Suspended Sars Commissioner Tom Moyane. Picture: ALON SKUY
Suspended Sars Commissioner Tom Moyane. Picture: ALON SKUY

The SA Revenue Service (Sars) commission of inquiry into governance and administration at the tax agency took an ominous twist this week, as testimony revealed that Sars staff were too petrified to come forward and give evidence.

The commission, chaired by retired Supreme Court judge Robert Nugent, began its second round of public hearings as suspended Sars commissioner Tom Moyane continued in his bid to stonewall the separate disciplinary process against him.

Nugent kicked off proceedings with evidence from Sars group executive Randall Carolissen, who sits on the agency’s top leadership structure, its executive committee.

It emerged during his submission that Sars "reeked with fear": a candid admission, said Nugent, who has been at the agency’s Pretoria headquarters continuing the inquiry since it started earlier this year.

Nugent told Carolissen that people had refused outright to give evidence to the inquiry out of fear of reprisals. Carolissen acknowledged that the Sars executive committee had discussed the issue and sought to assure staffers that they would not be punished if they came forward.

Key investigators working on cases linked to high-profile, controversial taxpayers will make submissions to the inquiry this week. Pieter Engelbrecht, a Sars investigator, was key to the agency’s investigation of the affairs of businessmen Dave King, Robert Huang, Mark Lifman and Gary van der Merwe. Lifman is also linked to certain ANC politicians and is reportedly seen as a "Cape Town mafioso".

Engelbrecht was due to make a submission to the inquiry on Wednesday.

However, it should be remembered that the inquiry has a strict policy of ensuring that individual taxpayer information remains confidential.

The work of the Nugent commission is set to wrap up by the end of next month, but is once again at risk.

Moyane was invited to participate in the current leg of hearings ahead of their commencement, but elected not to do so. Instead, his attorney Eric Mabuza has written to Nugent informing him that he is consulting Moyane on whether he should approach the courts to halt the inquiry.

This comes after President Cyril Ramaphosa responded to a request by Mabuza to halt either the Nugent inquiry or the disciplinary inquiry against Moyane, chaired by advocate Azhar Bham. In a letter on Friday Ramaphosa turned down Mabuza’s request, saying both processes would proceed despite Moyane’s objections.

Mabuza tells the FM he had not met last Monday’s deadline (set by Bham) for Moyane to submit an affidavit responding to the disciplinary charges against him.

He says he had written to Bham indicating that he received Ramaphosa’s letter only on Friday and needed time to consult Moyane after his objections to the processes were rejected.

Mabuza says he will consult with Moyane over whether he should approach the courts to challenge Ramaphosa’s Friday decision or to challenge Nugent and Bham after they, too, dismissed Moyane’s objections.

But it is not the first time Mabuza has threatened court action on Moyane’s behalf. In fact, he has done so every step of the way since Moyane’s suspension six months ago.

Not once in the past six months has Moyane responded to any of the allegations or charges against him — his interactions with Nugent and Bham have been limited to taking issue with the process, technicalities mostly.

Inside Sars, the remnants of Moyane’s loyalists are pushing back against the Nugent inquiry, given the atmosphere of fear which Nugent this week described.

This does not bode well for the inquiry or for Sars.

As long as Moyane also delays the disciplinary process against him, Sars will be unable to move on from his destructive tenure. Ramaphosa cannot appoint a permanent tax commissioner until Moyane’s disciplinary process is concluded, and it is clear Moyane is determined to ensure that the process goes nowhere slowly.

The presidency is dealing with the Moyane matter patiently, preferring to sit back and allow Nugent and Bham to run their respective processes without interference.

While it is critical that Sars be cleansed, Moyane and his lieutenants seem determined to hold on tight and, if necessary, take the institution down with them.