Inside Moyane's communication to SARS staff

2017-03-14 07:42
SARS commissioner Tom Moyane. (File, City Press)

SARS commissioner Tom Moyane. (File, City Press)

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Johannesburg - Anyone who has been watching the recent happenings at SARS, depending on which side of the fence they are sitting, would either believe that it is an organisation under severe, unfair attack - or it is an institution mired in controversy, stumbling from one self-inflicted crisis to another.  

In the last week SARS has issued a media release saying Judge Dennis Davis is part of a "systematically orchestrated narrative that primarily seeks to decimate and undermine the leadership of SARS in order to engulf SARS into a crisis of lack of public confidence and illegitimacy".

This came after City Press reported Davis as saying that SARS was at risk of imploding and that the drop in personal income tax collections was a red flag. Davis was speaking at a media conference on tax evasion and illicit financial flows organised by the Alternative Information Development Centre.

Also read: Latest senior manager leaves SARS and SARS suspends 'last Jedi'

Two weeks before, SARS commissioner Tom Moyane said at a media conference he believed that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan was hindering his work at the revenue service, after the minister blamed SARS for a R30bn shortfall in revenue. 

Apart from the public spats, news about senior employees leaving, or being suspended and new units being formed within the institution has made recent headlines. 

These public feuds don't exactly inspire confidence in SARS, but if one wants a real look at what is happening in the institution one way to do so is to analyse the internal messages Moyane has sent out to employees in the past two and a half years.

Man on a mission

A quick glance at these "newsflashes" is all one needs to see that the problems at SARS run deep. 

The more than 20 emails and press releases which Moyane has sent out to the 14 000 SARS employees depict an organisation stumbling from one scandal to another.

By the frequency of the newsflashes Moyane appears to be a man on a mission, but unfortunately it isn't always clear what that mission is.

Often the emails appear to be an attempt by Moyane to soothe employees and keep them positive, instead, looked at as a whole they paint a picture of a revenue service in extreme crisis.

While a few of the messages discuss day-to-day operating procedures, the vast majority are attempts at defending SARS from negative media reports or contain information on the suspension of employees. 

Moyane assumed his position at SARS on September 29, 2014, and one of his first emails to staff was in December 2014. It revealed that SARS was dealing with allegations against former SARS group executive Johann van Loggerenberg and the Sikhakhane panel which was appointed by then deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay to look into them. Van Loggerenberg declined to comment.

"In the midst of the investigation, further allegations were made by the media about illegal activities of a covert unit," Moyane said.

In these first statements Moyane discusses news articles about the "rogue unit" and instead of attacking the media - as he does in later emails on different issues - or defending the accusations, Moyane points a finger at the unit and the employees involved. 

According to Van Loggerenberg in the book Rogue - The Inside Story of SARS elite crime-busting unit, he was never asked to give his side of the story on allegations about the existence of the rogue unit. 

This is in contrast to the financial irregularity scandal involving Jonas Makwakwa and Kelly-Anne Elksie which would rock the revenue service two years later. In this case Moyane gave the two time to respond to the allegations.

Based on the findings of the Sikhakhane panel, Moyane announced in the email that he was suspending Pillay and Peter Richter, the group executive of strategic planning and risk.

Year-end message

A week after this email Moyane sent out another which said that he understood what had happened at SARS and that it was unsettling for employees.

"I want to remind you that when I joined SARS I clearly stated that I will not allow any culture of flouting laws and rogue activities under my watch," Moyane said.  

"My sole purpose is to determine the veracity of the numerous disturbing allegations that have been raised in a number of media articles and to establish if indeed there was a rogue intelligence unit operating outside of the SARS mandate." 

He said he wanted to assure staff that SARS was not in a crisis.

It wasn't the most positive message to end of a year with, and the first message sent out in January 2015 wasn't exactly upbeat either.   

In this communication Moyane spoke about the challenges in the local and global economy and asked staff to remain focused. He then turned to another media report.

This was a story in the City Press which dealt with Pillay's suspension. Moyane said he was disappointed to see reports with Pillay's responses to his suspension which he said SARS did not yet have.

"Let me reiterate that the organisation takes great exception to officials using the media to fight internal disciplinary processes," Moyane said. 

Later that month Moyane said he was pleased to announce that the SARS executive committee (Exco) had been reconvened following the suspension of the committee.  

