After killings, anti-corruption groups in South Africa call to protect whistleblowers

The slayings and other cases have fueled outrage over widespread graft linked to government contracts, which has plagued Africa’s most developed economy for years

Raymond Zondo
Judge Raymond Zondo, chairman of the Zondo Commission in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Nov. 19, 2020.Themba Hadebe (AP)

An accountant working on a high-profile corruption case was killed along with his son by unknown gunmen while traveling on one of South Africa’s main highways. A government health department employee who warned of illegal dealings worth nearly $50 million was shot 12 times in the driveway of her home.

The slayings and other cases have anti-corruption groups urging South African authorities to provide far better protection for whistleblowers. They also have fueled outrage over widespread graft linked to government contracts, which has plagued Africa’s most developed economy for years but appears to continue unabated.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime counted a total of 1,971 assassination cases in South Africa between 2000 and 2021, with whistleblowers accounting for many of the targeted individuals.

The specialist accountant and liquidator, 57-year-old Cloete Murray, was working on the financial accounts of a company that was heavily implicated in allegedly bribing government ministers and others to win huge state contracts.

The company, previously known as Bosasa and now named African Global Holdings, was one of the most prominent subjects of the Zondo Commission a judicial inquiry into government and other high-level corruption during the 2008-2019 presidency of Jacob Zuma, who is on trial on separate corruption allegations.

Murray was shot in the head while driving with his son in an SUV on the N1 highway just outside Johannesburg in March. He died in the hospital. His son, Thomas Murray, who worked with his father, was declared dead at the scene. No one has been arrested in the killings, which police said had the hallmarks of a professional hit.

South African anti-corruption organization Corruption Watch said the killings of the Murrays was further evidence that the country faced “a crisis in terms of the rule of law.”

“Levels of public confidence in our law enforcement capabilities, not to mention the political will to hold criminals and the corrupt accountable, have dropped to an all-time low,” Corruption Watch executive director Karam Singh said. “As the most recent example, the brazen murder of Cloete Murray and his son sends a chilling and intimidating message to anyone seeking to end impunity for corruption and crime. This must represent a turning of the tide for our country.”

The death of Babita Deokaran, an employee of the health department in Gauteng province, already underlined the dangers for whistleblowers in South Africa. Her August 2021 slaying was described as an assassination. Six men have been charged with murder in her killing.

Deokaran had spoken up about potentially corrupt payments to more than 200 companies by the health department and was a key witness in a probe by the country’s anti-corruption Special Investigating Unit into contracts worth more than $45 million.

She was shot multiple times inside her car soon after dropping her daughter off at school and her story has become a rallying call.

Deokaran’s killing spurred another corruption whistleblower, Athol Williams, to leave the country, he said. Williams testified before the Zondo Commission implicating about 39 parties in corrupt activities at the country’s tax authority, the South African Revenue Service. Williams is a former partner at consultancy firm Bain & Co, which he also accused of in his allegations regarding the tax authority.

He said he testified out of a sense of civic duty but was not offered any protection despite the important evidence he provided and will not return to his home country unless his safety is guaranteed.

“Without any assurance for my safety from our government, combined with the fact that none of the parties I implicated have been prosecuted, it is unlikely that I can return. This breaks my heart,” Williams said in an interview with The Associated Press. “It is the lowest form of unethical behavior to ask a citizen to risk their life for our country and then not offer them protection when they face retaliation.”

South Africa’s Department of Justice did not respond to messages seeking comment on Williams’ experience and the general policy on protection for whistleblowers. But in his State of the Nation Address this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged shortcomings and the need to strengthen the witness protection unit.

This week, the former head of the state-owned electricity utility, a company brought to its knees by mismanagement and corruption, appeared at a parliamentary hearing virtually from an “undisclosed location” because of fears for his safety, he said.

Andre de Ruyter has spoken of corruption linked to the government and others at the utility and said Wednesday that unnamed sources who provided him with information feared for their lives.

He has also claimed he survived an attempt on his life when his coffee was laced with cyanide.

“The alleged criminal and unlawful activities ... involve elements that are best characterized as organized crime,” de Ruyter said.

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