Sars official strong-armed into signing off covert task team ops

Under duress. So says a senior South African Revenue Services (Sars) official who signed off on some of the operations of a tobacco task team that is said to have targeted fellow employees instead of focusing on the illicit tobacco trade.

According to his testimony before the Nugent commission on Friday, Hlengani Mathebula — the chief officer for strategy and communications — said initially he had a pleasant relationship with suspended commissioner Tom Moyane. However, this soured when he refused to allow Moyane to influence suspensions and appointments, and pushed back on authorising requests to acquire intelligence equipment.

Mathebula, who joined Sars in January 2016, was asked to act as the head of enforcement in March 2016 until June 2017.

“My refusal to carry out instructions that I deemed to be against policy and my conscience was seen by the commissioner as being non-committal. As a result, I found myself having to constantly explain my commitment to serve the institution,” said Mathebula.

Evidence leader Advocate Carol Steinberg asked Mathebula why he had signed off on a request to set up intelligence gathering operations by the tobacco task team, which was headed by Yegen Mundie and Gobi Makhanya.

Mundie had made a request to Mathebula to authorise the acquisition of two pool vehicles, to ensure the identities of those involved in the task team are kept secret and to identify a safe-house from which the unit could work. According to Mundie, the set up of the unit was urgent because they had supposedly identified Sars officials who were colluding with British American Tobacco to hamper the trade of local cigarette producers.

“The so-called “rogue unit” was said to be rogue because of secrecy, intelligence activities et cetera. This suggests to me… this is setting up the kind of intelligence unit that Sars had said before was unlawful” said Steinberg, asking how Mathebula had authorised this, given that a year prior they had made the decision that this kind of activity was unlawful.

The rogue unit, formerly known as the high-risk investigations unit, was a covert unit in Sars that conducted discreet investigations into taxpayers. It was declared unlawful in a report by advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, and an advisory board led by Judge Frank Kroon and a final report by audit firm KPMG. The conclusions made in these reports were used as a means to target senior Sars officials. 

However, earlier in the day, Judge Kroon told the commission his conclusions on the status of the unit were “incorrect”.

READ MORE: Judge Kroon backtracks on ruling that ‘rogue unit’ was unlawful

Mathebula said he had asked the commissioner to sign the request instead because in the end, the task team reported to the commissioner. However, Mathebula said Moyane pleaded with him to sign it off, after alluding to the fact that Mathebula’s family would be in danger if he did not.

Mathebula said he and Moyane had been in his car when Moyane told him that he had been with “these people” and they knew where he [Mathebula] came from, where his family lived and children went to school.

“That sent a chill down my spine because it appeared as a very ominous threat and that may explain the oversight I had on the safe house. Subsequent to that conversation I then signed the memo,” said Mathebula, adding that he was under duress.

But he continued to stress that he was not aware that one of the requests was for a safe-house, saying it was an oversight on his part.

According to members of the internal fraud investigation unit who testified on Wednesday, the task team did not, in fact, investigate issues of illicit trade. Instead they targeted members of the fraud unit, who were investigating malfeasance in the illicit tobacco trade.

Mathebula distanced himself from these activities saying he had only been in charge of the unit for a short while and because of his reluctance to follow on instructions the task team was taken away from him.

Mathebula also mentioned how Moyane had called him into his office where he presented him with a list of names of people he wanted Mathebula to dismiss or suspend, because they had been linked to the so-called “rogue unit”.

He says he was not comfortable with the request and when he asked Moyane where he got the list, Moyane said it had come from chief officer Jonas Makwakwa.

The commission continues on October 15 and is due to submit its first report to President Cyril Ramaphosa at the end of this month. 

Tebogo Tshwane
Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University. 

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