Whistleblowers’ Writing Workshop


Writing workshop 8-11 February 2022

In a few weeks’ time I will be running a writing workshop for those brave people we call whistleblowers. There is a growing literature in South Africa exposing the massive corruption that is the focus of the Zondo commission into State Capture. Independent whistleblowers have fed their evidence to the commission but also written articles and books, and given interviews, exposing what has been going on on both the public and private sectors.

Not everyone who knows something has so far committed themselves to the written word. I hope that the workshop will develop some fresh ideas around how whistleblowers can be effective in South Africa today.

We have a long way to go to convert public antipathy to public support. And turn the corner to prevent wrongdoers continuing to use their institutional power to wage war on truth and the law and the persons of the whistleblowers. Wrongdoers should be shamed into silence. The key to success is to make a huge fuss and keep it up

But how is one to gain public approval when all the dice are loaded against you? Organisations don’t like whistleblowers who draw attention to the dark side of corporate affairs. Those who are alleged to be breaking the rules will usually fight back with all the resources at their disposal. The whistleblower is usually an isolated individual with few resources.

There is the power of the pen. How is it to be used?

Above all the tone of the writing should establish the bona fides of the author. This can be done in multiple ways. It is not necessarily the case that one should temper the language to be diplomatic to the point of self-effacement. That may only result in fogging up the message. Good old indignation couched in strong words rings true for the average reader.

But there are also times when the writer should be plainly factual and take care to present an objective account of things. Remember what they may have taught you at school if you were lucky enough to be exposed to critical thinking: define, describe, analyse and summarise without being overly judgemental. Don’t twist the facts and do let them speak for you.

This leads us to the basics of narrative. Quite literally, if you can’t tell the story then it never happened. Things fall into place in a sequence of events which it’s your job as a truth-teller to pick apart, thread by thread. The story that you weave from this exercise in discovery is the story the reader wants to hear. How did you come to the conclusion that skulduggery was under way in the organisation? The evidence piled up. The conclusions you reached are the very same that the reader should reach after being presented with your detective work. If you can do that – carrying the reader along as an independent witness to events – then your tale has the status of truth. Otherwise, well, it didn’t happen, or not the way you say it did.

Naturally, you can leave threads dangling, questions unanswered, puzzles to be solved, as that enhances the tension about what happens next. If the police or the courts intervene maybe they will pull those loose threads. Then the whole pattern of fabrication and lies woven by the perpetrators could unravel.

Never let a good story or a crisp anecdote fail in the telling. Work on suspense elements and punchlines. Stick to the truth as you see it. Let the narrative capture the alarm you felt as incriminating details fell out of the bag of nonsense carried by liars and thieves in the organisation. It’s easy to say write pointedly when there are legal issues of defamation to contend with and when the bad guys can deny everything with impunity. Your own confidence in the facts and the truth may not be all that solid. These are the risks of going public and there’s no getting away from them.

Bias against whistleblowers is not necessarily driven by corrupt motives. Legal process will always seek a “balance” which in reality is shaped by widely held prevailing views. If whistleblowers are portrayed as angry, vengeful, conspiracy theorists by those who are being unmasked, this permeates the public mind a probably influences judges. That’s why I say the legitimacy of the campaigner must be reemphasised at every turn.

So I return to my main point: the whistleblower as author seek to come across as a genuine soldier in the fight against corruption. This can only be achieved with a tone of humility allied to solid affirmation of what is right and proper. Your legitimacy as a whistleblower is, ultimately, all that stands between you and public dismissal.

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