The South African Revenue Services (SARS) was probably the greatest success story of the country’s post-Apartheid era. Financial targets were exceeded year after year. SARS became the well from which programs aimed at closing the gap between rich and poor could tap: access to water and electricity, housing, the world's largest rollout of ARVs to people with HIV. Led by a team of former freedom fighters, the service also fought against corruption and abuse of power. The decisiveness with which SARS dealt with tax evaders, tobacco smugglers and looters of the treasury ultimately proved fatal to the institution. In 2015, former President Zuma, seeing in SARS a threat to his kleptocratic clique, decided to purge the agency of its top layer of good civil servants.
One of the victims of this was then Acting Commissioner Ivan Pillay. The story of the man who joined the anti-apartheid resistance at a young age, is written by ZAM's investigations editor Evelyn Groenink. In her latest book, 'The Unlikely Mr. Rogue', she offers the reader a glimpse behind the scenes of this almost Shakespearean drama. As Pillay's spouse of 30 years, she is ideally suited to this; as a professional journalist, she also manages to avoid any hagiographic whining.
Besides this being a fascinating story of a 30 year history -which the couple share with the new South Africa- the book also offers a breath-taking reconstruction of the previous Zuma regime's unbridled urge to destroy governance just so a few could self-enrich. Despite a light storytelling style, laced with humour, the book mainly evokes anger: about the destruction of the public service, the chaos in public transport, electricity supply, schools and hospitals; about the cynicism with which honest civil servants were discarded, discredited and ultimately replaced by incompetent sycophants.
Now, three years post-Zuma, after many lost years and against the backdrop of a pandemic (during which funds for hospital supplies were also still stolen and wasted), efforts are being made to clean up and rebuild. The current rulers seem to recognise that this will be a mammoth task. President Ramaphosa recently called the state "dysfunctional" because it "lacks skills and capacity." Kwazulu Natal's Prime Minister, Zikalala, admitted that in nearly two-thirds of his province's municipalities the government is unable to provide water. "Sadly, there seem to be as yet no concrete steps to tackle this inability, -such as an appeal to qualified people, institutions or international friends to come to the rescue," says Groenink. In the nooks and crannies of the state and ruling party power there are still many who block recovery.
In the article below Groenink tells of the anger that inspired her to write the book that recently received much attention in the South African media.
The Unlikely Mr Rogue is the story of Ivan and me, of course, but even more so it is about the damage wrought by the fake leaders of nowadays: the big boss parasites who call each other ‘leadership’.
Fighting the trassh
2021. There are hospital beds in parking basements. People lie on stretchers suffocating, waiting in vain for a lifeline. “My friend’s friend has just been found dead in her apartment,” goes a tweet. A representative from the Funeral Practitioners Association reports that the industry is running out of coffins.
It is three months after The Unlikely Mr Rogue was launched. The book ends with a description of the first wave of COVID 19, and the first failure of the broken South African state to deliver hospital supplies and social assistance to communities who can’t isolate without starving. The first anger vis à vis those who were ordering fake scooter ambulances while arresting citizens for walking has materialised already. “For every politician, official, business etcetera, who looted money for health, water, housing, education, for every one of you who mismanaged, you are the reason the poor are more vulnerable to the effects of coronavirus,” I quote broadcaster and author Redi Tlhabi. “And you are trash.”
Earlier in the book I have described the trash: ruling party NEC member Mduduzi Manana, for instance, so proud of his crystal staircase, chandelier, domestic worker in French maid uniform and the room for his shoes that he has posted a whole video of it on social media. The state institution head who exhorts his employees to dance for him, give him presents, and praise-sing for his silk shirt with the amazing thread count; who happily smiles when a sycophant calls him ‘the greatest blesser.’ The gangsters who joke and dance with Zuma. The men with the supercars and the potbellies and trophy little girl mistresses, who call each other ‘leadership.’
The book is the story of Ivan Pillay and myself, and our past 30 years in South Africa after we found each other in Lusaka: he a freedom fighter, I a journalist and activist. But a large part of it deals with the country’s recent history, marked by the actions of looters who emptied the state of any and all good civil servants who stood in their way. Ivan was among those who were hounded out. Ever since then I have been asked about what that was like.
