Culture of fear at SARS, with bugs and cameras everywhere, inquiry hears

Listening devices and cameras were planted all over the SARS offices in Pretoria after Tom Moyane was appointed as commissioner in 2014, the SARS commission of inquiry heard on day two of proceedings.

The first witness, Sobantu Ndlangalavu, told the inquiry that a "culture of fear" prevailed at the institution and that employees no longer felt trusted, and in turn, trusted very few.  

Ndlangalavu was asked to testify before the commission due to his extensive career at SARS. He was first appointed in 2001 as an internal communications manager. He describes this position as integral to the transformation of SARS under former commissioner Pravin Gordhan.

Thereafter he was appointed in 2008 to head up the Small Business Tax Amnesty drive, which sought to approach small black-owned businesses who were never part of the tax base during Apartheid and later, as an executive responsible for 290 staff that educated the country’s previously disadvantaged on tax and SARS.

Ndlangalavu described the mood at SARS as vibrant, excited and proud in the early days.

"I worked with Commissioners Gordhan and Oupa Magashule and Acting Commissioner Ivan Pillay. I didn’t work with Commissioner [Moyane]. But, yes things changed,” Ndlangalavu said in response to questions from evidence leader, Adv Carol Steinberg.

"An atmosphere of fear prevailed. We felt an unease of not being trusted."

'Things changed'

Ndlangalavu told of how one Monday, staff arrived at SARS head offices to find that trees had been uprooted, and no explanation was given other than that several of the trees were seen as security risks.

"A week or so later we wake up with cameras all over the campus, even on top of printing machines. We also wake up [with] devices all over the campus in the trees and the foyers that we are told are listening devices," he said.

He explained that some people began covering cameras on their laptops, as people felt they were being watched.

"There was fear, there was mistrust of certain people. Every leader has his authority, but a leader should make people feel trusted, especially people with experience in the institution. We didn’t feel trusted," he said.

Ndlangalavu agreed there were major issues with tax morality, and the public’s trust in SARS.

"To a point that I can argue, even the deficit can be partly ascribed to that taxpayers began not to trust us."

In July last year, TimesLive revealed that SARS was actively monitoring staff communication with major media houses.

The blanket monitoring included computers, cellphones and emails, SMSes and WhatsApp messages and was reportedly conducted by a specialised team within the SARS IT department.

According to the report the monitors were tasked to hunt for certain keywords in emails.

The second witness on day two was Vusi Ngqulana – the former group executive for debt collection.

His testimony dealt with the restructuring of debt collection services at SARS, from the well-established model to being split in two.

Ngqulana left SARS in January 2017.

He testified that while he could conceptualise the changes being made and the reasoning, he could not comprehend why – as it was changes aimed at the very same strategic goals SARS has always operated under.

The commission took a short break and is set to continue with evidence from SARS officials Tshebeletso Seremane, Sunita Manik and Barry Hore.

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