Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. File picture: Siphiwe Sibeko, Reuters

Johannesburg - South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan disputed the authority of a special police unit to question him about an investigative branch in the revenue service that was established when he headed the tax body.

Gordhan won’t be able to respond to the questions sent to him by the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation, known as the Hawks, by the deadline of 4pm on Wednesday, according to a letter from his lawyers that the Treasury emailed to the media. He will respond “once he has properly examined the questions and ascertained what information” he is able to provide, the letter said.

Read: Nhleko defends Hawks' Gordhan questions

The police wrote to Gordhan to find out what he knew about the so-called “rogue unit” within the tax agency that investigated political leaders, including President Jacob Zuma, Johannesburg-based Business Day reported. The Revenue Service has suffered a spate of resignations since Commissioner Tom Moyane took office, and local newspapers reported on a range of allegations of wrongdoing by executives who served during Gordhan’s tenure as commissioner of the authority between 1999 and 2009.

Gordhan’s position

Zuma on Monday rebuffed Gordhan’s demand that Moyane be replaced after the finance minister said he showed “totally unacceptable” behaviour by defying orders to halt a management overhaul. While Zuma’s office said that Gordhan’s position isn’t under threat, it also ruled out calling off the police investigation into the covert unit.

Gordhan told lawmakers on Wednesday that the Treasury is in safe hands and denied a dispute with Zuma.

Read: Gordhan's job is safe, says Zuma

“I was appointed by the president to do a piece of work and I intend doing it,” Gordhan said in Cape Town. “All cabinet ministers and the deputy president serve at the president’s pleasure, so how do we have a war with our employer?”

Moyane made the original complaint to the police about the Sars investigative unit, Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko told reporters in Cape Town on Wednesday. He denied the investigation is part of a “political witch-hunt”.

Hawks investigation

“What the Hawks are investigating is the existence of such a rogue unit and therefore it is part of an ordinary exercise to put questions to individuals who could have been there at the time,” Nhleko said. “It doesn’t mean that those people are under investigation.”

In the lawyers’ letter, Gordhan asked whether the police unit is investigating any offense and also questioned the timing of the Hawks’ letter, which was sent to him less than a week before he presented the national budget to lawmakers on February 24.

The police unit’s letter “is an attempt by some individuals who have no interest in South Africa, its future, its economic prospects and the welfare of its people”, Gordhan said in an emailed statement on February 26. “If necessary, I will take appropriate legal action to protect myself and the National Treasury from whatever elements seeking to discredit me, the institution and its integrity.”