Analysis

The Curious Case Of the SARS Surveillance Equipment

By Pinky Khoabane

DID the South African Revenue Services (Sars) operate an intelligence unit? Was it illegal and unlawful? In trying to get to the answers, one of the issues – and there are many – was whether the unit had equipment, how it was procured, what nature it was and where it was stored. The Public Protector, who was investigating a complaint on the unit, lodged by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), said among others, that former SARS employees had been unhelpful, refusing to disclose information on the equipment. Yesterday, SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter revealed that SARS is in possession of some 4,000 pieces of surveillance equipment which included “more intrusive equipment”. What does “more intrusive equipment” mean? Does it give us a clue on whether the unit crossed the line in its intelligence work?

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THE question of whether the South African Revenue Services (SARS) operated an illegal surveillance unit is one that has been raging for almost a decade since the Sunday Times ran a series of articles on a unit within SARS which it said operated illegally and unlawfully. The unit as we’ve come to know it is the Rogue Unit. 

Much has happened since the publication by the Sunday Times and the issue is now before the courts following the Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane’s findings that the unit was illegal and conducted unlawful intelligence work. Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, who was SARS Commissioner at the time, has taken the PPs findings to court for review.

The Sunday Times initially withdrew parts of the story it had run over two years, and later retracted all aspects of the story and apologised. Piet Rampedi, one of the journalists who wrote the Rogue Unit story distanced himself from the retraction even opting to resign instead. We have published a series of articles, in an effort to seek the truth about this unit – from several of the role players – operatives within the unit, SARS management implicated, the Public Protector and Gordhan’s versions. What is abundantly clear is that an intelligence unit existed and the only outstanding issue is whether it operated legally and within the law. This is a question may never be answered because despite being in front of the courts, the judiciary has been mired in accusations of bias and corruption. So pervasive have been these accusations that the Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was forced to hold a media briefing at which he among others, asked the public to provide evidence. A businessman swiftly responded by handing over a dossier which he said had names of judges who were involved in wrong-doing. He also urged the media present to take the dossier and as yet, no media reports have come of that. 

But back to the SARS Rogue Unit. One of the questions which the Public Protector viewed as “suspicious”, and this is contained in her report, is that SARS’ former and current employees “failed” to provide documents relating to the procurement of the equipment used for the intelligence unit. “It is extremely impossible that a unit carrying out investigations on behalf of SARS would not have procured equipment necessary for the fulfilment of its duties and functions….” In the report, Mkwhebane questions why the purchase of the intelligence unit equipment and its whereabouts was guarded in secrecy. She came to the conclusion that it could only be to perpetuate “the narrative that there was no such intelligence unit at SARS”. 

Given all that has happened on the rogue unit, and the above is an extremely shortened version, Commissioner Edward Kieswetter revealed in Parliament yesterday that SARS is in possession of some 4,000 pieces of surveillance equipment ranging from simple voice recorders to video cameras to “more intrusive equipment”.

Naturally, given the shenanigans surrounding the rogue unit, Kieswetter didnt volunteer this information. It was forced out of him by the Economic Freedom Fighters MP Mbuyiseni Ndlozi whose party has stood firm that SARS broke the law in setting up the unit. 

In her report, Mkhwebane has among others, instructed the return of the intelligence equipment and ordered that the State Security Agency should audit and secure it. The PPs report has been set aside pending the outcome of Gordhan’s challenge. But the question is whether this piece of evidence, forced out of Kieswetter, helps answer the question of the legality and lawfulness or otherwise, of the SARS’ intelligence unit. 

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