Hlengani Mathebula, SARS Chief Officer for Governance, International Relations Strategy and Communications testifying at the Nugent Commission of Inquiry in Pretoria. Photo: Jonisayi Maromo / ANA

PRETORIA – A senior official of the SA Revenue Service (Sars) on Friday testified that he had been told to leave the revenue authority, or face death.

"The past 33 months have been the most difficult for me, personally. Maintaining my personal integrity and attempting to carry out my responsibilities with care, due diligence came at a very high cost," Hlengani Mathebula, Sars' chief governance officer who was previously responsible for enforcement said.

"The environment did not provide for sufficient space and support for one to effectively and sufficiently operate. The huge amount of interference compromised optimal performance." 

Mathebula told the Nugent Commission of Inquiry – tasked with probing tax administration and governance at the Sars – how he had received death threats, and was accosted by people in a car with blue lights.

He narrated how suspended Commissioner Tom Moyane would "constantly walk to my [personal assistant] PA to ask her to explain to him my whereabouts, but he would not ask me". 

Mathebula said Moyane would take exception of his travel, despite the fact that his travels were approved by the same commissioner.

"I would like to have this on record ... an SMS [from an unidentified person] said 'stop your sh*t or you are dead. Or leave Sars.' If anything happens to me, I want to make sure this commission knows. One day I was leaving this office very late, and I got flagged down by a blue light car. I stopped because I thought it was police. Two gentlemen alighted from the car, pointed a gun to my head and told me to leave this organisation," said Mathebula.

Earlier, Mathebula was quizzed by the commission's evidence leader Advocate Carol Steinberg, regarding a September 2016 memorandum, which he signed, moving towards the formation of an internal "tactical interventions unit" whose members would be attached to the Directorate for Priority Crime Investigation (known as the Hawks) to probe corruption within the tobacco industry.

"One year ago, Sars had said that this kind of activity, and purchase this kind of [tactical] equipment is unlawful. I just don't know how the same organisation, one year later, thought it was not unlawful," said Steinberg. 

"The equipment to be purchased is two pool vehicles, the costs of the task team members, a boardroom to be used until a safe house has been identified for the team members. You will recall that the so-called rogue unit was said to be rogue, because of secrecy, intelligence activities etc," said Steinberg.

"This was setting up the kind of intelligence unit that Sars had said a year before was unlawful."

Mathebula said the mention of a safehouse was "simply an oversight" on his part.

"That team had to operate permanently from a Sars boardroom. The part of the safehouse was an oversight on my part. This memo had been doing a toing and froing between myself and the commissioner and myself because in the initial memo there were a lot of things which mirrored what I had read in the media [regarding the rogue unit] and I insisted that the memo be changed drastically to reflect that which I ended up signing," said Mathebula.

He said for weeks, there had been requests for his to sign that memorandum, but he felt very uncomfortable. 

Mathebula said he felt Moyane was the right person to sign. 

"One day, the commissioner came to an office next to mine and said can we walk downstairs. He requested that we leave our phones, and I walked down with him. We sat in my car, and the commissioner called me by my clan name and said please sign that memo. I said but why, and he said just sign. I said I was uncomfortable, then he related a story to me. He said he had been with those people and they had said to him 'tell your kin we know where he stays, we know where he comes from, the school he went to'. That sent a chill down my spine," Mathebula testified.

"It appeared a very ominous threat, and that may explain the oversight that I later had on the matter. Subsequent to that conversation [with Moyane] I then signed the memo."

Mathebula said he was "under duress" to sign the memorandum.

President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed retired judge Robert Nugent in June, to chair the commission to probe allegations of financial misconduct at SARS, including a shortfall of R50 billion between 2014 and 2018 under Moyane.

Ramaphosa suspended Moyane following a breakdown of trust in his running of the vital organisation. 

The inquiry will continue mid-October.

– African News Agency (ANA)