"For the immediate future, I will deal with the chief officers on a one-to-one basis when matters are urgent and decisions need to be made. I will convene Exco as and when needed," Moyane said. 

On February 4 he announced that Van Loggerenberg had resigned. 

Legislation and values

His next few emails were on an operating model review, an IT and modernisation strategy and communication and engagement. 

But in May 2015 the focus was back on the media. An email referred to a Sunday Times article about two SARS staff members having submitted affidavits to the Hawks "indicating that the alleged rogue unit within SARS bugged the offices of the National Prosecuting Authority".

"As the commissioner of SARS, I take these latest revelations very seriously. When I heard of the allegations, I was deeply shocked and very disappointed as such allegations have been previously denied by those implicated, while blaming everybody else but themselves." 

Moyane said that since his appointment he had emphasised that he wanted transparency and accountability.

"I am expecting the reports from forensic firm KPMG soon which will provide more clarification on these issues and other allegations.

"The SARS brand has been dragged through the mud by a handful of individuals who have acted outside the parameters of our legislation and values. It is very sad to hear of these obnoxious acts having been conducted allegedly by SARS officials.

"As I have stated previously, under my watch wrongdoing will be confronted and dealt with – nothing will be swept under the carpet. If the allegations being reported in the media are true, as commissioner, I will co-operate fully with any investigation undertaken by law enforcement agencies so that we can finally get to the bottom of this and other matters." 

Moyane said he expected no less than full compliance with SARS ethics, values, codes and policies. He added that those who do not abide by these codes of conduct must not consider themselves part of the institution.

Moyane called on SARS staff not to allow the actions of a few to undermine the good work they do every day. The commissioner said he was determined to run an institution that respects the rule of law. 

For the rest of the year Moyane's emails dealt with internal matters.

Improving communication

He announced the appointment of Makwakwa as the chief officer in charge of business and individual taxes (BAIT) and his New Year's message to staff focused on "the unsightly presence of racism and intolerance rearing its head once more in our national dialogue".

He also announced that the new SARS Exco had met and it would be engaging staff on:

  • Media policy - "social media and formal media conduct should only be run through formal channels. Strategy and communications will sign off on all media contact and contravention of this will be viewed as a serious offence". 
  • Dress code – "Our image should at all times convey that we earnestly embrace the trust the South African people invest in us. To that end, the Exco will be adopting a more formal dress code, with appropriate guidelines for all staff".

  • Organisational climate – "allow staff to freely express their skills and remove 'ruling by fear'. Open and create channels of communication at all levels with SARS leadership".

He also introduced a "Talk to Tom" email address which was the "new SARS leadership's" way of improving communication with employees.

Then from March 2016 Moyane's emails detailing media reports changed. Suddenly the focus shifted from the rogue unit and how he was dealing with the employees allegedly involved, to an attack on the media which was, according to him, producing "misleading" and "factually incorrect" stories. 

Many of these news reports had now started focusing on him and it appears that at around this point he starts to turn on the media. 

It was just after it emerged that Moyane opened a case with the Hawks to investigate Gordhan as well as the members of the so-called rogue unit. 

Moyane told staff: "Many of you have noticed the media reports concerning myself and SARS. I see these issues as attempts by those who do not have the best interests of SARS and the country at large to distract us from the good work we are doing."

News articles

Interestingly, when the Sunday Times ran a full page apology in April 2016 for its articles on the rogue unit and retracted what the stories said there does not appear to be any emails to staff or public statements from Moyane on this. 

In September there was another email sent out about media reports. This time they were about the alleged financial transactions into the personal banking accounts of Makwakwa and Elksie. 

Read more here: amaBhungane: Jonas Makwakwa, then SARS No 2 executive, secured a job for his girlfriend

"I would like to assure all of you that when this matter was brought to my attention, SARS took all the reasonable steps within our policies to engage with the matter. This included providing both officials with the opportunity to respond to the allegations. I believe SARS has followed the correct procedure in terms of our policies."

Moyane also announced Makwakwa's suspension. 

Fifteen days later Moyane's newsletter, titled "The good news story", again discussed news reports which he said brought into question the integrity of SARS. 

The media was reporting at the time that Moyane had apparently sat on the Makwakwa report for months without doing anything about it. There was also a Financial Mail story which said Moyane was "breaking" SARS.

Also read: SARS boss' bombshell affair ignored for more than a year

SARS issued a media release saying that Moyane appeared to be under attack from the media. 

