Sars’ spy gear is in the basement

Pravin Gordhan
Pravin Gordhan

High-end spying equipment – which includes audio and video recorders and tracking devices – was heavily guarded and kept under lock and key in the basement of one of the offices of the SA Revenue Service (Sars) in Tshwane.

City Press understands that a confidential State Security Agency (SSA) report – dated May 2015 and signed off by the then acting head of its domestic branch – found that “Sars possesses some of the latest technical surveillance countermeasures equipment, both offensive and defensive”.

The SSA’s findings came after the agency conducted an inspection at the Sars offices.

City Press has been reliably informed that the report also contains 31 photographs of the alleged equipment, with some recognisable as audio and video recording devices.

The report appears to mirror the exact words contained in an extract of Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s probe into the Sars investigative unit, which she found to have been unlawful.

Mkhwebane wrote: “The equipment was kept at Sars’ premises and was the latest technical surveillance countermeasures equipment that could be utilised for video and audio recording, as well as the tracking devices.”

Sars neither confirmed nor denied claims of the existence of the spying equipment at its office park, only saying on Friday that new Sars head Edward Kieswetter had “requested an asset register to ensure that all Sars assets are accounted for and properly and lawfully utilised”.

Sars also warned that “news should be obtained legally, honestly and fairly, unless public interest dictates otherwise”.

The National Prosecuting Agency (NPA) was also unable to confirm whether the gadgets found by the SSA formed part of the evidence in the Project Sunday Evenings case, which centres on alleged surveillance, and requested more time to clarify this.

The spying equipment forms a core part of the claims that the Sars investigative unit – although initially formed with noble intentions to nail tax evaders – ventured into unlawful surveillance on other state institutions, such as the disbanded Scorpions as well as politicians.

The state intelligence’s inspection report also appears to fly in the face of a court application, lodged last week by Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, to review and set aside Mkhwebane’s report.

Stating that “no evidence of such equipment or such unlawful procurement” exists, Gordhan added in his application that Mkhwebane “does not suggest, however, that I was in any way complicit in the alleged unlawful procurement and she does not propose any adverse finding against me in that regard”.

Mkhwebane said last Friday that the revenue collector had failed to provide her office with all records relating to the purchase of equipment used by the investigative unit.

However, Sars said on Friday that it “has cooperated fully with the Office of the Public Protector and has provided all information requested”.

Sars spokesperson Siphithi Sibeko said: “Sars has, and will, continue to cooperate with all relevant government agencies, including the NPA and the SSA, within the framework of the law.”

Mkhwebane’s remedial action included that the SSA retrieve the equipment from Sars, but on Friday the agency declined to comment, merely saying: “We have not yet responded to the Public Protector and therefore are not in a position to discuss or comment on the matter with the media.”

The High Risk Investigations Unit – which has been referred to as the rogue unit – is also the subject of an ongoing case before the Pretoria High Court related to allegations of spying which took place in the offices of the now-defunct Scorpions.

Members of the Sars unit are alleged to have conducted a spy operation that saw the planting of surveillance equipment inside the offices of the NPA.

Business Day reported on Friday that the national director of public prosecutions, Shamila Batohi, was set to appoint an advisory panel that would make recommendations to her office about whether to drop the charges against former Sars deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay, former investigative unit head Johann van Loggerenberg and another former official, Andries Janse van Rensburg.

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