/ 22 July 2011

Will the taxman be next in line?

South Africans can be forgiven for wanting heroes. Angry and disillusioned by the depth of corruption in state institutions (and among their private enablers) and set adrift by a president whose only interest is remaining in power, we fasten on to people who promise to sweep clean the Augean stables.

First it was arms deal investigator Willem Heath, who went on to work for the great corruptor Brett Kebble, then former public prosecutor Bulelani Ngcuka, whose crusade turned out to be motivated by factional agendas rather than love of the rule of law. Now we are pinning our hopes on Thuli Madonsela and Willie Hofmeyr, who are under sustained attack from within government and by the packs of hyenas that circle in its periphery.

Given the immaturity of our institutions it is perhaps unsurprising that we individualise these battles. How can we trust the government to investigate the looting of the fiscus by property mogul Roux Shabangu when the minister who tried to stop it was fired and the officials who warned him targeted? How can we trust the police when they are at the centre of the scandal?

It is hardly surprising under such circumstances that we turn to individuals who take a stand amid the muck.

But there are serious dangers for us if we do not emphasise the importance of the institutional architecture. Clearly, one danger is that heroes so often turn out, as Ngcuka did, to have feet of clay. We need a system in which processes are able to prevail, notwithstanding individual frailties or, indeed, strengths; a system of overlapping law enforcement and accountability bodies that are able to share the load.

One institution that has largely transcended personality is the South African Revenue Service (Sars). To be sure, it was Pravin Gordhan as receiver who came to stand for tax morality, but since he became finance minister and the lower-profile Oupa Magashula took over South Africans haven’t suddenly started believing they can get away with tax evasion. The huge machinery established by Gordhan grinds on. South Africans seem to understand that its success is central to the post-apartheid project.

No doubt that is why revelations that ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema is building a mansion with funds that he can only have acquired through some kind of commercial-political alchemy triggered public calls for a tax investigation. The political system is incapable of doing anything about Malema’s unexplained wealth and most of law enforcement is compromised, so we turn to the taxman.

No doubt the receiver finds this deeply unhelpful. If Sars is going to ask politicians and tenderpreneurs to hand over the millions they owe to the fiscus it would like to get on with the job quietly (in fact it is legally bound to be quiet). Anything that smacks of “political instruction” plays straight into the Jacob Zuma script for getting your record wiped clean.

So, expect the hyenas to turn on the revenue authorities next. Just because they are reluctant heroes doesn’t mean they aren’t fighting real villains.