Politics / 22 February 2015, 06:00am / Shanti Aboobaker and Wally Mbhele
Johannesburg - It is now official. The South African Revenue Service (Sars) had a “rogue” intelligence unit that carried out surveillance of individuals and whose members disguised themselves as chauffeurs in meeting certain political figures.
Advocate Muzi Sikhakhane, who was commissioned by Sars to investigate this covert operation, found that this unit printed fake Sars cards, planted bugs, traced vehicles, and operated outside the traditional Sars environment.
In his report, Sikhakhane says that through its highest office, Sars approved the creation of this unit – or group – which was known by several names, such as the Tiger Group, Special Projects Unit, the National Research Group and later the High Risk Investigation Unit.
Witnesses have told of their involvement in the electronic tracing of vehicles and surveillance of individuals.
Certain electronic devices were only “recently” returned to Sars, according to Sikhakhane.
“Some of these members had been asked to pose as drivers to political figures like Julius Malema and Fikile Mbalula.
“They had been told never to ask questions.”
Three of the witnesses said that during the operations they were asked to use fake Sars cards that bore false names.
The National Research Group, as this unit was initially called, had a budget and was initially led by an individual known as “Skollie” – Andries Janse van Rensburg.
After “Skollie” left Sars, the unit was headed by Johannes Hendrikus van Loggerenberg.
The investigation was instituted after a formal complaint was lodged against Van Loggerenberg by his former lover, lawyer Belinda Walter, following their acrimonious break-up.
The essence of Walter’s allegations was that Van Loggerenberg ran a covert unit in Sars, unlawfully revealed taxpayers’ information, was engaged in the unlawful interception of conversations, and had initiated their “romantic relationship with the sole purpose of obtaining incriminating information about her clients in the tobacco industry”.
The investigation found that Van Loggerenberg had been given “carte blanche powers” by Sars top management that “made Sars vulnerable to possible rogue and improper conduct”.
The report by Sikhakhane is scathing in its description of Van Loggerenberg.
It says he was “not necessarily a strategic thinker or senior manager… (He) tends to act as an operator rather than allowing his subordinates do the work without his interference”.
Sars management was seen by some in Sars as having been “hypnotised by Van Loggerenberg’s perceived power and charm”.
The rogue unit initially started with between 23 and 26 members.
Its operational structure was in the form of cells or sub-units where each cell was self-contained and independent of the others.
Members worked from home and were not known by the other Sars employees.
Sars found itself in the position of having a unit in its ranks that had capabilities beyond its legal mandate and which lacked the requisite legislative framework.
Also, the unit operated in isolation and outside the official premises of Sars.
The report said the investigators had encountered “rogue conduct by individuals and acts of illegality”.
It said Sars initially denied the existence of a covert unit or any section resembling such a unit.
According to the report, some people in Sars management “presented what seemed like a rehearsed narrative, whose object might have been to mislead the (Sikhakhane) panel and to present the existence of such a unit in a positive and lawful light”.
“We were later to find evidence that a unit whose features were those of a covert one, did indeed exist,” the report said.
“It was led in the main by recruits from the intelligence community whose existence was not known by the majority of Sars officials, including some in management positions.
“The evidence revealed a narrative rarely exposed to the public about our revenue service.
“It exposed minority activity (by) idiosyncratic and egocentric personalities, deception, intrigue and plain falsity… a product of an ill-conceived idea to deal with a real challenge of organised crime.”
For some time, Sars had come under political pressure to deal with organised crime in relation to its tax and customs mandate.
It responded by recruiting individuals who had the requisite intelligence background to address the concerns.
Van Loggerenberg was recruited as part of this initiative and rapidly moved up through the ranks to become a group executive in charge of projects, evidence, management and technical support.
According to Sars Deputy Commissioner Ivan Pillay, Van Loggerenberg was the revenue service’s best investigator and an asset to the organisation.
The recruitment of former intelligence officers – some of whom had worked under the apartheid regime and some under the democratic dispensation – was a “double-edged sword for Sars”, the report on the investigation said.
It afforded Sars the opportunity to make great strides in its investigations. These former operatives possessed investigative skills that Sars required to respond to the political calls for it to deal with organised crime.
However, the presence of these types of employees could have the effect of turning a civilian organ of state into a command-and-control “theatre of intrigue and subterfuge”.
With all their requisite and usually helpful skills, they could alter the nature, culture and operation of an otherwise civilian structure.
Pillay, who has been suspended, told the Sikhakhane panel how Sars sought to increase its capacity to investigate organised crime and illicit trade as well as the effect that these were having on Sars’s tax and customs mandate.
This seems to explain why then-Sars Commissioner Pravin Gordhan addressed a memorandum to then-finance minister Trevor Manuel seeking approval for funding for an intelligence capability within the National Intelligence Agency that would support Sars.
Sikhakhane says it seems from Gordhan’s memorandum that he had an undertaking from the National Intelligence Agency that it was willing to accommodate such a unit.
Negotiations between Sars and the agency did not progress to the point where the plan was put into action.
“As fate would have it, when negotiations failed, Sars had already started gathering the required personnel experienced in intelligence work and had started conducting limited intelligence work.”
The National Strategic Intelligence Act prohibits the gathering of clandestine intelligence by structures other than the SANDF, the SAPS and the State Security Agency.