"No previous SARS commissioner has been subjected to such an unrelenting media assault on his integrity," it said. 

Tax collection contract

To staff Moyane said it was important for him to set the record straight. 

"Let us look at the facts. Our track record over the past two years tells a different story. It tells a story of an organisation and staff that are committed and focused on achieving its mandate of collecting all revenue due to the fiscus."  

He encouraged staff to keep their chins up, to keep up their sterling work and ignore the "misrepresentation of facts by some members of the media". 

Two weeks later his newsflash dealt with a "factually inaccurate Mail & Guardian article". 

"Pursuant to previous correspondence regarding misleading media coverage, we have now noted the Mail & Guardian article, 'SARS chief Tom Moyane nephew linked to plum R220 million tax debt collection contract' which related to the appointment of Lekgotla Trifecta Consortium (LTC) following an open tender process." 

This email came from Kosie Louw, the chief officer of legal counsel, who told staff that SARS wishes to "categorically state that the report contains factual inaccuracies and untruths" and the revenue service wishes to present the correct chronology of events in a media statement. 

The statement said that when SARS received a media query on the relationship between Moyane and Nhlamulo Ndhlela (his nephew), SARS was not aware of the relationship and an investigation was instituted which revealed that LTC failed to disclose the relationship.

"SARS places on record that as a result of the deliberate non-disclosure by LTC, when the tender was awarded, its commissioner was not aware that his nephew was a shareholder in LTC." 

Avalanche of scandals

The next newsflash informed staff that SARS had instituted urgent proceedings in the High Court to terminate the contract between SARS and LTC. 

In October the newsletter dealt with a letter sent by Corruption Watch to Moyane indicating it intended laying charges against Moyane for the way he handled the Makwakwa investigation. 

During this period the National Prosecuting Authority announced it was charging Gordhan for allegedly wrongfully approving the early retirement of Pillay. 

In the middle of what by now appeared to be an avalanche of scandals, causing one crack after another in the dam wall of SARS' good image, came the Vlok Symington alleged hostage situation. 

The Mail & Guardian reported that four Hawks officials allegedly used physical force and "apartheid-style tactics" to retrieve a printout of a damning email from Symington. Among them was Brigadier Nyameka Xaba, the Hawks' lead investigator in the case against Gordhan. Symington was left with bruises on his forearms and hands from the altercation.

Having an employee allegedly held hostage after their own attorney said he did not agree with their action against Gordhan sent shock waves through South Africa. 

In the midst of this Moyane still tried to keep his employees positive about the institution. 

"Dramatic video and audio recordings suggest that SARS commissioner Tom Moyane might have been consulted and updated during the alleged 'hostage' situation," the paper wrote. 

Moyane didn't address whether or not he was involved in the situation in his newsflash. Instead, he told staff members he took the matter seriously.

Rising to the challenge

"Internally I have instituted an investigation which, among other things, will look into the circumstances around this incident including the conduct of all role players." 

It would be one month before the next media scandal - this time it was about an alleged secret unit which had been formed to investigate SARS employees in relation to the tobacco industry. News24 revealed that the unit had allegedly been tasked with conducting an undercover investigation into Gordhan and the defunct National Research Group. 

In the newsflash, titled "Remaining focused on the ultimate goal", Moyane went on another tirade against the media, calling the news reports negative, deceptive and blatantly untrue. 

"I view this barrage of negative sentiment as a deliberate attempt by some quarters to distract SARS from the good work we are doing as an organisation."   

Moyane said he wished to reiterate that the leadership of SARS did not condone corruption and the existence of the "secret unit" was merely a figment "of the imagination of those that seek to legitimise crime and corruption within our ranks". 

Also read: New 'rogue-type unit' operating at SARS

"It is a pity that these mistruths seek to undermine an already successful tax season, a continuing revenue drive and heightened enforcement activities. The reality is that thus far 2016 has seen SARS once again rise to the challenge of ensuring we meet our mandate." 

It would be three months before the question of whether or not SARS had really been able to rise to the challenge would be raised when the budget speech revealed the R30bn revenue collection shortfall. 

If his newsflashes to SARS employees in the past two years are anything to go by, many more emails will be sent out to the 14 000 email addresses on the SARS server.   

One can't help but wonder what the next topic of discussion will be.

Read more on:    sars  |  pravin gordhan  |  tom moyane  |  dennis davis  |  johannesburg

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