“I am looking for someone who is willing to help me. I have 3 cases which the police and prosecutors refuse to prosecute.” “I would like amaBhungane to help to recoup my money which has been defrauded by financial advisor.” “I am appealing to amaBhungane to help us in the taxi industry.” “We are the group of victims who are crying for help.”
Since I joined amaBhungane in February 2023, as a Raith Foundation intern, these are the kinds of messages that arrive via calls, emails and social media messages every day.
So far this year, I have received 536 tip-offs from the public.
These are citizens whose constitutional rights are infringed on all levels by different bodies. Most of the tip-offs that we have received touch on consumer complaints, labour issues, tender corruption and fraud, insurance issues, corruption in government departments and in the education system at various levels.
The majority of our tip offs have to do with corruption and fraud in local municipalities. There is a growing trend of irregular appointments, nepotism and manipulation of tender processes with municipal workers resigning as soon as they have been awarded tenders.
In March, a resident in Durban wrote to us about a water crisis in their ward that has been ongoing for six years: “Water taps are dry, we are subjected to unreliable water-tankers which in some instances charges the community for water supply, NO PAYMENT NO WATER.”
These tip-offs are an indication of the state our country is in.
In short, corruption and mismanagement of public monies is endemic and infused into the state’s genetics. Across the same broad swathe, we see the fingers of private companies and individuals all over, wobbling and colluding to siphon resources that are meant to serve the needs and improve the livelihoods of those within the South African borders.
This is a dereliction of duty at unimaginable scale.
There is a desperate need for more accountability from officials across government departments, especially the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) and the South African Police Service (SAPS). If the government institutions were able to help citizens, there would be no need for individuals to send these tip-offs to amaBhungane.
Instead, our tip-offs show that there is a lack of trust in government institutions, which are perceived as failing dismally to hold accountable those that commit fraud and corruption.
How do we assign tip-offs to journalists?
Tip-offs are important sources of investigative journalism. And many ground-breaking investigations started as a tip-off in our inbox.
All our tip-offs are handled with care and utmost confidentiality. The tip-offs are all recorded in a spreadsheet under a specific theme and alert the journalists who have an interest in that particular beat.
For example, tip-offs that relate to money laundering are generally investigated by Dewald van Rensburg, water tip-offs by Aisha Abdool Karim, energy tip-offs by Susan Comrie, while issues of public transport and government tender fraud are investigated by Tebogo Tshwane, and land-related tip-offs by Magnificent Mndebele.
This is not a quick process though: it can also take months or even years for the journalists to piece together information from different sources before we are ready to publish an investigation. And being a small team – we only have five journalists – we cannot investigate the majority of the tip-offs we receive.
When a tip-off is not something we can investigate, we try to refer tipsters to other organisations that can help, such as GroundUp, Spotlight, Section 27 and Lawyers against Abuse (LvA). This is to try to ensure that the individual gets the assistance they need.
Sometimes it is as simple as sharing the contact details of the relevant government official, but often tipsters have exhausted all other options when they reach amaBhungane.
That makes it understandable that people can feel impatient and frustrated when we tell them that we have very limited capacity, and it may take quite a while for a journalist to work on the story. And even that is not too guaranteed as we have our own mechanisms in place to guide our reporters on which stories deserve priority.
The months I have spent working on the tip-offs have shown me just how much people need assistance and the role – no matter how small – that amaBhungane can play in ensuring that South Africans get the justice that they deserve.
“I am not looking for a quick result. In the bigger picture, this case might be insignificant but truly reflects the problem to society, especially in South Africa,” a recent tipster wrote. “If you have no money, the juridical system has its doors closed for you … you are somehow the last hope to settle this case in favour of the truth.”
It is important for tipsters to be aware of the mistakes they make when sending tip-offs and the things to be mindful of. Most frustrating is when an interesting tip contains minimal supporting information or evidence, plus no way of getting back to the tipster. Then we hit a dead end and have to just file away the tip with hopes that the tipster will one day contact us again.