Inside Parliament: The reek of a political rat infects SARS

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Donwald Pressly

It has been a standing joke between us at Parliament. Whenever I saw Adrian Lackay, who until very recently was spokesperson for the South African Revenue Service, I would ask: “How is the government lackey?” Lackay, a former colleague in the Parliamentary Press Gallery, always diplomatically ignored my silliness.

He had the job for a jolly long time - going back to the good old days when Pravin Gordhan was Commissioner of SARS. That was before Gordhan became Finance Minister and then Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs. Lackay ably served several commissioners, some of them good and some of not so good, and – unlike a host of other government spokesperson – always answered his phone. On top of it he was informed of his “beat” and provided ready answers. He was truly a professional.

Although he was based in Pretoria, members of the press gallery saw Lackay at the main Budget when the Commissioner was at the side of the Finance Minister as well as at the medium-term budget policy statement.  After many years at SARS, I used to ask Lackay as he arrived for his bi-annual visit to the parliamentary press gallery offices: “Are you STILL at SARS?”  I thought he would never leave, and rather hoped that he would not. (I think he used to mutter something about: “Are you STILL alive?”).

The other day for Fin24 I was pursuing comment from SARS. This time I couldn’t get hold of Lackay. No response for two days. I eventually turned to the other spokesperson, who fortunately proved equally efficient. I hadn’t realised at the time that he had resigned suddenly. His message – after a little delay – was: “I am no longer with SARS.”

Now it has emerged that Lackay has resigned on a matter of principle which has a lot to do with the new Commissioner Tom Moyane. BDLive reported that Lackay had claimed that the current commissioner had forced him to issue public statements containing “false and incorrect” information. It is related to the slew of top officials who have found themselves suspended or have been forced to quit since Moyane’s arrival. The undercurrent of the SARS controversy is that Moyane is doing President Jacob Zuma’s bidding. There appears to be growing evidence of this.

Lackey, who resigned after 11 years at SARS last month, wrote a letter to the finance standing and intelligence standing committees of Parliament saying it had become “untenable for me to associate myself with the on-going matters at SARS”. He claimed that SARS officials who did not advance a “false” narrative promoted by Moyane were muzzled and bullied “threatened, suspended and their tenure at SARS made unbearable”. Lackay is arguing that he has been constructively dismissed.

A slew of officials including former acting Commissioner Ivan Pillay have been suspended, or have resigned, for running a rogue and unlawful investigative unit. It is said that it investigated President Jacob Zuma, his Nkandla homestead and the president's tax affairs using illegal spy equipment. Business Day reported Lackay as arguing that the unit – one of three at various stages – were legal entities. There work was, however, kept discreet to ensure operational security, he said. The “dashboards” of each unit in SARS displayed their investigations including data-mining, “discreet investigation” and elements of surveillance, he reported.

Another controversy at SARS which has a strong intersection with politics, is the service pursuing Economic Freedom Fighters’ leader Julius Malema. It has the potential of throwing him into jail. He could lose his seat in Parliament if he doesn’t find the money and rob him of that political platform. The Sunday Times reported that SARS accused Malema of lying about his source of income and hit him with an additional R14m tax bill. A deal in which Malema was only required to pay R7m is now out the window. According to papers filed in the North Gauteng High Court (Pretoria) by SARS, Malema lied about the source of the funds use to settle part of his tax bill. This apparently relates to funds provided by a generous donor.

The jury is very much out about whether Malema is an honest man, but it does appear that SARS is being used for political purposes. Why suddenly have the rules changed around the millions of rand that he owes the taxman? No doubt, the court will determine who is in the right.

In March, finance standing committee chairperson Yunus Carrim invited Moyane to brief it on the “Sikhakhane” report on the “rogue” unit within the service. Moyane insisted that the officials who had been suspended and who had resigned would have no impact on the good standing of the service. He said only that the unit was never formalised. He suggested the unit was operated in a covert manner “and created a climate of fear and subterfuge within SARS". A copy of the report was not handed to MPs. Carrim explained that the report would be discussed with the joint standing committee on intelligence before being released.

There is the strong reek of a political rat infecting the workings of SARS.

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