Gordhan being hounded by a disintegrating government

Posted 23 May 2016 Written by Business Day
Category Politics

Finance minister Pravin Gordhan's "imminent" arrest for allegedly setting up a rogue investigations unit in SA Revenue Services some years ago is a symptom of the disintegration within the government. The Hawks could better use their time chasing down the R25,7bn in irregular spending reported by the auditor general in 2014, and nearly R1bn more in fruitless and wasteful spending, reports Business Day.

Only in South Africa. It’s a phrase South Africans love to use with a mixture of pathos and resignation.

Only in SA could it be at all conceivable that widely respected, formidably intelligent and unusually capable Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan could be arrested for, of all things, espionage. Yet, it turns out that the Sunday Times’s report at the weekend, suggesting Gordhan and eight other former officials of the South African Revenue Service (SARS) should be arrested was indeed a serious proposal of the Hawks unit.

All that remained was for the National Prosecuting Authority to sanction the suggestion, which thankfully, it has not done.

The Presidency on Monday quickly claimed that Gordhan’s arrest was not "imminent" as the Sunday Times had suggested — the story was the work of "dangerous information peddlers", it said. But it’s hard not to notice what the clarification did not announce: that the investigation had been scrapped.

The crucial question, of course, is whether there is, in fact, a case for the six suspects to answer to. This is a vexed issue, and almost impossible to separate from the roller-coaster politics of the day.

These charges concern the allegation that an undercover unit was set up at SARS to investigate tax dodgers.

What’s wrong with that, you might ask? What counts against the six suspects is the finding by retired Judge Frank Kroon, who announced after his report was delivered last year that the establishment of a secret unit within SARS in 2007 was unlawful. It was unlawful because SARS did not have the statutory authority to gather evidence covertly, he said.

As best as can be discerned from the various media reports, it appears what happened was linked to the battle at the time between the police and the Scorpions, the now disbanded unit of the National Prosecuting Authority. This was at the time of the investigation into former police commissioner Jackie Selebi. The Scorpions suspected they were under surveillance by crime intelligence, and consequently, installed video monitoring in their offices. An external company was contracted to install the equipment, but one of its directors was well-known to the SARS unit, and is believed to have supplied information to SARS. Information may also have been supplied, it turns out, to President Jacob Zuma’s defence team fighting corruption claims.

How much the higher echelons of SARS knew about this is unclear, but let us assume everything the unit was doing was known. Then, at the very worst, the heads of organisation spent money without statutory authority.

Yet, year in and year out, the auditor-general reports irregular expenditure in the billions. In the 2014 financial year alone, R25.7bn in irregular expenditure was recorded and R936m fruitless and wasteful expenditure. In other words, the Hawks and various other instances have spent a decade seeking a conviction in a case in which, at the very best, the result could be a very hard slap on the wrist. If the Hawks are prepared to propose the arrest of the finance minister over this issue, then the South African public can rightfully ask, what about the other R935m in irregular expenditure? Where are those charges?

This whole device smacks of the modus operandi of people in government seeking not to bring wrongdoers to justice, but to fight their political battles through the selective use of criminal charges. As Gordhan noted last night, "the malicious rumours and accusations about ‘espionage’ activities are false and manufactured for other motives".

The fact is that the government is disintegrating, which permits the unpredictable and the unfathomable. There may or may not have been a "rogue unit" in SARS. But without question, this is a rogue investigation.

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