Shortly after Tom Moyane completed the purge of SARS' top management in January 2015, Adrian Lackay, the tax man’s veteran spokesperson and a consummate professional, went to Moyane’s new office suite.
He had been battling to get an audience with the relatively new commissioner since Moyane assumed office in September 2014 and after a series of bombshell "rogue unit" reports started appearing in the Sunday Times. Lackay, who as SARS’ senior communicator used to have ready access to both the commissioner and his deputy, had been frozen out and Moyane seemed unfazed about the catastrophic narrative that had taken root in the public domain.
Moyane it seems was content to have the Sunday Times publish smear after smear without having any inclination to counter it. After making his way through security and past Moyane's aides – the new commissioner had moved to a secure new office in a different building after being appointed – Lackay confronted his new boss. What is the plan? What do you want to do about this? Why are you here? he demanded to know. After exchanging words Moyane threw his hands up in the air and said: "I want to clear the air!"
The implication was clear: Moyane was there to clean up.
SARS was established in 1997 when the former departments of inland revenue and customs and excise merged. According to Trevor Manuel the fledgling democracy not only had to stabilise its internal and external debt and expenditure levels but had to ensure that the new government had enough revenue to ensure its independence from expensive loans and imposed structural adjustment programmes, the bane of post-liberation African states.
Between 1997 and 2009 SARS, under the leadership of Pravin Gordhan, established itself as one of the foremost revenue services in the world, embracing technology and an approach centred around the taxpayer as valuable customer. It became the subject of many an academic study and was lauded the world over as efficient, transparent and modern.
When Gordhan moved on National Treasury he left behind a jewel in the state’s crown, and even though there were bumps along the road, including the ignominious end of Oupa Magashule’s tenure as commissioner, SARS regularly overshot revenue predictions. Government even ran a budget surplus which enabled South Africa to largely weather the shock of the financial meltdown of 2008.
But SARS, different from other state institutions and managed along professional and corporate lines, made powerful enemies in its relentless and ruthless pursuit of tax dodgers and smugglers. It first confronted Jacob Zuma before the ANC’s decisive national conference at Polokwane in 2007 when the then-deputy president of the ANC struck a deal to regularise his tax affairs. He owed hundreds of thousands of rand in unpaid taxes.
SARS started sailing too close to the wind when it started clamping down on various associates of Zuma, who in 2009 was elected president. His family was involved in the illicit cigarette trade, while the illegal dealings of friends and associates also came under scrutiny from SARS and its specialised investigation and forensic units. By 2014 SARS had extensive information about illicit and illegal operations ran by many in or related to Zuma’s inner circle.
Moyane, who seemed to have fallen out of favour and having retired as commissioner of correctional services, was suddenly brought in. He had no experience in tax affairs and no financial background. But he was close to Zuma in exile in Mozambique and regarded Zuma’s first wife, Kate, as his sister.
His impact on SARS was destructive. Within the first four months of his tenure he suspended or replaced the whole of SARS’ top structure, commissioned organisational reviews and instituted bogus investigations into the so-called “rogue unit”, the Sunday Times’ grand project. Within ten months many of SARS’ most experienced and respected executives had left the organisation and its institutional memory had been gutted.
By January 2017 more than 45 chief officers or executives had left, and by 2018 hundreds of senior officials had gone. SARS’ information technology was left to stagnate, it started missing revenue targets, specialist investigation units were disbanded, innovations like the Large Business Centre was shuttered and millions paid to predatory consulting firms like Bain & Company to further weaken the revenue service.
Like the disembowelling of the NPA and the Hawks, SARS had to be similarly contained to ensure that the Zuma state capture project could flourish. Moyane carried out his mission with aplomb and leaves behind a broken and frightened organisation in disarray.
His dismissal is long overdue and well-deserved.
* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER