Pravin Gordhan. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JASON ALDEN
Pravin Gordhan. Picture: BLOOMBERG/JASON ALDEN

THE political crisis gripping the government deepened on Wednesday and attitudes hardened as Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan failed to answer questions from the Hawks by the 4pm deadline.

Meanwhile, Police Minister Nathi Nhleko and State Security Minister David Mahlobo came out publicly to justify the investigation by the law enforcement agency into the South African Revenue Service (SARS) and the questioning of Mr Gordhan.

The fight has split both the Cabinet and the African National Congress (ANC) between those who back Mr Gordhan and believe he is being targeted and those who back Mr Zuma and the security establishment in insisting that SARS and Mr Gordhan have a case to answer.

At issue is also whether SARS commissioner Tom Moyane should stay in his job. Mr Gordhan is adamant their working relationship has broken down.

In a letter to Hawks head Lt Gen Mthandazo Ntlemeza on Wednesday, Mr Gordhan’s attorneys said he had not had sufficient time to answer the questions but would do so in due course.

The attorneys also asked: on what authority the Hawks relied in directing questions to the minister; whether any offence was being probed; and, if so, what.

At a press briefing on Wednesday called by Mr Nhleko and Mr Mahlobo to set out the facts around the investigation into the SARS "rogue unit", Mr Nhleko would not say what charges or offences were being probed.

"It is a strange question to ask what charges are being investigated. A charge is about the final product. One can only formulate charges after an investigation," Mr Nhleko said.

To ask under what authority or legislation the investigation was being pursued was also "a strange question" as the police operate within the framework of the Constitution, he said.

Mr Nhleko said the Hawks were acting on the basis of a complaint to the South African Police Service laid by Mr Moyane in May last year. Mr Moyane in turn had acted on "information that had come to light" as well as "confessions made by members of the unit".

Previous investigations into the existence of the unit — such as one by the Sikhakhane Commission — had found prima facie evidence that it was established unlawfully and "may have included rogue behaviour", he said.

Mr Nhleko also refuted the suggestion made by Mr Gordhan that the questions had coincided with the preparation of the budget and were an attempt to distract him.

"To ask about the timing is a strange question.… This is an on-going investigation, it is not a new thing. The police are involved in an ongoing exercise to send questions to people who may have been there (when the unit was established). That questions are sent do not mean an individual is being investigated or will be charged," he said.

Mr Mahlobo, who publicly weighed into the matter for the first time on Wednesday, said the inspector-general of intelligence, which has oversight over the intelligence services, had also investigated and concluded that the SARS unit did have an intelligence-gathering capacity.

He provided a detailed list of the R1.6m worth of surveillance equipment the unit had bought, saying that it was only the intelligence services which could authorise possession of such equipment. Mr Gordhan and former deputy commissioner of SARS, Ivan Pillay, have both contended that the unit was established with Cabinet authority.

Mr Nhleko said the veracity of that was still being investigated. More to the point, he said, was that the unit had capabilities reserved for the intelligence services.

Mr Pillay and former head of strategy, risk and planning Peter Richer on Wednesday said Mr Nhleko’s comments were a violation of their rights to dignity and reputation, and that they would seek legal advice. None of the investigations conducted thus far had afforded them an opportunity to defend themselves, they said.