‘Hostage’ drama explodes desperate bid by Hawks, NPA to nail Gordhan

NEWS ANALYSIS

The prosecution of Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan is ethically dubious, a lawyer for the South African Revenue Service said in an email chain that has set off an explosive series of events in the past 10 days, including an alleged hostage drama at a Sars office in Pretoria.

The Mail & Guardian can reveal that four Hawks officials are accused of using physical force and “apartheid-style tactics” to retrieve a printout of the damning email from senior Sars employee Vlok Symington. Among them was Brigadier Nyameka Xaba, the Hawks’ lead investigator in the case against Gordhan. Symington was left with bruises on his forearms and hands from the altercation.

Dramatic video and audio recordings suggest that Sars commissioner Tom Moyane might have been consulted and updated during the alleged “hostage” situation.

The recordings were made by Symington and later handed over, with other evidence, to the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid), which is now investigating the matter.


The M&G has requested comment from all parties involved and will update this article as soon as it is received.

This bizarre incident was triggered by an email Moyane had seemingly erroneously shared last week. The chain of events kicks off with Gordhan lead prosecutor Torie Pretorius emailing Xaba, asking Xaba to obtain a statement from Symington. That happened just before 5pm on October 17. Pretorius attached a list of questions for Symington to answer. The questions relate to a legal opinion Symington wrote in 2009 addressing whether Sars was permitted to pay out former deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay’s pension fund and rehire Pillay on a contract basis.

Symington’s legal opinion stated that there was “no technicality” that prevented Sars from reappointing Pillay and that he was “entitled” to request Gordhan (minister of finance at the time, during his first round) to waive the early retirement penalty.

Charges of fraud recently brought against Gordhan, Pillay and former Sars commissioner Oupa Magashula relate to this pension payout.

The recordings capture the following events.

A few minutes after receiving the email from Pretorius, at 5.07pm, Xaba asked Sars lawyer David Maphakela to deal with the National Prosecuting Authority’s request as a “matter of urgency”. Maphakela is a partner in the Gauteng lawyers firm Mashiane Moodley and Monama Inc. It is then that Maphakela emails Moyane the following message:

“Kindly find this for your urgent attention. On ethical reasons, I cannot be involved in this one, as I hold a different view to the one pursued by the NPA and the Hawks.”

This short but powerful message, essentially suggesting that Sars’s own lawyer does not agree with the prosecution of Gordhan,Pillay and Magashula, set off the explosive chain of events.

By Moyane’s own doing, this message has now found its way into the public domain.

It seems that at some point after this exchange, Moyane handed a hard copy of Pretorius’s questions, along with the entire email trail, to senior Sars employee Kosie Louw, to whom Symington reports. Louw asked Symington to answer Pretorius’s questions.

At about 10am on Tuesday October 18, Moyane’s bodyguard and the Hawks, including Xaba, met Symington.

The meeting seems to have been congenial, with the Hawks explaining what they would need from Symington.

Serious questions should, however, be raised about why Moyane’s bodyguard, Thabo Titi, accompanied the investigators.

It becomes pertinent when Xaba, Titi and the Hawks returned at 1pm, allegedly robbed of their congeniality. Questioning Titi’s instructions and bona fides become critical when he is recorded seemingly blocking Symington from leaving the boardroom and preventing Sars security officials and Symington’s personal assistant from entering the room.

In one recording Titi can be heard on the phone consulting a person he calls “commissioner” and “sir” and then ordering Sars security to stay outside. Titi was speaking to Moyane, according to insiders.

The Hawks can be heard demanding the email and the questions.

At some point a clearly agitated and intimidated Symington pushed the record button on his phone. He can be heard repeatedly shouting that he was “being held against my will” and “I’m being held hostage”. The recording seems to have been done in secret, but at one point Symington can be heard warning Titi that he was filming them preventing him from leaving the boardroom.

Symington also made at least three phone calls – two to his personal assistant and one to 10111. Symington asked his PA to call the building’s security guards because he was being held “hostage” and “against my will”. The second time he inquired what was delaying security from responding.

Symington seemingly got no joy from 10111. The woman answering the emergency call focused on whether Symington knew the people keeping him hostage and why he was allowed to phone while he was being held. She further struggled to grasp where Symington was – in Sars’s Khanyisa building in Brooklyn, Pretoria.

From the recordings it is clear that between 10am and 1pm on October 18, the Hawks’ attention suddenly shifted from the “urgency” of Symington answering the NPA’s questions to their panicky attempts to get him to hand over the document.

Sars insiders say this shift happened after the Hawks left Symington the first time and walked across the road to Lehae la Sars, the main building and location of Moyane’s office.

Symington can also be heard in the recordings airing his surprise by the sudden ominous turn of the Hawks’ tone, stating that they had had “such a good meeting” in the morning.

Xaba was adamant about retrieving the document that contained the email trail and, crucially, the Sars lawyer’s comment to Moyane. He can be heard saying that the document had been given to Symington “by mistake”. He further explains repeatedly that if he should take Symington’s Sars ID card, with Symington’s name on it, it would be “by mistake”.

