Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.  Picture: AFP PHOTO/MUJAHID SAFODIEN
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Picture: AFP/MUJAHID SAFODIEN

FINANCE Minister Pravin Gordhan will take legal action, if the need arises, to protect himself and the Treasury from the elements seeking to discredit him, the institution and its integrity, he said on Friday.

Mr Gordhan released a statement on Friday in response to media reports about a Hawks letter he received asking him to detail the inner workings and knowledge of the South African Revenue Service’s (SARS’s) so-called rogue unit.

In the statement, Mr Gordhan, who earlier on Friday alluded to the fact that relations between him and SARS commissioner Tom Moyane were fraught, said that there was a "group of people" who were not interested in the welfare of the country, but only in "disrupting institutions and destroying reputations".

However, Mr Gordhan did not mention whom he believed these elements were, nor did he venture into the state of his relationship with Mr Moyane. In addition, the finance minister did not address Business Day’s front page story on Friday, in which it was reported Mr Gordhan had met President Jacob Zuma and had given the head of state an ultimatum: either the commissioner goes or the finance minister goes.

Mr Gordhan, as the tone of his statement and its contents suggest, believes that there is a concerted effort to undermine him and the Treasury, but the Presidency on Friday also released a statement on behalf of Mr Zuma dismissing "rumour and gossip" that "insinuates some conspiracy against minister Gordhan".

"These baseless rumours and gossip will not deter or divert government from moving forward with promoting fiscal consolidation and pushing for inclusive growth and job creation," the Presidency said.

"The President, supported by Minister Gordhan and the entire Cabinet, are determined to turn the economy around, working with business and labour. The president has full confidence in Minister Gordhan and all his ministers and deputy ministers."

The Presidency also said that Mr Zuma would not comment on the matters relating to SARS, "which are being handled by law enforcement agencies, as this may wittingly or unwittingly impact on their work and independence".

This was in contrast to the approach taken by African National Congress (ANC) general secretary Gwede Mantashe, who came out strongly in Mr Gordhan’s defence on Friday, questioning the timing of the Hawks letter, and saying said it smacked of an attempt to "distract" the finance minister from the very critical budget he had to deliver.

Mr Mantashe said he was aware of where the leak (of the fact that the finance minister had received a letter from the Hawks) came from and reportedly said he had discussed the matter with Mr Moyane.

Mr Gordhan’s statement explained the circumstances around his receipt of the letter, which sought details about the alleged rogue unit at SARS during his tenure. Since becoming commissioner at the end of 2014, Mr Moyane has been investigating the unit, as well as relentlessly pursuing and suspending senior officials for supposed involvement in the unit.

Mr Gordhan was placed in the cross-hairs of the drawn-out saga after a leaked copy of a KPMG report surfaced months before he was re-appointed finance minister in December.

Mr Gordhan said he received the Hawks letter last Thursday, but deliberately did not mention it as he did not want to place the upcoming budget address in jeopardy. However, thereafter the letter was "maliciously" leaked to the media and he felt compelled to clarify certain issues.

He said the letter was an (attack) by some individuals with no interest in SA, in its economic prospects or its people. He also clarified that he did not make reference to the difficulties facing SARS before the ANC’s Parliamentary caucus on Thursday.

"I was appointed as minister by President Jacob Zuma and I serve at his pleasure. Together with the team at the Treasury, we have always sought to put the national interest and our economic interests above the distractions from those who try to intimidate our work by running public disinformation campaigns," Mr Gordhan said.

He then explained that the Hawks had no reason to investigate him because the unit at SARS — the National Research Group (NRG) — and its later incarnations were "legally constituted and approved at ministerial level".

"It has done commendable work in disrupting activities in the illicit economy and raising revenue from high-risk sectors of the economy. Its finances were approved transparently in the normal way of SARS budgeting processes and was audited by the auditor-general every year," Mr Gordhan said.

"SARS ensured at all times that the NRG functioned within SARS legal and policy framework and within the laws of our country."

He detailed the successes of the unit between 2007 and 2013, as it worked with other law enforcement agencies, including tobacco seizures of more than R2bn; drug seizures of more than R5m; recovered outstanding customs duties of more than R500m; assisting in raising of tax assessments of more than R200m against defaulting taxpayers, and assisting with the preservation of assets of more than R100m.

"In due course, the truth will indeed prevail. I will not make further public statements on these matters at this stage," Mr Gordhan said.

 President Jacob Zuma said on Friday he had "full confidence" in Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan and dismissed "rumours and gossip which insinuate some conspiracy against minister Gordhan".

"The president has full confidence in Minister Gordhan and all his ministers and deputy ministers," a statement from the Presidency said.

With Reuters