Martha Ngoye: Honest public servants, whistleblowers at the heart of functioning democracy

News24 – Martha Ngoye | 17 April 2023

Martha Ngoye is a whistleblower for the vast corruption at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa). She is Prasa’s group executive for legal. On Thursday she delivered an address at the launch of New South Institute, of which she is a board member. Here is an edited version of her address.

My observation is that a number of countries in the global south have been plagued by systemic corruption and state capture over a number of years. The electorate is getting to the point of understanding the effects of systemic corruption and state capture on their daily lives, and voting patterns are starting to point to a preference for trusted public representatives instead of popular or populist public representatives.

Because the only language that politicians are fluent in is the polls, those vying for public office are starting to focus on trust. The challenge that we have experienced in South Africa is that because winning trust is new for politicians, they sit there as square pegs having to fill round holes.

In my view, an institute like the New South Institute will ensure that these gaps are filled properly by assisting in framing appropriate policy instruments and placing the right people in leadership positions.

As a means to stay in power

When I dreamed of my future as a contributor to the economy, I did not think of myself as one who would need to blow the whistle on corruption perpetrated by some among the people who fought gallantly against a system that muzzled dissent and fought for openness and democracy.

History has shown that once these people are in positions of power, they envy the system they fought as they see it as a means to stay in power. This is how systemic corruption and state capture are birthed.

There are many corruption scandals that have been reported in South Africa. As a country, we are fortunate that our systems, people and policies led to an open and thoroughgoing judicial commission probing allegations of state capture over the past couple of years (the Zondo Commission). This commission showed that there is a lot of paying of lip service to clean and accountable governance. It showed that the state had been broken up into many pieces, and those in charge of the pieces had a pact to plunder each piece unhindered.

So entrenched was this form of systemic corruption that it impeded the country’s economic growth and undermined democratic principles, stability and trust.

A target on my back

I have always spoken out to expose corruption where I witnessed it and fought it. Because of this, I placed a target on my back. I have appeared at the Zondo Commission on several occasions.

Because of my unrelenting fight against corruption, the protectors of corruption have also been unrelenting in attacking me. So far, I have been fortunate that my detractors have not been successful in derailing me.

I did not have any intentions of being a whistleblower. I was and still am a diligent professional, faithful to my profession and my values. I acted, informed by these and my ethics, only to unwittingly collide with criminals who were pretending to be leaders of institutions.

I fought these criminals and prevented several illegal transactions that they were hatching up. When the internal fights were not effective, I reported these illegal acts to bodies that the institution accounts to and fought these transactions using the courts. The criminals fought back by harassing me and dismissing me unlawfully. I fought this harassment and, in the process, was identified by others as a whistleblower.

Doing my job

I had understood what I was doing as part of my job and my obligation to act in my employer’s best interest.

As stated above, I think (maybe even hope) that the country is getting to a point where those in public office must win trust to stay in public office. Now one of my passions is to assist in whatever way I can to assist in building this trust.

Our country and countries in the global south have many challenges and are populated by some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world. It is time to build proper institutions, to engender and maintain good governance, and to deal decisively with poverty. It is time for like-minded people to work together.

Criminals work together to hatch plots and schemes to destroy economies, yet those who wish to build believe that this can be organically achieved. This belief is ahistorical. It is imperative to participate in assisting in building democracies and capable governments.

I see my participation in the board of the New South Institute to be a way in which I will be part of a collective of honest and professional people who want to draw plans and frameworks to build a better global south: Working with dynamic minds and putting our expertise to great use to assist in changing the status quo.

Speak truth to power

My experience as a whistleblower and being able to speak truth to power, with the legal, risk management and compliance background that I have stands me in good stead to play a meaningful role in the Board. I live governance, and I am aware of the lack thereof in our institutions.

Transparency and public accountability are a prerequisite for a functioning democracy and, in turn, effective service delivery. Practically, this means not only having in place policies and oversight mechanisms to prevent corruption and capture, whistleblowing must be actively encouraged also so that when laws and systems are circumvented, there will still be one protective measure against public money being looted.

Honest public servants and whistleblowers are at the heart of a functioning democracy. They must be supported and protected.