The most memorable time that that happened — it’s also in the book- was on 25 August 2016, when I picketed outside the General Piet Joubert building in Visagie Street, Pretoria, together with some friends and comrades. Inside, Ivan and Johann van Loggerenberg were being interrogated about the so-called SARS ‘rogue unit.’ Reporters queued to ask me how much ‘my family had suffered’ and I didn’t know what to say. Because I, and our family, were still relatively fine. Ivan’s former colleagues in the SARS investigative unit, who had been on the coal face of fighting tax evaders and organised crime, had suffered a lot more: they were assaulted, burgled, fired, smeared, stressed and tormented beyond belief.
And even all that was still not as bad as the suffering of families whose children were still forced to use deadly pit toilets at school thanks to the trash that stole, the very same trash that were now setting Hawks, led by a former Transkei apartheid cop, on Ivan and Johann.
Further in The Unlikely Mr Rogue I describe how, after the ‘Rogue Unit’ smears, hundreds of competent officials were made to leave SARS; how the country’s money was now being managed by a man who wore a pimp ring, who put his own sickly smiling portrait on every single SARS newsletter and who spent his time breaking things. How the same was happening everywhere in the South African state. “No one in the health department will talk to you. They are all scared,” a comrade doctor had responded to a corruption query I had sent. Robert McBride and others had been chased out of IPID, the institution meant to check on the police. Ethical employees were under fire in Transnet, PRASA, Eskom, Denel.
It was not so much hurtful as it was infuriating.
I did not really want to entertain the word suffering, back then. But it is three months later now and, when the Business Day editor asks me once again to describe how all this was for me and my family — did we suffer? I reflect and reconsider.
Yes, in fact, there has been suffering. The suffering of sitting at home while all around us things were being broken. The suffering that I recognised in Ivan as well as in other comrades and friends: Coastal, Sunny, Yolisa, Maisy, Adrian and so many who once braved Security Branch, soldiers, Witdoeke, impis, police cells and torture, then stood up again to work sixteen or twenty hour days to realise the dream of the Freedom Charter, for years on end, only to be overtaken, after freedom, by nincompoops with fifty thousand Rand champagne bills. This, too, is in the book.
In our interviews Ivan had told me how much he and his comrades had always been inspired by the Freedom Charter. South Africa belongs to all who live in it, there shall be work, security and comfort, the doors of learning and culture shall be opened. But in 2014, the same year that the ‘Rogue Unit’ smear campaign started, 5-year old Michael Komape, seeking learning and culture, had drowned in faecal waste at his school. All the security and comfort belonged to the ‘leadership’ in their crystal palaces.
Seven years on, and they are still stealing hospital supplies. They may try to steal the vaccines, and the vaccines money, too. The word ‘suffering’ does not even begin to describe it.
Back then, in the midst of the slander, I had asked Ivan the question. Did he suffer? He had thought about it, then said that of course there was a lot that was painful, but that he and his colleagues -Johann, Yolisa, Adrian- did not have much time to think about that. “We need to track what they are doing, the gangsters they meet, we must follow the money they steal. We can’t stop fighting.” It was like that in the olden days, too, of course. And more recently when they had seen the storm coming, the dossiers, the lies, the attacks.
In the book I describe how it started. In 2013, slightly over a year before the smear campaign had been launched in the Sunday Times, SARS had addressed ‘a perception of corruption’ in its new year plan. The plan said that this ‘perception of corruption’ affected citizens’ compliance with their tax duties. Then, in Parliament, Ivan and fellow SARS managers had been angrily confronted by Finance Committee member Des van Rooyen, later to become the plunder king’s ‘Weekend Special’ Finance Minister. What corruption did they mean? And why were there Indians and whites in the delegation?
Perhaps it became truly clear to us only then that the ANC of ideals and values, of Mandela, Tambo and Sisulu, was gone. That ANC had always asked what you did and stood for, not what your ethnicity was. It welcomed you as long as you worked for the same goals, for the ideals of the Freedom Charter. Now you had black ANC politicians pointing fingers at races, using race to protect corruption.
