POLITICS

The Latest Sars Battle Tells You Everything You Need To Know About State Capture -- And Fake News

The CCMA case for Sars' former spokesperson is proving to be incredibly revealing about the most pressing issues of the day.

23/01/2017 19:21 SAST | Updated 24/01/2017 14:45 SAST

NEWS FEATURE

Another battleground in the fight against state capture presents itself in a grey, nondescript meeting room on the 8th floor of the 28 Harrison Street Building in downtown Johannesburg.

That's where Adrian Lackay, the burly former spokesperson of the South African Revenue Service (Sars), is taking action against his previous employer for constructive dismissal during proceedings at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Sars has become a strategic battleground between those that want to exert influence over the state and those that want to prevent it. Pravin Gordhan, minister of finance and constant target of those who appear bent on looting the state, has been trying (without much luck) to reimpose himself on Sars ever since his return to office in December 2015. Lackay's challenge at the CCMA might just help us understand how state institutions are infiltrated and overrun.

That's not all this labour dispute illuminates. Another issue plaguing South Africans, that of fake news and how it is used to push certain agendas, also played a central role in Lackay's case.

By the time Lackay left Sars in March 2015, 55 senior executives, including the deputy commissioner, had departed from the revenue service in rapid succession. Almost all of them left on the back of the "rogue unit" story: a series of sensational articles about the tax body which its main proponent, the Sunday Times, eventually had to disavow.

On Monday Lackay testified he left because of "untenable" working conditions as spokesperson under Tom Moyane, who President Jacob Zuma appointed Sars commissioner in September 2014. During that period Sars came under heavy political attack, with a series of allegations around the so-called "rogue unit", pushed by the Sunday Times, establishing a narrative of illegality and impunity at the tax man.

During that period Sars came under heavy political attack, with a series of allegations around a so-called 'rogue unit', published by the Sunday Times, establishing a narrative of illegality and impunity at the tax man.

Lackay testified how Moyane prevented him from carrying out his established functions as Sars' primary communicator: "When Moyane arrived I was sidelined, cut out," he testified.

Moyane arrived just as the Sunday Times was publishing a number of front-page stories alleging the role of the illicit unit — colloquially known as the "rogue unit" but officially the national research group -– in tapping Zuma, running a brothel and generally being a law unto itself.

Lackay — having served under Pravin Gordhan and Oupa Magashula — was adamant that these allegations should be refuted by Sars, as it has done in the past with other fantastical stories of collusion and conspiracy.

"These stories created significant negative publicity for Sars, unfavourable headlines, which continues to this day," he told CCMA commissioner Joyce Nkopane.

It wasn't the first time Sars faced a smear campaign such as this, he said.

In 2008 and 2009 a dossier — Project Snowman — was distributed to the media making the same allegations: that an undercover intelligence unit within Sars was spying on politicians and running a bordello. "We had to respond to this and we did, compiling a document which refuted every allegation and briefing media houses about what we believe the motive was and who was behind it," he said.

In 2008 and 2009 a dossier — Project Snowman — was distributed to the media making the same allegations: that an undercover intelligence unit within Sars is spying on politicians and running a bordello.

Oupa Magashula, Sars commissioner at the time, and the rest of the Sars executive management team, was satisfied with the way Lackay and his colleagues dealt with the issue, Lackay said.

"The pattern with these things are always the same: an anonymous document or dossier is distributed to the media, allegations mutate and gets traction, which presents serious reputational risk to the institution ... it could cause serious damage. We then move into crisis management mode, where we refute and deny the allegations. This is done with the approval of senior management," Lackay said, explaining the modus operandi.

As head of communications, Lackay said he always had unfettered access to all information: "I had to have access without limits because I helped formulate what our responses would be should a situation such as this arise."

With Moyane's arrival however, things changed, according to Lackay.

Sars was under assault, being accused of spying on the head of state, illegally gathering intelligence and managing a ring of prostitutes –- but Lackay was prevented from pushing back. The day after the Sunday Times ran a screaming headline about the Sars brothel, Lackay emailed Moyane telling him that something had to be done to protect Sars' reputation, and that leaks to the press needed to be investigated.

Sars was under assault, being accused of spying on the head of state, illegally gathering intelligence and managing a ring of prostitutes — but Lackay was prevented from pushing back.

While Lackay was busy preparing a brief for Moyane on how to react to the Sunday Times articles, by gathering information from among others Sars' legal team and senior managers, Moyane sent an SMS to him, asking: "Why are you conspiring against the commissioner?"

Moyane suspended the whole of Sars' executive committee days later.

Lackay told the CCMA hearing on Monday it became impossible for him to do his job and because of Moyane the pervading narrative — that of a Sars unit gone rogue — was allowed to flourish and gain a foothold in the media and in people's minds.

According to Lackay there were many incidents where the Sunday Times had information before senior staff did — like the findings of the Sikhakane Panel into the "rogue unit" allegations and details of a letter former executive Johann van Loggerenberg sent only to Moyane and former deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay, Lackay said.

Lackay's testimony points in one direction: Moyane.

Lackay's testimony points in one direction: Moyane.

In a document Lackay sent to the chairpersons of parliament's joint standing committees on finance and intelligence in March 2015 — but which sank without trace — he sets out all the events in detail, and says: "I was caused by the commissioner to issue statements to the media and it became apparent to me at a later stage that these statements contained false and incorrect information."

For the first time Sars will be forced to explain why it reacted so reticently in defending its own people and its hard-won reputation against stories which the Sunday Times eventually had to retract and from an onslaught which clearly sought to cripple one of democratic South Africa's most respected institutions.

The "rogue unit", which netted millions in lost revenue for the state, has since been disbanded, the exodus in staff continues and Moyane rules the roost.

Lackay's challenge at the CCMA is shaping up to provide South Africans with the complete anatomy of state capture and false news.

The 28 Harrison Street Building, the granite-and-gold pile where this confrontation is unfolding, used to be the headquarters of the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company, or JCI. Its first boss was Barney Barnato, who, along with Cecil Rhodes, attempted to capture Paul Kruger's South African Republic. Its last boss was Brett Kebble, one of the original barons of state capture.

If Lackay succeeds in his bid, the irony will be delicious.