Hawks grill SARS staff ..Matuma Letsoalo, Govan Whittles & Jessica Bezuidenhout

Senior state prosecutors from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) are involved in plea-bargain negotiations with suspended South African Revenue Service (Sars) employees in a bid to build a criminal case against Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

The Mail & Guardian has established that advocate Sello Maema was one of two prosecutors involved in the questioning of revenue service staffers Helgaard Lombard and Johan de Waal, both on suspension for their role in the alleged rogue unit, in Pretoria this week.

Sources with knowledge of this meeting said it appears to have been intended to seal the two as section 204 witnesses, possibly indemnifying them from prosecution in the quest to build a case against their former bosses, including Gordhan. Neither Lombard nor De Waal has been charged.

This revelation of a high-level, prosecution-driven investigation flies in the face of repeated claims by the NPA as well as its head, Shaun Abrahams, that it was merely “guiding” investigators in the ongoing rogue unit probe.

The controversial case, which exploded with new claims of a bid by the Hawks to arrest Gordhan last weekend, has set the country on edge amid fears of how it would affect the upcoming ratings assessment by agencies Fitch and Standard & Poor’s.

The M&G was unable to raise Lombard or De Waal for comment, but their legal representative said he was still consulting with his clients on this matter and would not comment on anything relating to their case.

Hawks spokesperson Brigadier Hangwani Mulaudzi declined to answer detailed questions about why the two prosecutors were involved in the reported interrogation of De Waal and Lombard.

“Our stance has not changed; we do not investigate through the media. No further inquiries will be entertained on this matter.”

A senior NPA source said it was “interesting” and certainly “unusual” that prosecutors were involved at this stage of the investigation into the so-called rogue unit.

“It is not normal for prosecutors to interview witnesses before there is a decision to prosecute,” the NPA source said. Officials were quick to dismiss the alleged plan to arrest Gordhan, whom they had previously pressed for a response to 27 questions about the unit set up during his tenure as Sars commissioner.

In an apparent cry for help, Gordhan released a public statement this week, saying reports about his arrest, “imminent or not”, had been distressing for him and his family.

He urged South Africans to protect the integrity of the treasury. “I cannot believe that I’m being investigated and could possibly be charged for something I am innocent of. Throughout my 45 years of activism, I have worked for the advancement of the ANC, our Constitution and our democratic government,” Gordhan said.

Johann van Loggerenberg, the former head of the unit in question, said he has had no meaningful response about the case from investigators, despite his lawyers repeatedly indicating his willingness to help with the investigation. 

Asked whether, during his time in charge, the unit had ever reported directly to Gordhan in his capacity as Sars commissioner, Van Loggerenberg said: “Never.” Often referred to as the “rogue unit”, the revenue service’s National Research Group was set up in 2007.

It was initially headed by former Sars deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay and later by Van Loggerenberg. Van Loggerenberg said he was convinced that “certain people” had their own motives to discredit him, Sars and the unit. “The notion that the unit conducted espionage is nonsense.  I have no doubt that if the Hawks and NPA are investigating the matter, something I am not sure of, and if they do so properly and with absolute bona fides, the truth will eventually surface.”

He directed all further enquiries to Sars, the Hawks and the NPA. The NPA did not respond to detailed questions about the presence of its prosecutors during the meeting with De Waal and Lombard.

Said spokesperson Luvuyo Mfaku: “The so-called Sars rogue unit matter is investigated by the DPCI [Directorate for Priority Crime Investigations — also known as the Hawks]. The NPA cannot comment on issues relating to investigations.”

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

Jessica Bezuidenhout
Jessica Bezuidenhout joined the Mail & Guardian as an investigative reporter in March 2016 after 20 years at the Sunday Times working on news and investigations. She has been the joint winner of several local and international journalism awards, including Nat Nakasa, Mondi, Vodacom regional journalist of the year and Misa, and runner-up for the 2003 Natali Prize.

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