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SARS, spooks and the lover who spilled the beans

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Noseweek reports on a trio of spooks operating out of SA Revenue Services (SARS) – Johann van Loggerenberg, Ivan Pillay and current public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan – ostensibly to investigate big-time criminal tax evaders.

It’s a tale of spycraft and double-dealing that truly boggles the mind, involving spies and journalists who appear to have been (wittingly or unwittingly) used to promote a particular agenda then operating out of SARS. You’ll have to subscribe to Noseweek to read the full story, but it is a mere bagatelle and well worth the fee.

Here are some highlights:

Today, Van Loggerenberg and former deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay, along with former SARS National Research Group leader Janse “Skollie” van Rensburg, face charges of corruption and the illegal interception of communications over an operation known as Project Sunday Evenings. It is alleged that bugs were installed in the head offices of the National Prosecuting Authority in the build-up to the arrest on corruption charges of then national police commissioner Jackie Selebi.

Noseweek says the charges against Van Loggerenberg and company have revived speculation that a rogue unit was indeed active within SARS. When the trio last appeared in the Pretoria Magistrates Court on November 8, the case was postponed to 14 February (2019) while their advocate, Laurence Hodes SC, does battle in the high court for disclosure of the full police docket, part of which had been held back by the State Attorney.

“Van Loggerenberg’s special unit at SARS is said to have made spectacular gains against organised crime. In the process he built up strong, if strictly unofficial, links with the media. Officially, SARS’s secrecy provisions forbade him from talking to the press; all media communications were supposed to go through the press office, headed by Adrian Lackay, Van Loggerenberg’s friend and co-author of his 2014 book Rogue: The Inside Story of SARS’s Elite Crime-Busting Unit.

“Some of Van Loggerenberg’s favoured journalists (no one from Noseweek) were featured in KPMG’s highly controversial Report on SARS Rogue Unit.”

Noseweek goes on to report that van Loggerenberg was the chief source for Jaques Pauw’s best-selling book The President’s Keepers, and details an number of disturbing intersections between prominent journalists and the spooks at SARS.

“When Muzi Sikhakhane SC was appointed by acting SARS Commissioner Ivan Pillay to head an external panel to probe allegations of impropriety against its top investigator Johann van Loggerenberg, it didn’t take long for the panellists to realise the extent of their task. In front of him was marshalled a body of veteran spooks, not slow to trot out testimony that was ‘self-serving, false and irrelevant’.

Some members of the Revenue Service contingent, who were “hypnotised by Mr Van Loggerenberg’s perceived power and charm”, were “clearly prepared to protect him at all costs”, Sikhakhane wrote in his November 2014 report. On the other hand, he added, others had adopted a hostile stance towards the charismatic official “as a result of what we viewed as organisational dynamics”.

“We had to walk a tightrope in placing our trust in the truthfulness of witnesses whose trade is largely in the intelligence craft,” reads the Sikhakhane report. “Such officials are an essential component of any state. However, some choose the faking of sincerity, deception and intrigue as their preferred tools of trade.”

Significantly, Sikhakhane adds: “The recruitment of former intelligence officers within its ranks was a double-edged sword for SARS. It afforded SARS the opportunity to make great strides in its own investigations. (But) with all their requisite and usually helpful skills, they can alter the very nature, culture and operation of an otherwise civilian structure. It may have the effect of turning a civilian structure into a command and control theatre of intrigue and subterfuge.”

“Accompanied by his attorney and by Nic Maritz SC, Van Loggerenberg, now 49, gave testimony twice. The first time he did not volunteer the existence – let alone his involvement – in SARS’s National Research Group, its High Risk Investigations Unit, or any of their  predecessors, coming clean only in the second session after their existence was fortuitously revealed in the media. Initially, Van Loggerenberg had two requests: that the panel should not reveal the names of fellow SARS officials with whom he had had romantic relationships, and that the panel should not name his private charity, Wachizungu, in its report. Initially, he named only two SARS romances. Confronted with a third name, he admitted it. His three lovers were Lana Pinkham, Siobhan Wilson and Talita Snyckers.

“Sikhakhane’s job was to investigate claims by another former lover, Pretoria attorney Belinda Walter, that Van Loggerenberg had run a covert unit within SARS, that he unlawfully revealed taxpayer information, was engaged in 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.”

Walter was chairperson of the Fair-Trade Independent Tobacco Association (Fita), a group of tobacco companies some of which were under investigation not only by SARS but also by the State Security Agency (SSA). She had also been a covert agent of SSA since 2010, and established Fita at the behest of her intelligence masters in order to obtain information about illegal tobacco operators. In fact Walter was a double agent, also passing confidential information to British American Tobacco. Or even a triple agent, if you count the inside information she provided to SARS through Johann van Loggerenberg.

It was Belinda Walter who kick-started the whole SARS rogue unit scandal after her seven-month fling with Van Loggerenberg ended in May 2014 and she took her story to the press.

This entire SARS saga involves a maelstrom of professional spies, the three most important ones having arrived at SARS around the same time, in 1998/99.

The most high-profile yet most discreet operative of the trio was Pravin Gordhan, these days Public Enterprises Minister but under apartheid, a quietly spoken pharmacist at the King Edward Vll hospital in Durban – until he was detained.

A key figure in the ANC underground network, Gordhan had spent four years developing the structures of Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) and its Operation Vula. A solid Party man, he was deployed to SARS as Deputy Commissioner in 1998, taking over as Commissioner in November 1999.

Ivan Pillay, who joined SARS in 1999 as head of compliance, risk and enforcement, was an old fellow Vula comrade and as the organisation’s project manager reported directly to Oliver Tambo. Post-1994 Pillay played a key role amalgamating the former protagonists’ intelligence forces into the newly formed National Intelligence Agency and South African Secret Service.

Johann van Loggerenberg (arrived at SARS 1998) told the Sikhakhane panel that he had been an undercover agent for the police during apartheid, in what he described as the Republican Spy Programme. He was referring to the Republican Security unit (RS), one of the apartheid regime’s more notorious police outfits, which specialised in recruiting bright young students who it trained to infiltrate and operate under cover within the liberation units. Van Loggerenberg (“at least as he testified,” said Sikhakhane) was deployed in the unit’s less controversial operations infiltrating organised crime.

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