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22 October 2017 17:42 (South Africa)
Opinionista Stephen Grootes

South Africa has no future without a healthy SARS

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

One of the biggest successes of South Africa since 1994 has been the South African Revenue Services. It has been the pride and joy of government, the one agency that really worked. Somehow, it managed to get the right people in the right place, and then manage to keep them there. They worked hard, they got results, and the money that is rightfully all of South Africa’s started to come in. It has been the bedrock of our society; without it, government wouldn’t have the money it needs to function. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that without SARS, many people would go hungry, uneducated, and un-cared for. It is the agency that makes sure there is cash for social grants, schools and hospitals. Key to its functioning has been its apolitical nature, which might be in danger of entering the altered state.

This is a tale about tax-collection, spies, and narratives. It’s also about different versions of the same events, and the agenda behind those different versions. It seems impossible to say at this point what exactly is happening. But it is clear that the elephants within SARS are fighting.

Several weeks ago both the City Press and the Sunday Times splashed stories about South African Revenue Service (SARS) on the same day. The main claim of both stories was that there was some sort of covert “rogue” unit within the organisation that had been conducting intelligence gathering activities. It was every movie you’ve ever seen about the police unit that goes bad, with claims about running a brothel, planting a bug in President Jacob Zuma’s home, and, trying to infiltrate the African National Congress (ANC) using its agents as bodyguards. Central to the reports was Johan van Loggerenberg, the man reportedly in charge of this unit.

This came at a bad time for SARS. It had recently lost its commissioner Oupa Mageshula (who left after misconduct that so far doesn’t appear linked to this case), while its line manager, the finance minister, had also recently changed (Pravin Gordhan moved on, which meant that the organisation no longer had its former commissioner as its boss). It was in a slightly weakened position.

In response, the then acting commissioner, Ivan Pillay, set up an independent panel to investigate. Well known senior advocate, Muzi Sikhakhane SC, headed it. Along with two other members, and an attorney, he spoke to all the people concerned – in some cases twice – and then wrote a report. While he was conducting his investigation, Zuma appointed a new SARS commissioner in Tom Moyane. This meant that when Sikhakhane had finished his report, it was Moyane he submitted it to. In the meantime Pillay had gone back to his post as deputy commissioner.

Then, last Friday, Moyane announced he was suspending Pillay, and the head of strategy and risk, Peter Richer. In his statement Moyane made it clear he was suspending the two based on the findings of the report. While all of this was happening Moyane had also suspended meetings of the organisation’s executive committee. In other words he was managing SARS almost directly, rather than through the normal procedures.

At this point the narrative seems rather simple. There was clearly a ‘rogue’ unit, Van Loggerenburg was already suspended, Pillay and Richer were also responsible in some way, and now there would be a proper investigation and they would be fired.

However the story changed dramatically on Wednesday afternoon. The attorney for the panel, Imraan Mohamed, agreed to do an interview with Eyewitness News in which he confirmed that in fact, they had made no findings against Pillay and Richer. This obviously raises the question of why, then, were they suspended at all? Mohamed was quick to point out he saw nothing wrong with the suspensions; Moyane certainly had the legal power to do it, and he was perhaps making sure that the final investigation could not be interfered with.

Officially, SARS has a similar line. This is just procedure; it’s spelt out in the disciplinary code etc. Even if that is the case, there is at least one glaring question: Why did Moyane say clearly in his statement that the suspensions were based on the findings of the report? It certainly made it look as if the report had made findings against them. While certain facts may be in dispute, what’s not in dispute is that the panel did not make findings against them. They have said this themselves, so it must be true.

Then there is the history of this ‘unit’ itself. Eyewitness News is now reporting that there is a document from 2007, signed by then SARS commissioner Gordhan, and then finance minister Trevor Manuel, authorising a new unit to be set up by SARS and the then National Intelligence Agency. The plan, it seems, was for SARS to train agents who would stay within the NIA. As a result SARS would have the capability it needed to go after organised crime, while those agents, as they were within the NIA, would have the legal powers to conduct the necessary intelligence work.

However, at some point, the NIA pulled out. This meant that SARS had these specially trained agents at hand, and nothing for them to do, while at the same time still wanting to conduct these operations against organised crime. So jobs were found, and some work was conducted. In the meantime the unit changed names several times for various reasons.

Then, last year, Van Loggerenberg somehow got involved in a romantic relationship with a woman called Belinda Walters. She appears to have a history with the tobacco industry (an old enemy of SARS) and the State Security Agency (which what the NIA is now called). She was the source for the main claims by the Sunday Times, that Van Loggerenberg was bugging people, and conducting covert intelligence operations. She refers to messages he sent her on his phone, which she claims is proof of this. (His defenders are likely to say that in fact those were jokes, or that they have been taken out of context.)

So what now appears to have happened is that there are least two competing narratives. There is the claim that Pillay, Van Loggerenberg and Richer were running, or overseeing, this unit that did in fact break the law, and as a result they must be fired. Then there is the competing version: that they did nothing wrong, the unit broke no laws, and they are being drummed out for other, presumably political, reasons.

Key to determining which of these is correct is probably the question of whether or not it was lawful for this unit to continue existing after the NIA pulled the plug on its involvement. The law is pretty clear. SARS is not allowed to conduct the sort of covert operations the NIA conducts. But it would seem that just allowing the unit to exist wouldn’t be enough to sink Pillay and co, there would have to be proof that the unit actually broke the law through its actions, which might be a tougher proposition.

While we decide which of these competing narratives to believe, we have to remember the particular context in which this is happening. Recently SARS has settled accounts with Julius Malema (rather than having him sequestrated and thus have him removed from Parliament). It’s also claimed that there has always been a rivalry between SARS and other law enforcement agencies. It is becoming accepted by many people that those agencies – the National Prosecuting Authority, the police, the State Security Agency etc – have already been captured by Zuma. He must have been furious that SARS settled with Malema. The context here could lead some to believe that in fact this is all about capturing SARS, about weakening it, and then controlling it. Enemies of Zuma would at this point no doubt point to the businesses run by members of his family, which appear to be growing rather quickly.

Certainly there is no direct evidence of Zuma’s hand in any of this, but then, his critics would say that’s not how these things work.

No matter what happens next, and in fact, no matter where the truth lies, several conclusions are inescapable. Surely either Moyane or Pillay and Richer will have to go, there is no way they can all stay on together at SARS HQ. More importantly, SARS is going to be weaker, in so many ways. It will lose some of its institutional memory, as people with hard to find skills will have to leave. The faith many people have had in the organisation will be endangered. And in the already precarious economy, there could be less money to feed people, educate them and care for them.

South Africa needs a strong, united and efficient SARS, the one that will continue its sterling work of the last two decades. Anything else would be an Eskom-sized disaster. DM

  • Stephen Grootes
    Grootes for DM.jpg
    Stephen Grootes

    Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on 702 and Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

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