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South Africa: suspected whistleblower of Africa’s largest asset manager testifies to victimization

(Johannesburg, May 2nd) – The case against The Public Investment Corporation’s (PIC) Secretary Bongani Mathebula was a witch-hunt, the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) said today. Bongani Mathebula was company secretary at the PIC, Africa’s largest asset manager. She had been the victim of reprisals and was harassed by her employer who accused her of being a whistleblower. But Mathebula was later reinstated by the board, indeed even acting as its CEO for a period. She testified on Wednesday, April 24th, at a commission investigating the company’s wrongdoings.

The PIC is a state-owned company that holds more than R2 trillion (121 billion euro) in assets. It is Africa’s largest asset manager and holds large stakes in several South African companies. Some 98% of value owned or overseen by the PIC belongs to the South African Government or its employees, including dozens of social security, pension, provident and other funds. The PIC’s largest client is the R700 billion (42 billion euro) Government Employee Pension Fund (GEPF).

The PIC became the subject of a South African government Commission of Inquiry which has since been extended for three more months. The inquiry is mandated to investigate alleged improprieties, corruption and illicit transactions involving companies and senior members of the country’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC).
Mathebula was accused of bringing to light the fact that the PIC board doctored some of its minutes to shield the former CEO from criticism that he had acted irregularly in arranging a private loan for an associate.

“The phenomenon known as “State capture” through systems institutions such as the PIC would not have come to light without whistleblowers”, said PPLAAF’s president William Bourdon. “Alleged whistleblowers deserve support and praise, not victimization and ruin.”

The PIC used disciplinary proceedings against Mathebula to harass her, injure her reputation and ruin her financially even though the evidence against her was contradicted by the PIC’s own records.

Mathebula told the Commission that she believed the suspension and disciplinary action “were part of a general pattern of victimization of employees at the PIC suspected of having a hand in bringing wrong-doing at the PIC to light.” She continued, “When the former CEO informed me that he no longer trusted me and wanted me out, what I believed was actually being communicated to me is that I was not trusted to keep quiet about irregular occurrences at the PIC.”.

PPLAAF’s support to Mathebula speaks to the brave stance she had taken in opposing the shameful retaliation she had suffered. Mathebula credited PPLAAF during her testimony for supporting her on the basis that, “even though I did not rely on a whistleblowing defense in my disciplinary matter, I was being persecuted on suspicions that I was one.”

PPLAAF is further worried about the role of the forensic investigation sector in accepting instructions to root out whistleblowers, especially those suspected of making disclosures to organs of state such as law-enforcement. This is a feature of the investigations mandated by the former CEO into a number of PIC employees.
PPLAAF is a non-governmental organization created in March 2017 with hubs around Africa. It provides support to assist whistleblowers including encrypted communication, free legal advice or representation against employers, continued assistance to protect the whistleblower in the disclosure of information to the public, the development of legislation to protect whistleblowers and legal cases based on whistleblower information.

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