SARS 'rogue unit', Gordhan and Manuel: 'Project Sunday Evenings' explained

2017-08-31 18:31
Former minister of finance Pravin Gordhan (Netwerk24)

Former minister of finance Pravin Gordhan (Netwerk24)

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Johannesburg - The Hawks’ investigation into former finance minister Pravin Gordhan’s alleged role in the so-called “rogue” intelligence unit at the South African Revenue Service (SARS) appears to be centred around an allegedly illicit spying operation called “Project Sunday Evenings”.

But what does “Project Sunday Evenings” entail, and who are the main characters in this complex web of allegations and counter-allegations?

Starting in late 2014, The Sunday Times newspaper ran a series of investigative reports over the course of more than a year that detailed the existence of a so-called “rogue” intelligence gathering unit that operated from the shadows somewhere inside SARS.

Some of these reports focused on “Project Sunday Evenings”, an alleged rogue spy operation that supposedly saw members of the SARS “rogue unit” plant surveillance equipment inside the offices of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in Pretoria.

The alleged bugging occurred in 2007, according to the newspaper, and was allegedly sanctioned by then SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay.

Also read: First it was Pravin, now the Hawks gun for Jonas

“Project Sunday Evenings” was supposedly carried out by Andries “Skollie” Janse van Rensburg, a former intelligence operative who first headed the SARS unit that would later be accused of executing “rogue” projects.

The newspaper reported that the unit’s motive for spying on the NPA was to keep tabs on the progress with the prosecution of disgraced former police commissioner Jackie Selebi, who was later found guilty on charges of corruption relating to payments he’d received from convicted drug dealer Glenn Agliotti.

Other theories for the motive behind the alleged spying includes that the SARS unit wanted information on investigations by the NPA and the now-disbanded Scorpions into Jacob Zuma, while Zuma was still deputy president.  

Even former NPA prosecutor Gerrie Nel was implicated in the “Project Sunday Evenings” narrative when it was reported that it was Nel who had contracted one of the “rogue unit” members to install spy equipment in the NPA’s Pretoria offices.

'Gordhan had nothing to do with unit'

The Hawks now appear to be focusing on this alleged bugging in their ongoing investigation of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan, who was SARS commissioner at the time of the establishment of the so-called “rogue unit”. Trevor Manuel, who gave the go-ahead for the establishment of the unit as the then-finance minister, has reportedly also been asked to provide the Hawks with an affidavit on the matter. 

But the broader “rogue unit” narrative, including the “Project Sunday Evenings”, has been branded as a smear campaign that had the intention of discrediting and ultimately getting rid of the High Risk Investigations Unit. This unit was set up inside SARS to investigate high-profile tax offenders, and it was this very unit that would later be accused of having conducted “rogue” operations such as “Project Sunday Evenings”.

According to some commentators on the developments at SARS, the High-Risk Investigation Unit had increasingly started to make inroads into tax investigations that involved the financial affairs of prominent politicians and politically-connected business people before it was disbanded. 

Questions have also been asked around why the Hawks are choosing to target Gordhan over the matter, seeing as he apparently had no direct insight into the unit’s workings.

“. . . Other than recommending the establishment of the unit . . . Gordhan never had anything to do with the unit in any manner or form. He didn’t meet the officials, he didn’t directly task the unit and he certainly never received any reports from them. This is not how SARS worked and I would know this better than anybody else, because I managed the unit and its work,” writes former SARS official Johann van Loggerenberg in his book Rogue: The Inside Story of SARS’s Elite Crime-Busting Unit (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2016).

Also read: Former SARS spokesperson was never identified as a ‘problem’, CCMA hears

Unbearable

Van Loggerenberg, who succeeded “Skollie” Van Rensburg as the unit’s leader only after the alleged bugging of the NPA’s offices in 2007, was among a group of SARS officials that left the taxman in the wake of the “rogue unit” reports. He later successfully challenged the veracity and accuracy of The Sunday Times’s SARS reports at the Press Ombudsman. The Ombudsman ordered the newspaper to apologise to Van Loggerenberg for reporting on the “rogue unit” without being able to verify some of the most prominent allegations around the unit’s “rogue” activities.

To date, there has been no proof that any of the allegations against the High Risk Investigations Unit  - such as the bugging of Zuma, that interception equipment was bought and used to spy on politicians, and that they ran a brothel - was true.  

In a submission to Parliament in March 2015 former SARS spokesperson Adrian Lackay said the so-called rogue unit was a formal unit within SARS which was set up, managed and functioned in a manner no different from any other unit. The only difference was that members were allowed to work from home and their activities were kept discreet in order to ensure operational security and the safety of the officials and their families. 

The “spy” equipment, equipment which is commercially available, was acquired by a totally different unit, which was tasked to investigate internal corruption, Lackay maintained. 

Read more here: Intelligence committee to deal with letter about SARS 'crisis'

Lackay also told Parliament that anyone within SARS who tried to counteract the narrative of the rogue unit were “muzzled, bullied, threatened, suspended, and their tenure at SARS made unbearable”. 

It appears that this culture within SARS has continued until today. 

The original “rogue unit” charges against Gordhan were laid by commissioner Tom Moyane, a man close to Zuma. Moyane took the reins at SARS after then acting commissioner Pillay left the tax collector in the middle of the “rogue unit” debacle.

Moyane and Gordhan are known not to see eye to eye. In February, the icy relationship between the two men emerged in 16 private letters published in the Mail & Guardian after Gordhan raised alarm over SARS' R30,4bn shortfall. 

Also read: Sars 'hostage victim' takes taxman to court


Read more on:    sars  |  adrian lackay  |  pravin gor­dhan  |  tom moyane

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