SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter, pictured with Finance Minister Tito Mboweni, when his appointment was announced. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Parliament - The South African Revenue Service (SARS) is in possession of some 4,000 pieces of surveillance equipment, commissioner Edward Kieswetter said on Tuesday in response to a question from the Economic Freedom Fighters.

He said this ranged from simple voice recorders to video cameras to "more intrusive equipment".

Kieswetter, who was briefing Parliament's standing committee on finance, was repeatedly pressed on the issue by EFF MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi who reiterated the party's contention that SARS in the past fell foul of the law by establishing an intelligence gathering unit without a clear legal framework.

The narrative that SARS broke the law a decade ago when it established what later become known as the "rogue intelligence unit" has been kept alive by the EFF through a formal complaint to Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane that has now ended up in court with Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan contesting her findings.

Mkhwebane found that the unit, set up 12 years ago while Gordhan was SARS commissioner, was illegal and that it had conducted unlawful intelligence work. Gordhan, in his legal challenge, submits that Mkhwebane has allowed herself to be used as a weapon in a political war, waged by among others the EFF, against the Ramaphosa administration's bid to root out corruption and restore confidence in the country.

Ndlozi said he was not contesting whether SARS had the right to gather intelligence to detect tax evasion but that any intelligence unit must be set up in terms of a particular piece of legislation.

"Otherwise you are engaging in espionage... that is what is at stake here," Ndlozi said.

He asked which law applied to SARS's intelligence gathering capacity because, he contended, the act governing the revenue service did not provide for an intelligence function.

Ndlozi became visibly irritated when Kieswetter initially answered his question as to whether SARS had acquired surveillance equipment a first time by saying even mobile phones and dictaphones fell within that definition.

Kieswetter said he had personally asked for a count of all surveillance equipment and the resulting figure was 4,000 but he stressed that the revenue service had the right to gather intelligence to detect tax risks. He likened this to criminal intelligence and said SARS did not engage in espionage.

"We are very clear that we may only act within the law. I am not aware of any incident where SARS has actively spied on a person."

African News Agency (ANA)