The diesel was shipped from India in September 2017.
An employee at Sars in the Durban customs centre said: “There’s a lot of work that we are dealing with to get closure on this matter.”
On Thursday, Sars confirmed the containers were indeed “missing”, and said that 10 more containers belonging to a different importer had been “released” the same way, without permission from the revenue service in September 2017.
The containers were flagged for detention after some discrepancies were noted during an inspection.
Forbru Trading (Pty) Ltd was the importer, CMA CGM Shipping Agencies the transporter, while Grindrod Intermodal was the storage facility for the “missing” shipment.
“Sars issued a detention notice in terms of the Customs and Excise Act, No 91 of 1964, to the shipping line for an inspection to be conducted on 16 containers which were declared to contain base oil. The containers were moved to a depot for a physical examination,” Sandile Memela, Sars national spokesperson, said.
“Our records show that the consignment was cleared on an incorrect tariff heading and therefore required a test to be conducted by an independent chemical laboratory in Durban.”
He said the test findings indicated the 16 containers contained diesel, and that based on these tests, Sars deemed the product to be dutiable.
Memela said in the process of handing over the containers, the Grindrod depot advised the (Sars) Durban customs office that the goods were released through an email issued by CMA.
“The release was unauthorised because there was no official lifting of the detention notice by Sars.
“The relationship between the shipping line and the depot and/or transporter is currently under investigation.
“Sars is the only law enforcement agency involved in this matter at the moment. The audit is looking at importers based in South Africa only, and not suppliers,” Memela said.
He said Sars could not comment on whether a syndicate was involved.
“Around the same time, 10 containers for another importer were detained by the Durban customs office for a similar transgression. These containers were unlawfully released from the same depot and this matter is also under investigation,” he said.
In a letter of intent to recoup debt, dated June 29 this year, and addressed to Forbru, Grindrod and CMA, which the Daily News has seen, the taxman made it clear that R4279492.75 in penalties was owed for the 16 containers.
The letter said it was discovered that at the time of importation, the goods were cleared as base oil SN300 mainly used in lubricant and lubricant additives’ production. During investigations, it was found that the goods were actually diesel, and a different tariff would have been applied.
The letter further states that the containers were released while still under Sars customs detention and it was found that CMA had issued an email to Grindrod instructing the release of the goods on behalf of Forbru, and without the required documentation.
After many attempts to get a comment from CMA, a man who identified himself as Demine said they had nothing to say on the matter at this stage.
Vadival Marlin Naidoo, the owner of Forbru, said he was distraught because he had no knowledge of the whereabouts of the containers. He said he had been trying to negotiate with Sars to release the goods.
“Before my shipment went missing, 10 containers went missing from the same depot. I’m frustrated because R4.2 million is the cost of the product, and now all is gone,” Naidoo said.
Anand Brahnbah, Grindrod national risk manager, confirmed receipt of an email from CMA to release the containers.
“We followed normal procedure and released the containers. We have dealt with Sars and we made it clear there was no reason to be suspicious of the email as it was used regularly between us and our client,” he said.