Editorial: The wheel turns and cronies burn

It is becoming a classic South African cautionary tale: a top official or politician manipulates a vital state institution for the current Number One, believing he or she is untouchable. A few years later the wheel of fortune turns and the manipulator is out in the frozen wilderness.

This appears to be the fate of the former deputy commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (Sars), Ivan Pillay, forced out by followers of the same politician whose interests he allegedly served eight years ago.

Last week amaBhungane reported well-sourced claims that Pillay received transcripts of communications intercepted at the Scorpions headquarters in Pretoria in 2007, including sensitive information about the corruption probe into Jacob Zuma, and passed them on to police crime intelligence.

Later, the so-called spy tapes – the recorded conversations of senior National Prosecuting Authority officials – were leaked to Zuma’s lawyer and led to the dropping of charges.

In recent months Pillay has been at the sharp end of a determined assault by Tom Moyane, the new Sars commissioner and a perceived Zuma intimate, amid whispers that Zuma’s tax affairs had come under scrutiny. And guess what? The 2007 surveillance exercise at the Scorpions HQ is the prosecution’s Exhibit A. Pillay, who stepped down a fortnight ago after a politically brokered settlement, has declined to comment.

It is a deeply ironic development that has had numerous precedents since the days of the Thabo Mbeki presidency, when the pernicious use of government agencies for political reasons became entrenched.

An obvious instance is Bulelani Ngcuka, who, as Mbeki’s national director of public prosecutions, insulated Zuma from prosecution and was later accused of manipulating the timing of the charges against him – in both cases for political reasons. Voted 89th in the Top 100 Great South Africans in 2004, when Ngcuka stepped down as prosecutions chief, he has vanished from the political stage.

Also accused of being “part of a broader collective of Mbeki supporters who viewed the NPA as a tool to fight Mbeki’s political battles” – to quote senior NPA official Willie Hofmeyr – was former intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils, who has denied the allegation. Seeing the writing on the wall, Kasrils resigned in 2008 after Mbeki was forced out of office.

Given the faction-ridden nature of South African politics and the deep divisions in the ANC, a further turn of the wheel during the remaining three years of Zuma’s presidency is quite conceivable. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that his successor may move to purge the public service of partisan elements. Moyane and acting Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza had better beware.

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