Nhlanhla Nene. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Nhlanhla Nene. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

ABOUT five years ago, the son of a powerful politician rang up a senior South African Revenue Services (SARS) official, wanting to know why the authority was making a company of which he was a director pay "excessive" penalties and taxes.

The official was taken aback by the caller’s aggressive tone, but said he would look into the matter. Upon inquiry, he found that the caller had resigned as a director and was no longer connected to the company. He told him that he could therefore not discuss the matter further.

"He went ballistic," the official told me. "He asked me if I understood what or who I was dealing with. He asked me who the hell I thought I was."

The only unique thing about the call was the level of aggressiveness, the official said.

SARS officials received calls from political figures from time to time, he said. They would politely inquire into a matter and ask if it could not be speedily and "amicably" resolved. When officials mentioned the confidentiality requirement, the callers would usually accept it, he said.

Nonetheless, a purge at SARS became inevitable when the tax authority was said to be run by dangerous criminal characters with apartheid links and a sinister political agenda. The accusations were contained in an "intelligence report" that gained currency in the newspapers.

Now, there is a new SARS commissioner, Tom Moyane, who must take the institution forward.

So, when a new document surfaced accusing the Treasury of being the subject of "an apartheid establishment project called ‘Spider Web’", I could not help but notice a curious point of celebration in it.

"At the present moment the Spider Web suffered a huge setback when their top members were suspended by the new (SARS) commissioner. This unit was regarded as the enforcers of the Spider web (sic)", it says.

Aha! Whoever wrote the document, is happy that the ructions at SARS took place.

Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene has seen the document and is not happy. He told Business Day he was concerned that the Treasury was the "next target" in an attempt to undermine legitimate state institutions. He has asked the security establishment to investigate its origins.

Remember, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela asked for the same and she ended up under investigation herself, for being a "CIA spy".

This type of accusation is not new, and is used to swing a big pending decision. It was used when the Scorpions became problematic: the "apartheid agent" tag was used so effectively that the new Hawks were to be "thoroughly vetted".

This evidently didn’t occur. Some members of the unit have been found to be doing everything from being on the payroll of Radovan Krejcir to cash-in-transit robberies.

What did happen was that the law enforcement officials who were considered an obstacle to the destruction of certain, high-profile cases were redeployed, marginalised, persecuted with investigations, or left. The Hawks and the National Prosecuting Authority were thrown into a state of disarray that continues to this day.

The context for the Treasury smear is a nuclear procurement programme that has been shrouded in secrecy and the dodging of due process. At some point soon, the Treasury will have to give it a thumbs up.

To be clear, President Jacob Zuma announced the programme before a cost assessment was made, certainly before the Treasury was consulted. It is known too that Russia is the favourite to clinch the deal, and that discussions between the two countries treat this as a fait accompli.

It is also generally assumed that the Treasury’s cost assessments will say the programme is unaffordable at its current scale because the revised Integrated Resources Plan 2013, which the Cabinet is trying to bury, makes a considered recommendation for a different energy mix, that would be more affordable for consumers.

The smear has become necessary, I believe, partly to delegitimise the voice of the Treasury when crunch time arrives. Who would want to listen to the voice of "apartheid agents"? This may form the basis for their suspension, pending an "investigation".

There may be other reasons the authors of the document produced it, but sources point to it being linked to the nuclear decision. This also explains the inclusion of chief procurement officer Kenneth Brown, who would be involved in ensuring the correct processes are followed.

The document is obviously spurious. Included in this "web" is Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas. To sustain the author’s argument, we would need to believe that the African National Congress’s deployment committee is part of the project, otherwise how would Jonas be part of something like this when he only recently joined the Treasury?

The Treasury is one of the last institutions we are able to point to as an example of how robust our system of governance is. We need to carefully consider the consequences for the destruction of that institution.