JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The killing of a South African health official providing evidence about an allegedly corrupt contract to purchase COVID-19 personal protective equipment has sparked calls for better protection of whistleblowers in the country.
Babita Deokaran, 53, the Department of Health’s chief director of financial accounting, was shot and killed outside her home in Johannesburg this week. She was a key witness in investigations into suspect contracts worth millions of rands (dollars).
Deokaran was shot multiple times after dropping her child off at school in an apparent hit.
Police announced Friday that seven people have been arrested for Deokoran’s killing and will appear in court on murder charges.
Although South Africa has is legislation to protect whistleblowers, more that needs to be done, Richard Chelin, a senior researcher at the Institute of Security Studies, said.
“The moment that somebody starts becoming important in a corruption investigation, there is always a threat to their lives,” said Chelin.
“In this case, the Special Investigations Unit said the health official did not feel that her life was in danger, but the question is whether or not you still provide protection in that case,” said Chelin.
He said killings like that of Deokaran are used to send a message to other potential whistleblowers to warn them against cooperating with police investigations.
Police have urged people to continue reporting corruption and assured current witnesses of protection.
“The murder of Ms. Deokaran should not deter South Africans and public servants from reporting allegations of corruption, malpractice, greed and maladministration in the affairs government departments, municipalities and state-owned entities,” the SIU said in a statement on Friday.
Allegations of COVID-19 related corruption in the province have resulted in several senior officials being dismissed, including the province’s former provincial health minister Bandile Masuku.
President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokeswoman Khusela Diko was also suspended from her position after her late husband Thandisizwe Diko was implicated in the allegedly dodgy contracts.
More recently, the country’s Health Minister Zweli Mkhize was forced to resign after allegations that he and his family benefited from a COVID-19-related communications contract awarded by his department.