Editorial: Shady exit deals taint rule of law

A cover-up for which the taxpayer will almost certainly foot the bill: that is the basic import of the settlement announced this week between the South African Revenue Service and two suspended Sars chiefs, Ivan Pillay and Peter Richer. It forms part of a disturbing pattern that marks other recent exit deals between the state and allegedly errant senior officials, notably former Hawks boss Anwa Dramat and former SAA chief executive Monwabisi Kalawe.

Allegations of conspiracy and serious misconduct fly back and forth, suspensions are countered with legal action, hints of possible criminal prosecution surface in the media – then a payout is agreed, all charges are dropped and a puzzled public is left none the wiser.

Pillay and Richer were suspended late last year by the new Sars commissioner, Tom Moyane, for their role in an internal information-gathering unit that allegedly exceeded its legal mandate. The fact that Moyane appears to be President Jacob Zuma’s crony from exile, and that Sars is allegedly probing the tax affairs of Zuma and his party, among other delicate matters, has inevitably sparked claims that the “rogue unit” is cover for factional intrigue.

Now that disciplinary charges against the two officials have been withdrawn, we will never know whether they were victims, villains or a complex hybrid. Such lingering suspicions are extremely damaging to Sars, one of the few state institutions to have retained a reputation for efficiency and integrity. The even more troubling possibility is that the public is paying handsomely to have the wool pulled over its eyes.

Reports since the mediation of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in the matter (who seems to have become involved because the offending officials have a struggle history) suggest Pillay was to be paid R6-million to walk away.

The settlement with Dramat bears the same signs of cover-up. Again, the public will never know whether the lurid allegations of his complicity in serious wrongdoing to do with illegal renditions to Zimbabwe, including kidnapping, hold water.

Once more, an embarrassing dispute with a struggle veteran is shut down at enormous cost to the public purse – the settlement reportedly includes a R3-million down payment and R60 000 a month for the next 14 years.

And, again, a vital institution – in this instance the supposed spearhead of South Africa’s battle against priority crimes such as corruption – is left under a lingering cloud of suspicion. The general effect of such tactics is to undermine government accountability and the rule of law in our democracy. If Dramat and Pillay are guilty of the serious charges used to justify their suspension, why is the case not handed to the police? If they are innocent, why has the investigative process been used to force them out?

* This comment originally appeared as an editorial in the Mail & Guardian.

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The M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane) produced this story. All views are ours. See www.amabhungane.co.za for our stories, activities and funding sources.

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