The Unlikely Mr Rogue: A Life with Ivan Pillay — navigating the icy waters of ‘Project Snowman’
‘The Unlikely Mr Rogue: A Life with Ivan Pillay’ is the story of the quiet man behind the so-called ‘rogue unit’ at SARS. The much-acclaimed revenue service became a lightning rod for takedowns and shakedowns during the Jacob Zuma years. This book takes the reader on a journey from Ivan’s growing up in Merebank, KwaZulu-Natal, to his politicisation, the underground and exile, and the story of Operation Vula, which Ivan ran from Lusaka, reporting to Oliver Tambo. In this extract, we delve into ‘Project Snowman’ at SARS.
2012: Snowmen and arrows
At least since 2002, gossipy allegations have been launched, at intervals, mainly against Pravin Gordhan, Ivan and Johann [van Loggerenberg], and sometimes also against tax and customs enforcement manager Gene Ravele. Ivan is supposed to have had love children with at least two colleagues. Johann has been accused of being an apartheid agent, or alternatively – and perhaps surprisingly – part of an Indian cabal. Populist loudmouth Julius Malema, who has alleged before that SARS targets supporters of Jacob Zuma, has — after his expulsion earlier this year from the ANC for sowing division and undermining the leadership – inverted his allegation. Now he says that SARS has been actually attacking Zuma’s opponents.
Since SARS has been investigating Malema’s tender deals in his home province of Limpopo for a while now, both are true, since in both cases Malema probably means himself.
When Ivan meets either of his alleged mistresses, he occasionally asks them how the kids are, and they chuckle. One of the women has never had children at all.
SARS has responded to more serious charges, for instance when a thick dossier called “Project Snowman” surfaced, which alleged that SARS was plotting to overthrow President Zuma. The main source of the allegations was Mike Peega, a former employee who was fired by the SARS investigative unit because he was found to be involved in rhino poaching. Even though his stories were devoid of fact, SARS still took the time to meticulously refute every one of them. Zuma is turning out to be just as conspiracy-minded as his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, if not more so.
“So we try to pre-empt such things,” says Ivan. “We work very hard to collect and present the evidence to disprove the smears.”
I will learn later that SARS spokesman Adrian Lackay visited Sunday Times editor, Phylicia Oppelt – who happens to be married to our friend, Rudolf Mastenbroek – to show her stacks of documents disproving what Peega says.
SARS doesn’t know this at the time, but the Peega dossier isn’t just the work of Mike Peega. By the time he makes his accusations, there is already a network of twenty-one National Intelligence Agency agents active at SARS, working undercover to report finally to Jacob Zuma. And they don’t merely report. The murky ponds of the intelligence services, already contaminated by information peddlers with personal interests, who collect dirt on individuals and advance conspiracies by one political faction against the other, grew murkier and murkier under Thabo Mbeki’s sycophants; they are now outright cesspools under Zuma. Giving him allegations to use against his real or perceived enemies is just the way to get closer to Number One.
The spy network inside SARS has been in place since at least mid-2004, when Zuma was still deputy president to Thabo Mbeki. It started in that year with the managerial appointment of domestic intelligence agent Mandisa Mokwena, who was also – unbeknown to the rest of SARS at first – a business partner of Zuma’s wife Thobeka.
Zuma would plant his agents everywhere. That in itself is no surprise to Ivan. “It is what Jacob Zuma does. He builds loyal bases wherever he can.” Ivan just wonders when Zuma started seeing SARS as a priority target for such activities.
In 2009, when Julius Malema began circulating the Peega dossier, Mandisa Mokwena was found to have dished out SARS contracts to friends, and left SARS under a cloud. During her trial in 2010 she explained that she had been paid as a secret agent while at SARS, and that she had been “sanctioned by a higher authority than the minister of intelligence himself” for this work. Since the money in her bank account proved to have come from the SSA (formerly the NIA), the court would eventually acquit her, although it found an associate at SARS guilty, together with the friends who had gotten the contracts.
How deeply concerned Zuma personally is about SARS will remain unclear for the near future. At this stage however, in late 2012, Ivan merely believes that the man simply “cannot grasp what exactly it means to head a constitutional state with rule of law,” as he puts it. He recalls how then Deputy President Zuma asked for a meeting at Waterkloof Airport, as far back as 2004. He and SARS customs manager Gene Ravele duly went there and had found that Zuma wanted to discuss the case of a businessman who was, Zuma said, “very useful to the South African government.” The businessman, Hennie Delport, owned a private jet and often travelled on business within Africa. Ivan thought that Delport had probably offered himself to the intelligence community as a good source of information, which would serve as insurance in case he was ever called to account for his financial dealings. He was being investigated for – and would later be criminally charged with – VAT fraud. SARS suspected that Delport was directly stealing tax money by falsifying documents to obtain VAT refunds to which he had no right.
At the meeting, Ivan narrates, he said, “Sure, if Mr Delport will make full disclosure, and take responsibility for what happened, we can work with him to reach a settlement.” This was policy – if you cooperated, penalties would be lowered. He adds, “But there can’t be a disappearance of debt. I don’t think Zuma understood that. I don’t think he understands that even now.”
In spite of what he thought was a clear response, a go-between would still come to SARS a few days later to see Ivan again. “He said that comrade Zuma had told him that I would resolve the Delport matter. I repeated what I told Zuma. Unsurprisingly, that was the end of that initiative.” A few years later, a memorandum from Delport, circulated to politicians, which accused SARS of destroying South African businesses, would be added to the growing stack of dossiers in Ivan’s filing cabinet.
From that meeting onward, Ivan decided to be proactive with Zuma, in order to pre-empt requests and situations that would make SARS compromise its principles and the law. “I kept reminding him that he needed to become tax compliant. But the message did not seem to land. Either he himself, or his lawyer Michael Hulley, who was always present at our meetings, seemed to believe that we would somehow wave a wand and the tax obligations would disappear. At the end we had to resort to summoning him to court.”
Would Zuma have started to consider a more pleasant, more pliable SARS even then? DM
Evelyn Groenink is an investigative journalist who was one of the leading activists in the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement. She has published three books on South Africa through Atlas Publishers in the Netherlands (in Dutch): Wonderland, 1996; Dulcie, 2001; and Bij de Blanken is het Beter (It’s Better Where the Whites Are), 2013. Incorruptible was her first book in English translation. She is married to Ivan Pillay.