Mandy Wiener exposes the truth around whistleblowers
Renowned investigative journalist and talk-show host Mandy Wiener has written a book about the experience of whistleblowers in South Africa in the hope that it might change the law. We ask her some questions.
What inspired you to write The Whistleblowers?
In 2018, I had several meetings with one whistleblower about writing a book about their story. It didn’t happen then, but I was inspired by their journey and began to look at the contribution made by so many others in South Africa. The more I spoke to various whistleblowers, the more I realised that their experiences were enormously problematic and concerning, and a spotlight needed to be shone on it.
What do you want readers to take from this book?
I want people to appreciate the whistleblower experience fully, but also that it’s not always so clear-cut. Not all whistleblowers are pure, angelic, and perfect. Many are flawed, and there has to be some proximity – if not complicity – with those responsible for wrongdoing. I also want people to understand the sacrifice made by those who choose to stand up and speak the truth.
How did you research the book? What did you do, and how long did it take?
It took about a year and a half and a lot of convincing, coaxing, and earning of trust. It also took a lot of time and travel, going out to various parts of the country to sit down with various whistleblowers and listen to their stories. Some of them are incredibly complex, so it took some unpacking and untangling too.
How did you select the whistleblowers you write about?
This is by no means an exhaustive collection of whistleblowers. These are not the “best” or most obvious people. I could have included so many others. This selection is entirely subjective with no clear criteria. I just wrote about those whose stories captured my attention for some reason or another. I also wanted to include a cross section of experiences – good and bad – and from the public and private sector.
What are the common threads (other than the fact that they were all whistleblowers) between these people?
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. They are damaged or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but incredibly proud about what they have done.
Were there any surprises in your research?
I don’t think I fully comprehended the impact the experience has had on many of these individuals and how they are treated. I was surprised that they weren’t lauded, celebrated, and appreciated. Instead, they were vilified and so many of them were despondent about the outcome, which I found troubling.
What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
The burden and responsibility of carrying individual trauma, and ensuring that it’s properly portrayed to readers was very difficult. In some of the stories, whistleblowers have been killed, and this has to be handled with sensitivity. Also, I had to ensure that those who are thinking about blowing the whistle aren’t deterred from doing so. There had to be a positive outcome and encouragement for people to come forward and expose the truth.
I imagine it takes a great deal of courage to become a whistleblower. What inspired most of these people to take this mostly life-changing risk?
In difference circumstances, it was different things. 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’s 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. On the other end, there are those who have a late change of heart, and are perhaps motivated by ego and act to save themselves.
Some whistleblowers’ lives are devastated by their attempt to do right. For them, was it worth it?
The reaction is generally mixed. Some absolutely believe it was worth it because money has been returned to the fiscus and corruption has been exposed. The public now knows about the wrongdoing that has been exposed, and this is invaluable. In other instances, it’s not worth it because there has been no action, no justice, and no accountability. There has been a failure to do all of these things and instead, the whistleblower has paid the price.
Do you believe it’s worth it?
It’s so difficult for me to say if it’s worth it. I don’t know how I would react if I was put in that position. I like to think that I would do the right thing, but I can’t be sure I would. We have to encourage whistleblowers to come forward and expose wrong doing, so it has to be worth it. But a lot has to change if that is to happen.
What did you learn from researching and writing this book?
There has to be fundamental, systemic changes to the legislation and the framework of whistleblowing if we are going to encourage others to come forward. The current system isn’t sufficient to protect whistleblowers in a practical, real way, unfortunately. We also have to change the way society treats people who speak up. Instead of “othering” them or treating them as impimpis (informers) or trouble makers, they need to be placed on a pedestal, celebrated, and employed.
What impact has this particular book had on your life?
It has made me appreciate the personal sacrifices made by individuals, and I have a much better understanding of the risks people take. It has also made me reflect on how I would act if placed in such a position.
Following the release of your book, are there legal and other changes you would like initiated regarding whistleblowers?
I hope this book raises awareness about the failures of the legal system and the framework in place. I 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.
Writing this book was probably a tough journey. How do you feel now it’s out, and what’s next?
It always feels like a great relief once a book is “born”. Also, a lot of this book was written during lockdown while trying to home school two kids and taking on a new job on radio. So, no new big adventures planned for a while. I’ll be concentrating on my 702 show for now.