Defend Truth


The SARS Wars


Stephen Grootes is the host of the Sunrise show on SAfm. 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.

The situation regarding SARS, the Sunday Times and what has now been labelled as the “Rogue Spy Unit" has become maddeningly complicated. That's to be expected, considering that there are various strands to the story, involving the question of whether the investigative unit of the biggest and most important newspaper in the country was manipulated. But the overall story, the "takeaway" from what has happened this week, is that Advocate Rudolf Mastenbroek appears to have played a role in the reporting of the Sunday Times and then was appointed to the Kroon Commission, which basically endorsed the findings of an earlier report. Based on that simple fact, the Kroon Commission is now surely lying in tatters.

Most people would not have heard of Mastenbroek before Tuesday afternoon. Before that point, there had been the war of competing narratives. On the one side, the Sunday Times, reporting that the “rogue spy unit” ran brothels, broke the law, and bugged politicians. On the other side, the claim that it was all a political hit, that it was a move to get deputy SARS Commissioner Ivan Pillay and the unit’s head Johan van Loggerenberg out of the institution, because they were politically inconvenient. It was difficult to know who was right, and who was wrong. In a country where so many institutions have been the victim of “capture” by politicians (think Hlaudi Motsoaneng at the SABC, Nomgcobo Jiba at the NPA), you would not have to be the most cynical person in the room to think that SARS was the next target.

Then, at the Press Ombudsman hearing on Tuesday, the famous Joubert Affidavit emerged. To over-simplify, it said Mastenbroek had approached her in April 2013, wanting to plant stories about Pillay and van Loggerenberg, and that she believed those stories to be untrue. She then resigned from the paper, after her concerns were ignored. For most people, this was also the first time they realised that Mastenbroek is also the ex-husband of the paper’s then editor, Phylicia Oppelt. To Joubert’s horror, Mastenbroek was then appointed to the Kroon Commission.

The Kroon Commission has all along been a curiosity. Appointed by the Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene, its job, we were told, was to advise him on what to do about SARS, after the revelations about the unit. It’s main item of business was to look at the report of an earlier investigation, the Sikhakhane Report, and decide what action should be taken. That report said the unit should have been closed, but made no findings against Pillay or van Loggerenberg.

The commission was staffed by Judge Frank Kroon, and a group of people who were experts on tax and the law. Almost all of them had worked at SARS at some point; Mastenbroek was one of them. This group had one press conference, at which it announced that it endorsed the findings of that report, and it recommended a proper police investigation. But we don’t know what that commission actually did. We do know it did not speak to Pillay or van Loggerenberg. We think it is highly unlikely that it it spoke to anyone else. It seems, to put it bluntly, that all it did, was look at the Sikhakhane Report, tick the right box, smile, and move on.

However, now that this claim about Mastenbroek has emerged, we have to ask if it was in fact part of a political process. Has Mastenbroek been the main mover behind the scenes all along? It seems, to an outsider to all of this, that he may well have had the power to be that person. First, planting stories at the Sunday Times, helping the narrative along through his relationship with its editor, and then, at the climax of the thing, being on the actual commission that sealed the fate of Pillay and van Loggerenberg. If he did do all of that, he is clearly a good operator.

We don’t have evidence that he did all of that. Only context. Which is not good enough to convict a man.

But we do have questions that the National Treasury now has to answer. To start with, who decided Mastenbroek should be on that commission, and why? Was it Nene? Did someone (and who?) whisper in his ear? And then, does Nene actually still stand by the findings of the commission? If it was so important to hold it in the first place, now that its findings are being cast in doubt, surely it is still important enough to start again, this time properly and independently?

But all of this then brings us back to Mastenbroek. The Sunday Times has said, through its attorney during the Ombudsman hearing, that he was not the source of its story. That doesn’t absolve Mastenbroek, or mean that Joubert’s claim he was biased against Pillay and van Loggerenberg is wrong. He is an advocate. He has been accused of taking part in a commission headed by a judge, and of doing so with less than an open mind. Surely someone has to find a forum in which Mastenbroek can answer questions about this under oath. (This would almost certainly mean Joubert has to answer questions under oath too. That may be uncomfortable for her, but seems unavoidable.)

However, Nene is not the only one feeling the pressure at the moment. Clearly, from the statement she released on Wednesday afternoon, Oppelt is feeling it too. She says that Joubert’s affidavit is the “construct of an embittered person who simply aims to discredit her former colleagues and place of employment”. She goes on the offensive (in more than one way) saying Joubert failed to address “the nature of her relationship with van Loggerenberg” and that her relationship with her “investigative colleagues” had broken down because she “clearly breached her ethical obligations as a journalist on a matter entirely unrelated to this case”.

Considering that Oppelt said, in papers lodged with the Press Ombudsman, that the claim she was being manipulated by her ex-husband was “probably sexist” one has to wonder if the inference about Joubert’s relationship with van Loggerenberg is not also “probably sexist”.

While the statement also explains that “an independent, external party” investigated Joubert’s claims and found no substance to them, it does not, explicitly, in her own words, say that Mastenbroek played no role the paper’s reporting on the story. Sure, the paper’s attorney has said that, the investigation has found that, but Oppelt has not said that. That may not matter, or just be an oversight, but in a situation where the stakes are incredibly high, reputations are on the line, and the statements are presumably read by lawyers before being released, it could still constitute an important omission.

The other point to make here, and this may just be the bias of a person who has spent way too much time in radio stations, is that Oppelt can issue as many statements as she likes. Many, many people get most of their news through radio and TV, and there is sometimes no substitute for the interrogatory interview. She has always failed to do interviews about her work at the paper. This means, in the PR war, she is fighting with one hand behind her back. Her supporters may say she doesn’t like broadcast. Tough. She was the editor of the biggest and most important paper in the country. It’s part of the job. And in this case her failure to do it is costing her badly.

To try to get to the bottom of this entire issue at SARS, there is one question that I could ask. It is this: If the current SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane, and all the other investigators involved in this case are so sure that Pillay and van Loggerenberg broke the law, why have they not been criminally charged? Why have they not been dragged into the witness box, put under oath, and had evidence put to them?

The answer must surely be, because the evidence is not strong enough, and that someone is afraid of them telling their full, uncensored stories to the people of South Africa. DM


Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

[%% img-description %%]

The Spy Bill: An autocratic roadmap to State Capture 2.0

Join Heidi Swart in conversation with Anton Harber and Marianne Merten as they discuss a concerning push to pass a controversial “Spy Bill” into law by May 2024. Tues 5 Dec at 12pm, live, online and free of charge.