A huge cover-up uncovered as the SARS wars unfold

sars wars.jpg

 The unfolding witch hunt on Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has all the fingerprints of people fearful their cover-up of a group milking South Africa’s treasury might become unstuck.

At the core of the witch hunt is the protection of a group or network of beneficiaries closely associated with President Jacob Zuma, to the ultimate detriment of the South African economy and its people.  

Why is Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, the man who successfully did damage control after President Zuma’s December blunder of ‘musical chairs’ at the finance ministery, targeted and hunted by the South African Police Service’s Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (Hawks)?

Why did he have to warn that he might need to take legal action to protect himself and the Treasury from “whatever elements seeking to discredit me, the institution and its integrity”?

Why is the finance minister still in the crosshairs at a time when he should be concentrating fully on preventing the country from being downgraded to investment junk status?

Witch hunt

The basis of the attack on him is a so-called covert intelligence gathering or ‘rogue unit’ in SARS– a unit officially known as the National Research Group, established during his tenure as SARS commissioner in 2007 – allegedly in partnership with the National Intelligence Agency (NIA). Its mission was to address the illicit economy.

Since then ‘revelations’ in the media have painted a picture of a den of nefarious and ‘unlawful’ activities that would make James Bond blush. And senior officials, including Gordhan, involved with it, have become targets for investigation.

To date no fewer than six investigations into the ‘rogue unit’ have been conducted, with five completed. But there is still no clarity on what law was broken and who exactly should be held responsible.

The Hawks were entrusted to take over the investigation and immediately caused controversy by slapping Minister Gordhan with a set of 27 questions. 

The tone of the questions would have done the Spanish Inquisition proud. Minister Gordhan responded with a claim that the investigation was meant to intimidate and distract him from the work he had to do as finance minister. “There is a group of people that are not interested in the economic stability of this country and the welfare of its people. It seems they are interested in disrupting institutions and destroying reputations,” he said.

The timing of the letter, coming only four days before he had to deliver the most important budget in democratic South Africa’s history, remains a puzzle. As it now stands, the role and motive of the Hawks are suspect.

In the words of one commentator: “Firing off a letter that is then leaked to the press on the eve of the Budget just does not look like proper law enforcement.”

Clearly the intent was to unsettle Minister Gordhan, as his attorney alleged in a letter to the Hawks: “You are aware of the national importance of the budget speech, and that he was not able to permit any distractions to jeopardise the budget processes.”

The reply of Police Minister Nhleko on the timing of the questions speaks volumes of his blissful ignorance. He said if police officers started concerning themselves with the political timing of their investigations, “we (as a country) are heading for trouble”.   

This reply is as feeble and unconvincing as his disastrous attempt some time ago to try and sell the so-called security upgrades at Nkandla.

It is also in complete contrast to the interpretation of constitutional law expert prof. Pierre de Vos who wrote that there is no legal basis for the Hawks to investigate whether the SARS unit was legally established or not.

This is because the Hawks can only investigate criminal offences, notably priority crimes.

Most of the questions sent to Minister Gordhan by the Hawks relate to the establishment of the ‘rogue spy unit’, which suggests the Hawks are investigating something that does not constitute a crime, according to prof. De Vos.

Then, why are the Hawks investigating something they are not legally authorised to investigate?

Crux of the matter

The answer to this question was revealed by seasoned political journalist Max du Preez.

He wrote: “One of the keys, perhaps the main key, to the SARS hostility towards finance minister Pravin Gordhan is a dossier in the safe at SARS headquarters containing dynamite allegations of corruption, fraud, front companies and foreign bank accounts against prominent benefactors of President Jacob Zuma.

“Several billions of rands are at stake and Zuma would be extremely embarrassed if the alleged dossier were to be acted upon. It could well open him up to prosecution himself and/or to a massive income tax bill – at least for evading donations tax,” Du Preez wrote.

Crucially, the investigations that uncovered the information contained in this dossier were conducted by none other than the alleged rogue unit established during Gordhan’s stewardship at SARS.

Another well-known political commentator, Steven Friedman, took a similar line and wrote: “The SARS problem has been with us for a while. It has generated a mound of sworn statements, which have been covered in media reports. They tell of an attack on SARS aimed at protecting illegal cigarette smugglers, some of whom were also agents of national intelligence.”

Victim of its own success

It appears as if the so-called rogue unit at SARS had become a victim of its own success.

Complementary to the secret dossier, the unit can count among its successes, the following, revealed in public by Minister Gordhan:

  • Tobacco seizures of more than R2 billion;
  • Drug seizures of more than R5 million;
  • Outstanding customs duties of more than R500 million recovered;
  • Assistance with raising tax assessments of more than R200 million against defaulting taxpayers; and
  • Assistance with the preservation of assets of more than R100 million.

Another cover-up

Against this background the pursuit of Minister Gordhan by the Hawks starts looking like yet another cover-up of epic proportions.

It has become a tried and tested policy of President Zuma and his cronies to misuse the security establishment, which he has stacked with close and trusted comrades.

Friedman referred to this when he recently wrote in Business Day: “If we want to understand the battle between SARS and the Treasury, we need to take more seriously the public role of the security cluster. Come to think of it, doing this would also help us understand our public life better.”

It is therefore not implausible that the intervention by the Hawks is nothing but the desperate move of a man who feels his day in court, he so wished for, is getting closer much faster than he anticipated,

The Hawks are extremely useful for doing a hatchet job. Conceived under dubious circumstances to replace the Scorpions they do not only have a credibility problem, but also a chequered scorecard as a crime-fighting unit.

Too often the Hawks are ordered to conduct tasks with political undertones. Friedman concludes that the Hawks are just the kind of unit that might be willing to help out the shadowy alliance, including those identified in the dossier in the SARS safe, which might be acted on now that Gordhan is back at Treasury.

The involvement of the ministers of police and of state security, two of President Zuma’s most loyal gatekeepers, gives so much more credibility to the cover-up scenario.

It is even alleged that the minister of state security had personally involved himself in the engineering of the attempt to plot the downfall of Minister Gordhan so as to safeguard the dossier compiled by the scapegoated unit.

Should the eventual outcome of this saga in any way be linked to the possible downgrading of South Africa to junk status or the further backsliding of the South African economy, the charging of those responsible for deliberately sabotaging the South African economy, would seem to be in order.

                                                                                                                                                                by Sniffer Dog*

 * This analysis was provided by someone with an intimate knowledge and experience of the inner workings of the state security structures. For his protection we called him Sniffer Dog.

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