Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Picture: BUSINESS DAY
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan addresses a business conference in Johannesburg last week. Picture: BUSINESS DAY

THE battle around the alleged "rogue unit" at the South African Revenue Service took another turn at the weekend, with Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan on Sunday accusing the Hawks of intimidation and harassment.

Mr Gordhan said on Sunday neither he nor his lawyers had received the letter from the Hawks that was the basis of coverage in weekend newspapers.

The "strongly worded letter" reportedly sent to Mr Gordhan on Saturday, allegedly warned him to answer the 27 questions — put to him on the eve of the 2016 budget — by 4pm today.

Mr Gordhan was the SARS commissioner in 2007, when the so-called rogue unit was set up. He has maintained that it was above board and had ministerial approval.

Mr Gordhan’s statement was in response to a report in the Sunday Independent that quoted a new letter from Hawks boss Berning Ntlemeza, pressing Mr Gordhan to respond to the 27 questions by this afternoon.

Gen Ntlemeza fired the first salvo shortly before delivery of the budget in mid-February, when he sent the questions for Mr Gordhan to answer. Mr Gordhan responded after the budget, through his lawyer Tebogo Malatji, with questions of his own about what the Hawks were investigating.

The finance minister responded to the 27 questions via his lawyers on March 7, asking for more time to answer them and also requesting that the Hawks tell him on what legal authority the unit based its questions.

In response, Gen Ntlemeza reportedly described this question as "baffling", saying he would not enter into a debate with Mr Gordhan on the matter and only required that he co-operated.

Mr Gordhan said in his statement on Sunday he had not received the letter from the Hawks, nor had his lawyers.

"Once again, the Hawks and those who instruct them, have no regard for the economic and social welfare of millions," he said in the statement.

"My attorneys have confirmed to me that no other letter has been received by their office until close of business on Friday 11 March; nor by e-mail. I can also confirm that I am unaware of any ‘new’ letter."

He said he had been on a road show to the UK and the US during which he addressed the concerns of bond investors and defended the country’s fiscal strength.

Mr Gordhan said he was, therefore, unable to meet the new deadline imposed and would answer the questions once the Hawks clarified the legal matters he had inquired about.

He reiterated that he would respond to them as he was not above the law.

But he raised questions about why the letter turned up in the newspapers, while he had not yet received it.

"So, where is this mysterious letter? Why does one journalist among the press seem to have something at hand, but the people to whom it is directed don’t?

"Also, why ‘leak’ a letter that has to be still studied and responded to — to further use harassment and intimidatory tactics like the old security police did?" he asked in the statement.

The renewed tensions between the Hawks and Mr Gordhan came as the Financial Times and the Sunday Times reported that the politically connected Gupta family had offered Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas the opportunity to replace former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene in November last year, but "with conditions".

Mr Jonas reportedly turned down the offer.

The controversy surrounding the Treasury, the finance minister and SARS also comes at a time when economic growth has slowed and the appetite for investing in SA continues to wane.

This week, a team from ratings agency Moody’s is due in the country to conduct a critical annual assessment.