In 2000, the collapse of LeisureNet Ltd, listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), was considered the biggest corporate disaster in South African history. A key person in this story was Wendy Addison, who blew the whistle to expose corruption. What followed were trials and appeals, and eventually the incarceration of the two joint chief executives found guilty of an elaborate fraudulent scheme.
Wendy’s whistleblowing story shows the common pattern of how those who speak up are commonly subjected to years of hell, sometimes even destroyed. But, her later story is more than courageous, and inspires. She became a motivational speaker advocating for a long overdue cultural shift, so that whistleblowers might become valued for what they add to our modern culture.
Doing the right thing sadly does not always get its just rewards.
ALEC HOGG: Let’s look on the brighter side – though I suppose this story is not really on the brighter side at all, because in the business world doing the right thing does not always get its just rewards, as I discovered this week when chatting with Wendy Addison. She’s the woman who more than a decade back blew the whistle on the one-time darling of the JSE, the gym company LeisureNet, which you would remember through its Health & Racquet chain. Well, that was more than ten years ago, but this week the two leaders of that company had their seven-year jail sentences confirmed. For her courage Wendy Addison lost her job, she lost all her retirement benefits and even received death threats. In this part of an extensive discussion that we had – and the full podcast is on Moneyweb – I asked her whether she felt those death threats were serious. ***
WENDY ADDISON: One never knows. I think in my consultations with Transparency International subsequently they have a belief that whistle-blowing kills. As South African people know, life is cheap in South Africa. The threats came through via emails, and so they were mostly anonymous. But I believed that I should take them seriously – there was that much at stake.
ALEC HOGG: Indeed, and you decided then to leave the country?
WENDY ADDISON: That’s correct, I then put myself into self-imposed exile in the UK.
ALEC HOGG: One part of this story that is quite concerning is that you were then employed by Richard Branson, which all seemed to be going well until he discovered that you, in fact, were the person who’d blown the whistle. Now, instead of celebrating that fact, you got another short end of the stick.
WENDY ADDISON: Yes, I was summarily dismissed with a very peculiar background reason which didn’t really make any sense or have any substance. But in the UK I didn’t have any rights. There were statutory rights in terms of my employment because I’d only worked there for six months – and you’ve got to have worked for a company solidly for one year before you have any statutory rights. So basically I could have been fired because I had blue eyes. So there was never any forthcoming legitimate reason for the reasons given to me that I was got rid of.
ALEC HOGG: Doesn’t say a whole lot for the glitzy image that one sees of the whole Virgin Group.
WENDY ADDISON: Absolutely, and unfortunately the consequences of that were that I ended up begging on the streets of London, with a 12-year-old son. I always was mostly concerned with Branson’s humanitarian image and the fact that one of his very senior employees was now begging on the streets to survive.
ALEC HOGG: But you seem to have landed on your feet now. Are you still based in the UK?
WENDY ADDISON: Yes, I stayed in the UK for five years, and was pretty much unemployable and lived on benefits or welfare. Most employment companies cited the fact that I was a whistleblower for a listed company and also that there had been no convictions, which raised up concerns in their own heads. Then I came back to South Africa in 2005, attempted to put things behind me, attempted to seek compensation for loss of income, using the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. And, through doing that, I found gaping holes in the domestic laws of South Africa for people like myself who have been victims of fraud and corruption to actually seek compensation. My final decision in October last year to come back to the UK was prompted by the fact that I merely couldn’t survive. Also, although I had been declared a pauper in the South African courts, I wasn’t able to obtain a pro bono attorney to represent me for compensation.
ALEC HOGG: It’s an incredible story, Wendy, when in any sensible society you should be lauded as a hero, as somebody who was prepared to stand up for good. In fact, you’ve been the one, perhaps, who’s been, well, the greatest victim of it.
WENDY ADDISON: Yes, indeed. I do feel like that, although I don’t want to present myself as a victim. I think, again, it’s important that the message to South Africans is really to find the moral courage to do what’s right, to avoid these ongoing corruption and fraud issues that are crippling the democracy of South Africa.
ALEC HOGG: Would you do it again?
WENDY ADDISON: I would, Alec, but I would do it differently.
ALEC HOGG: How?
WENDY ADDISON: I now have, obviously with hindsight, the wisdom to know the processes to follow.
ALEC HOGG: But how differently?
WENDY ADDISON: I think I would be careful about whom I spoke to. Also understandably the rules and the laws have changed, so there’s a lot more robust legislation around protecting whistleblowers now. So that’s important. And I think the world itself is changing, there’s a lot more awareness around corruption and bribery and I think we’re in a different place.
ALEC HOGG (SUMMARIZING): That’s quite an incredible story and the full podcast is on Moneyweb. It’s really sad when you have a whistleblower here in South Africa, one of the bravest people I think I’ll ever have the opportunity to interview, who was “outed”, if you like. She wanted to stay anonymous, she wasn’t able to. She had to then go to court, she gave her testimony in court. The consequence of that – two bigwigs, two people who were lauded as business leaders, are now going to jail for seven years, and she is struggling to make a living, and cannot do so in our own country. You’d think there would be companies queuing up to offer Addison a job or at least some kind of responsibility to have a look after their own practices, and yet on the other hand she’s been shunned. Very sad world we live in.