Opinionista Stephen Grootes 8 May 2015

SARS: End of the affair

On Thursday the South African Revenue Service announced that its deputy commissioner, Ivan Pillay, and its head of planning, Peter Richer, had both resigned with immediate effect. Technically, this brings an end to the most turbulent period in the history of the organisation.

The South African Revenue Service (SARS) has been riven with claims of a ‘rogue spy unit’, that it asked people to spy on African National Congress (ANC) leaders, even that it ran a brothel. The net impact of this has been to denigrate its reputation, and to sully the names of those involved. But the decision by Pillay and Richer to resign won’t bring an end to the saga. And it will possibly leave SARS, Pravin Gordhan, Trevor Manuel and Tom Moyane with damaged reputations.

The public history of the SARS scandal dates back to a claim in the Sunday Times that there was a spy unit trying to play politics. There were claims it was spying on politicians, that it was breaking the law. But for those in the know, the first time this unit really emerged from the shadows was back in 2010 when it led the investigation into Julius Malema’s tax affairs. A former member of the unit, Mike Peega, was accused of working for Malema and trying to blackmail journalists.

In response to the Sunday Times claim, Pillay (who was acting commissioner at the time) launched an investigation, led by advocate Muzi Sikhakhane. By the time Sikhakhane finished his investigation, President Jacob Zuma had appointed Tom Moyane as the new SARS commissioner. After receiving the report, Moyane then suspended Pillay and Richer. Which, you would think, meant the person who commissioned the investigation was then suspended because of its findings. But you’d be wrong. In one of those twists that could really only happen in our society, the panel itself confirmed in public it had not made any findings against Pillay or Richer.

This led to two distinct and opposing narratives; one suggested Moyane was purging SARS and removing people who would investigate ANC members and Zuma himself, and the other that Pillay and Richer had in fact been running this unit for their own ends.

For observers, there was hope that clarity would finally emerge when it was revealed that former Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo would chair a disciplinary hearing into Pillay and Richer. Media organisations also said they would go to court to make sure the hearing was held in public, and it seemed unlikely SARS would oppose that (particularly with the NPA’s Glynnis Breytenbach case as a precedent).

Among the questions this hearing could have answered were whether Pillay and Richer actually broke the law by setting up this unit, whether the unit itself conducted illegal acts (i.e. did it tap someone’s phone illegally) and who else was involved. This was particularly important because documents exist showing the unit was set up in 2007, with the permission of the then SARS commissioner and the then finance minister. Which means that two of the people with the best and cleanest reputations in our politics, Pravin Gordhan and Trevor Manuel, could suddenly be drawn into this mess.

Perhaps more importantly, this hearing would also have got to the heart of which of the two narratives is correct. In other words, is Moyane, as the current SARS commissioner trying to protect politicians, including Zuma, or was the unit itself and all of those involved, breaking the law?

Now, we will simply never know.

Instead, this cloud of murky uncertainty, of wrongdoing and illegality is going to hang over all concerned. Pillay has really given his life to two things, the Struggle and SARS, and now his reputation has a huge black mark against it. Moyane will have to spend the rest of his time as SARS commissioner with people like me ascribing bad motives to all he does because we simply don’t know if he did the right thing here. And, perhaps most tragically, two of the most gifted politicians of our time have had their reputations sullied, and won’t have a chance to testify in public to explain what they did and why.

One has to ask why this agreement was reached now. Perhaps the turning point was the appointment of Ngcobo. Up until his name was announced, it appeared likely that any disciplinary process could be seen as a political process; once Ngcobo was appointed, it was obvious it would be a strictly neutral, legal process. A former Chief Justice is not going to put up with political motives in a hearing like this one. Perhaps Pillay and Richer’s side suggested Ngcobo’s name, knowing that this would tip the balance of power their way.

Perhaps, and we simply don’t know, there were too many powerful people who simply didn’t want details to emerge in public. Think of the people this issue could touch in some way: Moyane, Manuel, Gordhan, Zuma, not to mention Pillay and Richer themselves. Once a hearing like this gets underway, in the media spotlight, there’s no telling what could happen, and thus there’s a lot to lose for many important people.

But we could also ascribe the best possible motive to this decision. Perhaps Pillay and Richer, and Moyane, all realised that SARS itself would be the one to suffer, its reputation would be dragged through the mud tweet after tweet for a period of around two months, while the hearings continued.

And then of course, there’s money. SARS itself simply won’t say whether Pillay and Richer have been paid out to resign. The case that they were given a package seems compelling. Both of them were at SARS for years, both of them are unlikely to work again in the public sector, both of them would not have been planning to look for work now, both of them are people of competence and ability. And both of them have stories of their own to tell, amid a media hungry for their side of the story..

They are not the first, as time and time again we have seen government agencies consumed by infighting; claims are made, used as weapons to shore up a negotiating position, and then everything was stopped.

The latest is the example of South African Airways (SAA), where former CEO Monwabisi Kalawe said in Labour Court papers that SAA chairperson, Dudu Myeni, had changed a board resolution illegally with the motive of receiving a bribe from an airline manufacturer. He also claimed Malusi Gigaba was removed from the position of home affairs minister, because at one point “he spoke harshly to her”. And yet, as soon as he received a payout, the claim was dropped. Which means there will now be no investigation into those claims, and we will simply not know if he was grandstanding, or his claims were actually true.

The list of public institutions that once stood high and mighty and clean in the public imagination has got shorter and shorter over the years. Organisations such as the SABC, the Independent Electoral Commission, National Prosecuting Authority, Eskom… all of them were once looked upon with respect. No more. DM


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