.
Know this: the truth will always prevail.
In my experience I blew the whistle on Trillian with absolutely nothing to gain except a better conscious. I made a decision to live by the values that I wanted my Daughter to live by. That is all. I despise being referred to as a hero because I believe that our society should inherently be more truthful and braver. Those implicated in my truth can only grasp at straws when wanting to counter my evidence. I have this unshakeable faith because I took the time to endure this hard journey of conflict in discovery. I have remained unshakeable in my personal truth for the past four years and will remain so until I die. This is the only defence that I have against those who try to harm me and it is enough!
Today I write this handbook because I still stand by my truth and in my own way, I want to advocate for a different society. A society in which blowing the whistle is expected as opposed to being an action that requires a handbook.
I can assure you the following:
you will not receive any financial gains from your actions which do not come with terms and conditions in favour of the provider;
being a hero does not empower you to feed your family – it is not all that glitters;
if you cover your arse in the process, someone else could rip the covers away; and
if your intentions are pure, you will have lived a life of purpose for generations after you.
If you reach this point in the journey, it means that the conflict of discovery is over and that you have mostly made up your mind on what to do. You’re either going to blow the whistle or not.
If you have decided not to; keep your records and stay vigilant. Perhaps something will happen later to change your mind? Perhaps you will be proud of yourself for indulging your suspicions… regardless, keep your records.
The best advice that I can give you if you’ve decided to blow the whistle is this: DO NOTHING! Pat yourself on the back for reaching the decision and sleep on it for a while.
Take your time and test your feelings. If you still feel convicted after some time, only then is it time to act.
I was very fortunate to have people around me who encouraged me to do this. As a result, and thankfully, I had a few of these “Damascus” moments.
My first was when I initiated divorce proceeding from my ex-husband. Without the consistent opinion for me to do nothing, I was able to indulge my own inner voice and gather the strength to speak up. My second moment was when I supported Geoff Budlender in his investigations and he proved corruption and the value of my information. Lastly, I had an incident with my ex-husband and decided that I would take control of my life.
After the third “Damascus” I was so resolute that no one could convince me otherwise. I have never ever regretted my decision to blow the whistle although I have had moments when I have regretted the way in which I blew the whistle. Its for these regrets that I hope to support others with this handbook.
All these moments took about eighteen months for me. I iterate that this process of conflicted discovery is hard and it can be a long one. Still, I encourage you to take as long as required to make sure that when you make the decision, you back yourself 100% in it.
Your Damascus moment is the point of no return so be sure.
Lesson Four: The whistle blower. The mother, wife, sister, brother, son etc
Okay, so you’ve established that you have a whistle; and now you got to figure out how to blow the damn thing!
The pragmatic questions for me are: Who? What? When? And How? However, the most important question for is “What about you?” So, before I tackle pragmatism, lets deal with you first.
It doesn’t matter when, how and to whom you blow the whistle. What is important to me, is that you remain standing after it! In order to create a culture and society of truth tellers, we need them to be alive and thriving to tell their truth. In the same way that I’m doing here… 😊
So, you have to first and foremost, determine what you will need to be okay after this. In some cases, blowing the whistle throughs you to the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs – so figure out your basics. Personally, I did not do this well when I blew the whistle.
As much as possible, conduct a risk assessment based on the absolute worst-case scenario. From that, re-evaluate if you want to blow the whistle. You are the only person who could determine the real needs for yourself, family and those whom you love. Make a list and consider the following:
What if you lost your job?
What if you lost your marriage?
What if your reputation was tainted?
What if your safety was threatened?
Now, find help so that your risks are mitigated. Investigate and take the time to find out how can you blow this damn whistle without compromising what truly matters to you, assuming the worst-case scenario all the time. At each step, re-evaluate if you still want to do it.
I simply want to help you to not make the mistakes that I made …
In my experience From October 2016 until July 2017 I blew the whistle on an anonymous basis to the Public Protector, Journalists and Geoff Budlender. For me, my anonymity and having PPLAAF’s protection, mitigated my risks to the extent that I was comfortable with it. Things went wrong in Geoff’s report and I was no longer anonymous. I had a big decision to make. Do I come out?
This was not part of my risk assessment. I could not comprehend the impacts that my going public could have on myself and my Daughter. In a moment of trauma, I made the decision to go public and perhaps it was the right thing for the country, but possibly not for my career and my mental health. I lost my job and got thrown into a state of trauma that I was not equipped to handle. Since then, I have been in the process of recovery. Although the process has cost me financially and emotionally, I still stand by my decision to blow the whistle. If I could do anything different, I would ensure the right support system prior.
This is not what I did and hope that from this handbook, you will learn from my mistake.
Lesson Five: Who? What? When? And How?
The best advice that I can give you in answering these questions is that you will need help.
Each whistle blowing case is different and touches on different legislations, communities, societies, businesses, policies and processes differently. It would be irresponsible for me to give advice based on a State capture matter to one that may involve sexual abuse for example… the frameworks are different and must be considered carefully before you act. Whatever your case may be, there should exist some structures to help you identify how to tackle the matter best.
What I do know is this:
organisations exist to give guidance to people wanting to blow the whistle on corruption. For example: PPLAAF, OUTA, Corruption Watch, Open Secrets etc;
Likewise, many corporate organisations have processes in place to blow the whistle safely and within the organisation;
The legal fraternity take on pro bono cases to offer advice on such matters; and
Entities such as churches, synagogues etc exist to support people in making these tough decisions and offer guidance on further advice.
The best advice that I could offer you is to reach out, speak to people and get different views until you find one that works for you.
An example would be to possibly also reach out to other whistle blowers for advice and guidance. The community of truth tellers may appear smaller, but it is incredibly strong! Look at me, I am still standing 😊