"In my line of work, if you know things, you reveal them, then you put your life at risk. It has been hectic," Public Protector says of Sars report.
After warnings that people had died trying to expose its operations, Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane says she is relieved that she managed to release her report into the erstwhile SA Revenue Service (Sars) investigative unit.
In a hard-hitting report released on Friday at a media briefing, Mkhwebane found that the so-called Sars intelligence unit was established in violation of South African intelligence prescripts. She laid the blame on Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in his capacity as former Sars commissioner, as well as his former deputy, Ivan Pillay.
She also found Gordhan misled Parliament when he said he had not had a meeting with the Gupta brothers. She ordered that within 30 days President Cyril Ramaphosa should institute disciplinary action against Gordhan for his violation of the Constitution and executive ethics code.
She recommended that Parliament launch a probe into the minister and that the law enforcement agencies institute a criminal investigation into him.
She said the minister of state security should ensure, also within 30 days, “that all intelligence equipment used by the Sars intelligence unit is returned, audited and placed into the custodian of the State Security Agency”.
‘I must watch what I eat’
Speaking to City Press following the release of the report, Mkhwebane said that around April this year she had received a tip-off that there could be a plot to take her out and “I must watch what I eat”.
Subsequently, one of the VIP protection services members assigned to guard her was admitted to hospital and a poisonous substance found his blood sample.
Mkhwebane did not specify who she suspected of being behind the alleged threats and poisoning.
She said there was information that two people who blew the whistle on the Sars investigative unit – derogatively referred to as the “rogue unit” – had died in mysterious circumstances. One was “gunned down” and the other died in a “manufactured car accident”, she claimed.
“In my line of work, if you know things you reveal them, then you put your life at risk. It has been hectic and I’m glad that we have finally managed to issue the report.”
Mkhwebane said other whistle-blowers, such as former Sars undercover agent Mike Peega, have been “tainted in the media – just like me with the rhino horn story”.
Peega, a former special forces soldier, was accused of being part of a rhino-poaching syndicate and was fired by Sars after internal processes. Reports have named him as the author of a dossier in which Sars targeted former president Jacob Zuma supporters and is believed to have been one of the “whistle-blowers” about the activities of the unit.
“I have been tainted every day in the media since I took this investigation. Then there were allegations that I had killed my husband and others about money laundering,” Mkhwebane said.
She said many of the witnesses who brought evidence to her office insisted they remain anonymous to “protect their lives”.
Mkhwebane mysteriously quoted a verse from The Book of Esther which said: “And so I will go to the King, which is against the law; and if I perish, I perish!”
This was interpreted as a reference to standing up to power.
She later told City Press that it was a statement of comfort after the “hectic” time she had investigating the Sars matter.
Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan and former deputy Sars commissioner Ivan Pillay wasted no time to hit back at Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane over the so-called “rogue unit” investigation.
Gordhan said in a statement through his lawyers that while respecting the Public Protector’s office, he had “serious misgivings about the incumbent, her conduct and her partiality”.
“It is apparent that the Public Protector continues to get the facts wrong, get the law wrong and is demonstrably biased,” he said.
The Constitution envisaged the office of the Public Protector to be independent, impartial, dignified and effective.
To date, in this matter, it had failed in all four respects, he said.
Pillay hit back even harder: “The findings are factually and legally flawed (and) seem to demonstrate that either no, or at best very little, investigations were conducted.”
He added that Mkhwebane may lack an understanding of Sars as an institution, as some of the findings are patently false. “It is apparent that misinformation has been provided to the Public Protector.”
Both said on Friday that once they had received a copy of the report from Mkhwebane and studied it, a court review process would be on the cards.
Police downplay poisoning
City Press learnt from police insiders that Mkhwebane’s claims sent police into a tailspin and steps were immediately taken to close ranks.
But police spokesperson Vish Naidoo said on Friday there was “no evidence” to suggest that Mkhwebane’s protector had been poisoned.
“It is prudent to mention at the onset that at no stage did any member of the VIP Protection Unit make any report of poisoning to police management. In fact, the first time such an allegation or report came to light was when the Public Protector was quoted in the media,” Naidoo said.
He said the member in question was immediately contacted following the media reports and after discussions with the member it was established that he did feel ill, suffering from abdominal pains.
“He consulted a general practitioner and the initial prognosis was that the member might have picked up a stomach bug or eaten something bad”. Naidoo said tests showed that “it was nothing more than a stomach bug or possibly food that might not have agreed with his system”.
He had not been admitted to hospital. A medical report and one from the policeman had been requested so that the investigation could be completed.
Claims of ‘rogue unit’-linked deaths
City Press established independently that the two people who had died – those whom Mkhwebane was referring to – were senior Sars managers Elias Baloyi and George Nkadimeng.
Sources said that on the day of his death Baloyi’s car had been hijacked at the Sars offices. When he arrived home in another car after the hijacking he was “sprayed with bullets in the driveway”.
Nkadimeng, a former unionist, died in 2011 in a “hijacking disguised as an accident”, according to a close associate. He had been with friends in Kempton Park on the day, after which he left for home in Springs at about 8pm. Right up until 2am, when his family got concerned, he kept telling them he would arrive in five minutes.
The tracking company later placed his daughter’s vehicle, which he was driving, in Mpumalanga. It had been hit by a truck.
Although Mkhwebane mentioned only two people, City Press heard that rising star at Sars Leonard Radebe — described as Zuma’s favourite candidate for the Sars commissioner post – also died in an alleged “mysterious car accident”.
What Mkhwebane was hiding in her report
According to a document which City Press has seen, Mkhwebane had received, as part of the evidence, the equipment allegedly procured by the investigative unit. These included vehicle trackers, cellphone jammers, covert recording equipment implanted on car keys and in pens, night vision binoculars and eavesdropping equipment.
Mkhwebane said during the media briefing that some of this equipment had been blacked out of the report due to security concerns.
She said it was concerning that Sars had failed to provide her office with the documents relating to the procurement of the equipment.
“It is extremely unlikely that a unit carrying out investigations on behalf of Sars would not procure equipment necessary for the fulfilment of its duties and functions.”
She said it was “unclear why Sars and/or its former employees would keep the procurement of equipment such a guarded secret”.
“Without proper explanation, I can only infer that the proper procurement processes were not followed.”
Mkhwebane said the failure by Sars and denial by the former officials of the existence and purchasing of the equipment by Sars was a clear indication that such equipment was used for activities falling outside the Sars investigative mandate.