26/06/2018 22:05 SAST | Updated 26/06/2018 22:05 SAST

Gordhan At Sars Inquiry: Calm And Collected, Despite Curveballs

The public enterprises minister and former Sars commissioner gave a detailed account of how the institution was run for 10 years under his leadership – then fielded some surprise questions from the commission.

Pravin Gordhan is sworn in as Minister of Public Enterprises in Cape Town, South Africa, February 27 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham
Sumaya Hisham / Reuters
Pravin Gordhan is sworn in as Minister of Public Enterprises in Cape Town, South Africa, February 27 2018. REUTERS/Sumaya Hisham

The commission of inquiry into tax administration and governance at the South African Revenue Service got off to an interesting start on Tuesday, when public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan delivered the opening testimony in a series of public hearings scheduled for the week, before fielding some unexpected questions from the commission.

Gordhan, who served as Sars commissioner between 1999 and 2009 before being shifted into the finance ministry, was expected only to provide a detailed description of how things were run at the revenue collector until 2014, when Tom Moyane took over. This period was to be used as a benchmark for comparison to the current state of affairs at Sars.

But Judge Robert Nugent and his team would not let Gordhan off that easily. However, the Cabinet veteran remained unruffled throughout the process, delivering his presentation and tackling the questions which followed calmly.

The minister arrived about ten minutes before the hearing was set to begin. Already in the public gallery were former acting Sars commissioner Ivan Pillay and former Sars spokesperson Adrian Lackay, who are both expected to make submissions to the commission later this week.

READ: Inquiry Has Already Found 'Disconcerting Things' About Morale In Sars.

Gordhan, dressed in a sharp black suit, made a bee-line to the back of the gallery -- greeting current and former Sars officials on his way -- where he sat waiting for Nugent and his team to introduce the programme for the afternoon. He carried only a small black bag in one hand, and his cellphone in the other.

He sat straight-faced, peering forward until Nugent was ready to begin. When proceedings commenced, Gordhan made his way to a small table adjacent to Nugent and his team and opened his bag, pulling out three folders and setting out the contents across the table.

A sip of water, and Gordhan began.

He took his time going through his presentation, which comprised a few dozen slides. His task was to outline the progress in Sars throughout his decade-long tenure.

Gordhan described various fiscal, tax, and administrative policies that were put in place to ensure the effective running of the institution. He also outlined a number of projects undertaken in the same period and put emphasis on the work environment at the revenue collector.

Sitting with his left foot crossed over his right, Gordhan broke from his monotone presentation several times to crack jokes. After about an hour-and-a-half, he concluded, apologising for the length of his presentation. He took another sip of water and began tucking away his papers when Nugent and his panel interrupted.

The line of questioning then moved to Gordhan's experience with Sars after he was reappointed as finance minister in 2015.

The first question: was Gordhan aware of Moyane's restructuring of the institution, which came at a cost of about R300-million?

"The first meeting — on 15 December — was to say: 'Halt this process; give me information; tell me what is really going on.' That didn't happen. All I was told was that we need to continue. There was no deference to the office of the minister [of] finance. And quite clearly it was linked to revelations that will come a little later," he said — referring to state capture and leaked emails from the Gupta family business empire.

But advocate Carol Steinberg, who is leading evidence in the inquiry and had already interviewed a number of people at Sars, said some staff alleged that the "modernisation process" under Gordhan and his successors happened too quickly, and that the institution's procurement process "took no account of BEE".

Stunned by the allegations at first, Gordhan conceded that some employees may have not been able to adapt to the modernisation of the institution; but "rejected with the contempt it deserves" allegations that Sars was not transformative in its procurement.

Gordhan was also made to open up about Pillay's controversial early retirement payout. This payout led to Gordhan, his successor Oupa Magashule and Pillay being charged with fraud in 2016 (the charges were dropped soon afterwards).

"My conscience is clear," Gordhan said, after admitting that he took three months to consider legal opinions sought from National Treasury, among other departments.