SARS Wars: Who benefits from ‘urgent’ restructuring?
As what looks likes like an increasingly destructive war continues between the finance minister, the SARS Commissioner and, we presume, the President himself, much of the attention is focused on what we know. It’s the war of the statements, with lawyers’ letters thrown in as extra ammunition. But what may be more important is what is actually happening at SARS. What is really going on within the institution that is being fought over so bitterly? Because no matter what Gwede Mantashe wants or thinks, this is increasingly looking like a fight for control and resources. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe was his usual mixture of accommodating and belligerent on Thursday, as he told the Midday Report that when it came to the SARS issue, “the sooner this dispute is over, the better for all of us”. He went on, suggesting that it would have been better for everyone if it hadn’t gone public, and that now that it has, it’s going to be harder to resolve, because politics of various kinds was going to be introduced to it.
It would appear his SACP side is showing: he would rather this all be sorted out behind closed doors, where no one can see anything, than have us all understand what has been resolved — and thus, what the dispute is really about.
In the meantime Cabinet issued its own statement, calling on all“interested parties to exercise calm and restraint, and allow space for the matters to be resolved using correct channels”. It also said Zuma is “dealing with the matter… through the correct channels using correct legal prescripts”.
It’s a strangely worded statement. First, one must consider just how awkward the meeting that led to the statement must have been. Presumably present was finance minister Pravin Gordhan himself, the President (obviously), Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko (who is clearly controlling the Hawks — more on that in a moment) and State Security Minister David Mahlobo. What must it have been like, Gordhan seated in the same room as two of the people who appear to be investigating him? And did Zuma and Gordhan have a brief moment in the tea room beforehand? If so, what did they talk about? And if not, why not?
Then there’s that odd phrase, “correct legal prescripts”. Why“correct”? What other “prescripts” could be used? Incorrect ones? And are we too cynical if we suggest that that is actually a coded warning to Gordhan? Could it be that, according to Zuma, and thus to the Cabinet, the “correct legal prescripts” mean that once an investigation by the Hawks has started, the President cannot intervene to stop it, which means Gordhan will actually have to answer the questions posed to him.
Which means SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane (who we now know laid the official complaint with the police that started this formal stage of the investigation) is able to sleep a little better knowing that this particular sword still hangs over Gordhan’s head.
What no one in the Cabinet does address, or will ever address, is under what legal authority Nhleko and Mahlobo held their unusual press conference on Wednesday, in which they set out to defend the Hawks. It may seem a small point, but we should not forget that the two almost certainly disregarded, wilfully, a Constitutional Court order by doing what they did.
It was the Helen Suzman Foundation and businessman Hugh Glenister who went to Constitution Hill to ensure that the Hawks were independent from the police. It was when the Scorpions were disbanded that they looked at the legislation creating the Hawks, and asked the judges to make sure the head of the Hawks was sufficiently protected from the Executive. The judges obliged.
In this case, the Executive means the Minister of Police, Nhleko. And yet, there he was, resplendent in his opera-loving glory, speaking about the operational reasons behind an investigation conducted by the Hawks.
Considering the outcry over the Omar al-Bashir case, it seems hard to understand why there has been no huge reaction to this simple fact (perhaps it requires someone to launch a contempt of court motion back in Braamfontein).
In the middle of all of this is the question of why all of this is happening. What is the real driving force, what is being fought over, and why is it so valuable?
We have several clues getting us closer to answering. One major piece of information was provided by Max du Preez. Writing on News24 this week he suggested that a dossier exists in SARS that spells out how people linked to Zuma are benefiting from foreign bank accounts. He claims it was the SARS unit Gordhan helped create that drafted this dossier.
What may bolster his argument is that one of the people he believes is being protected from SARS is the Durban businessman Thoshan Panday, the subject of an investigation by former KwaZulu-Natal Hawks head Johan Booysen. Booysen was then suspended and charged by Deputy National Prosecuting Authority Head, Advocate Nomgcobo Jiba. Those charges were thrown out. And then, amazingly, the same charges were reinstated. This suggests Jiba is protecting Panday. Which could in turn suggest it is Zuma who is protecting Panday, and thus explain to an extent what is happening at SARS.
However, there is another question which has not been answered, which could lift much of the cloud hanging over this sorry mess.
This week SARS defended in strong terms the restructuring of the organisation currently under way. It went as far as to say “the notion that Commissioner Moyane has used the implementation of the current operating model for other motives other than enhancing SARS effectiveness and efficiency is rather unfortunate and a deliberate attempt to discredit SARS and its Commissioner”. It is a response to the narrative that Moyane is deliberately weakening SARS, to make it easier for the rich and politically-connected to evade tax.
And Moyane feels strongly enough about this to continue to press ahead with the restructuring, despite the instruction from Gordhan for him to stop. The important question here is not whether Gordhan has the legal authority to stop him, or even if Moyane is right to go ahead.
The question is this: why is it so pressing that the restructuring go ahead now? Why is Moyane creating all of this discord, to what end is it that he goes ahead despite this conflict?
There is nothing we can see that justifies this pressing need to go ahead with something as complex, difficult and expensive as a restructuring. It’s hard to see what can be “urgent” about a process like this. If it were to be put on pause for a month, we would not suddenly be kicked into junk status, the sun would not suddenly rise in the west. So why then go ahead, despite all the difficulty it must be creating for Moyane?
To answer that, we should ask our usual question: who benefits?DM
Photo: SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (GCIS, Sapa)