And using corruption to protect race, come to think of it. Ivan is an Indian who must be removed, but Guptas are great. In the new South Africa, ‘dubious white and Indian businessmen are better friends of the ANC than Indian and white comrades from the trenches,’ as I put it in the book. Besides Guptas there are the unashamed Indian funders Vivian Reddy and Roy Moodley; the crooked white consultants of Bain, McKinsey, KPMG, Hogan Lovells. And let’s not forget that indefatigable con-man and praise-singer, Carl Niehaus. Des van Rooyen never had a problem with those Indians and whites. Leadership.
Back to the suffering. Admittedly, I would be telling a different story if my spouse and friends had wound up in jail. If media would have been curtailed, courts captured. If the good citizens would have been defeated. But that did not happen, because the good citizens fought. The courts, the journalists, the civil society organisations, even many good businesses -businesses who still, hoping for the best, pour money into a COVID-19 Solidarity Fund today, even if that fund, too, is under siege from leeches — came together. It delivered a temporary reprieve from total downfall: 179 votes at Nasrec in 2017.
Without the fight, this would not have happened. The ANC of the parasites would not have gotten rid of the plunder king by itself
The fight, and the temporary victory, helped the country to recover somewhat, as it helped us, too. But it is not over, of course. The leadership is still there, doing what it did before. (No, they don’t support Zuma now. They always had their doubts. Indeed corruption must truly end. They have events where they denounce corruption. They are Zoom events now, but someone will still manage to compose a budget for a Zoom event. They must eat in one way or another. “Without tenders, how are we going to live?” one of the top trash ladies was quoted, once. I forgot who it was or where I read that but I recall being astounded at the genuine wonder of that question.)
Does anyone at the top realise that they sit, drinking their champagne and whisky, on top of rubble? A broken state without integrity and ethics will not rebuild itself. Certainly not without the good civil servants and dedicated engineers who were chased away from transport, electricity and other public services. Now, the broken systems haemorrhage resources. The leakages are easy to spot and, as is their only skill by now, the leadership catches whatever flows out. It will leave no breach unwidened, no gap unexploited.
The state will go bankrupt before they do.
Ivan’s postscript in the Unlikely Mr Rogue book deals with the difference between ethical, capable governance and the current ‘leadership’; the difference between having fancy events and actually maintaining schools, roads, trains and hospitals. There are a few suggestions for a rebuild in that postscript.
But, three months after the book, it is clearer than ever that that rebuild won’t happen without a continued, even harder, fight. Consider: probably the only reason why a first batch of vaccines was ordered last week — one-twenty-sixth of what is needed — was the civil outrage about the delay in the purchase. Journalists had asked questions. Corruption Watch had expressed concern. It had made the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, quickly organise at least the first million-and-a-half doses.
This means that the fight must be on every minute, with every purchase, every contract, every appointment. They must not be allowed to do anything in the dark anymore. Also, do let’s welcome the offers made by Clicks and Dischem to help with the storage, distribution and administration of the vaccines, if and when these come. Relying on this government carries very real danger of entire trucks going missing, liquids diluted with water, ‘vaccines’ offered for a few hundred rands per dosage on the streets.
It’s not just the stealing, it’s the incompetence. The thinking that once you are a director-general, you have arrived. That now you can just address events and speech at people. “Why do they think it is easy,” I quote a friend, mystified at the prancing leadership, in the book.
The message I hope comes through is that the prancers and destroyers must go. Those who ruined the water supply; those who broke the police and justice systems, the schools, the clinics, the trains and the roads and everything else, must be held accountable, together with the rapacious consultants, money-men and gangsters who enabled them. And they must be replaced by people who know their job and have integrity; who are prepared to work long hours, welcome accountability and are consumed with averting the downfall.
I hope that, if my book convinces anyone of anything this year, it is that we must fight for that.
First published in Business Day, South Africa, 12-1-2021, and republished with permission.