One can, however, deduce that Xaba wanted to trade the document in Symington’s possession for another copy of the NPA’s questions – the one without the offending message from the Sars lawyer.

Symington refused. During the recorded conversation it is clear that he has caught on to why Titi and the Hawks so desperately wanted the document back.

“It must be about the attachments,” he can be heard saying to Xaba, referring to the email printout.

At one stage Symington’s boss, Kosie Louw, and colleagues Eric Smith and Mark Kingon joined the unravelling meeting.

Louw asked the Hawks to leave the room to give Symington’s colleagues “five minutes” alone with him. His colleagues tried to placate Symington, seemingly to coax him into giving the document to the Hawks.

Symington did not budge.

It was at this time – about an hour after he was first mentioned being held “against my will” – that Symington lost his patience.

“The commissioner’s bodyguard is holding me hostage,” Symington shouted.

The bodyguard seemed to have retreated after this strong assertion.

And when Symington walked out the door, all hell broke loose.

In the recording shouts can clearly be heard. It is a moment described by an insider where “the Hawks pounced on him and roughed him up a bit while taking the document by force at the moment Symington exited the room”.

Symington’s repeated shouts of “he stole the document” intermingle with the soothing voices of his colleagues, saying: Vlok, kalmeer nou (Vlok, calm down now).”

The desperation displayed by the Hawks, with the seemingly tacit consent of Moyane, is the clearest show of the lengths certain powerful organs of state are willing to go to in order to prosecute Gordhan and his co-accused. It further confirms, from within the prosecutorial camp itself for the first time, what a near-universal chorus of legal experts have said – that the case against the finance minister is fatally flawed. Most worryingly, it displays the increasingly desperate measures they are willing to resortto, to execute their plan. Violence and intimidation – tactics reminiscent of the apartheid-era State of Emergency – seem to be back in vogue.

It comes on the back of a last-minute subpoena the NPA issued to the chief executive of the Government Pensions Administrations Agency, asking for documents to explain the approval of early retirement requests.

An affidavit filed by Francis Antonie, of the Helen Suzman Foundation, states that the timing of this subpoena suggests a “desperate, eleventh-hour” bid to prop up the prosecution of Gordhan, which was clearly hopeless from the start. The foundation, along with Freedom Under Law, have launched a legal challenge against the NPA over the Gordhan prosecution.

The very basis of the fraud charge against the finance minister is in his approval of Pillay’s early retirement package.

“This is information the NPA should have been gathered long before any decision to prosecute was made and the NPA’s failure to do so underlines the irrationality and unlawfulness of its decision,” the foundation said in a media statement.

“This is especially so given that the information is likely to be exculpatory.” 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Pauli van Wyk
Pauli van Wyk is a Scorpio investigative journalist. She writes about the justice cluster, state-owned companies, state politics and the inescapable collision course they're on. Pauli cut her teeth at Media24. She became a journo at Beeld, was trained by the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism and joined Mail & Guardian's investigative team before becoming a member of Scorpio.

Related stories

DA zips lip on shadowy graft case

The party has allegedly ignored reports of kickbacks and claims of sexual harassment to protect a top councillor

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft

In terms of future-telling failures, this is a Major One

Bushiri knows how to pull a crowd. Ace knows a ponzi scheme. Paddy Harper predicts that a new prophet may profit at Luthuli House

Hawks swoop down with more arrests in R1.4-billion corruption blitz

The spate of arrests for corruption continues apace in Gauteng and the Eastern Cape.

Why crooks are shivering in their boots

Ace Magashule’s anxiety has to do with the array of arrests of high-profile people facing fraud and corruption charges

Did Yster play ace in the hole?

Is the ANC secretary general a gambling man — or just stirring the pot over the ‘news’ of his arrest warrant
Advertising

Subscribers only

Covid-19 surges in the Eastern Cape

With people queuing for services, no water, lax enforcement of mask rules and plenty of partying, the virus is flourishing once again, and a quarter of the growth is in the Eastern Cape

Ace prepares ANC branches for battle

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule is ignoring party policy on corruption-charged officials and taking his battle to branch level, where his ‘slate capture’ strategy is expected to leave Ramaphosa on the ropes

More top stories

Sudan’s government gambles over fuel-subsidy cuts — and people pay...

Economists question the manner in which the transitional government partially cut fuel subsidies

Traditional healers need new spaces

Proper facilities supported by well-researched cultural principles will go a long way to improving the image and perception of the practice of traditional medicine

Did Botswana execute ‘poachers’ ?

The Botswana Defence Force’s anti-poaching unit has long been accused of a ‘shoot to kill’ policy. Over 20 years the unit has killed 30 Namibians and 22 Zimbabweans

Limpopo big-game farmer accused of constant harassment

A family’s struggle against alleged intimidation and failure to act by the authorities mirrors the daily challenges farm dwellers face
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…