‘Hostage drama’ linked to South African revenue inquiry

Lawyer refused to take part in fraud investigation into finance minister Pravin Gordhan

An email exchange in which a lawyer representing the South African Revenue Service (Sars) said he would not participate in the investigation of finance minister Pravin Gordhan for "ethical reasons" allegedly led to a revenue official being held hostage.

South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper and the Daily Maverick news website have both reported that the hostage drama unfolded earlier this month after Sars employee Vlok Symington was asked to answer questions by prosecutors building a fraud case against Mr Gordhan.

The finance minister and two former Sars colleagues, including then acting commissioner Ivan Pillay, were charged with fraud by National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) director of public prosecutions, Shaun Abrahams, almost three weeks ago.

The charges against Mr Gordhan related to an alleged irregular €72,000 early retirement pay-out to Mr Pillay in 2010.


The charges have led to a groundswell of public support for Mr Gordhan, as many independent legal experts say they are baseless. Numerous political analysts suspect the decision to prosecute the finance minister was politically motivated and set in motion by South Africa's president Jacob Zuma.

The lead police investigator in the Gordhan case, Brig Nyameka Xaba, wanted Mr Symington to provide an affidavit on the circumstances under which he wrote a 2009 memo that stated issuing Mr Pillay with an early retirement package was legally sound.

Prosecutor’s request

However, included in the printed documents given to Mr Symington was an email erroneously shared by Sars commissioner Tom Moyane, who is said to be loyal to Mr Zuma.

The email was from Sars lawyer David Maphakela, who had been asked to facilitate the prosecutor's request in relation to questioning Mr Symington.

However, according to the Mail & Guardian, Mr Maphakela responded that "on ethical reasons, I cannot be involved in this one, as I hold a different view to the one pursued by the NPA and the Hawks [the investigating police unit]".

The response suggests that the revenue service’s lawyer did not agree with the charges being pursued against Mr Gordhan, and the fact they were finalised raises questions around why prosecutors would disregard the service’s legal advice.

A hard copy of the questions were subsequently printed by Mr Moyane and delivered to Mr Symington via his boss, but the documents mistakenly included Mr Maphakela’s email.

Security officials

On October 18th, Mr Moyane’s bodyguard, Thabo Titi, and the police met with Mr Symington to collect his affidavit. However, when he refused to hand over the documents, they allegedly kept him in the Sars boardroom for two hours.

Sars security officials and Mr Symington’s personal assistant were stopped from entering the room, it was reported.

Mr Symington apparently recorded the confrontation on his phone and can be heard repeatedly shouting that he was “being held against my will” and “I’m being held hostage”. The police can also be heard demanding the documents and email.

When Mr Symington was allowed to leave the boardroom, he was accosted by the police and dispossessed of the documents they sought.

Mr Symington has laid a case of kidnapping, intimidation, assault, robbery and theft at a Johannesburg charge office and filed a complaint with the Independent Police Investigative Directorate.

The whole incident raises questions about the validity of the case being brought against Mr Gordhan, as the basis of the charge against him is that his approval of Mr Pillay’s early retirement package was irregular.

Given the incident occurred on October 18th, it also suggests that when NPA brought charges against the finance minister on October 11th, its officials had not seen Mr Symington’s 2009 memo.

Two rights organisations, the Helen Suzman Foundation and Freedom Under Law, have launched a legal challenge against the NPA over its prosecution of Mr Gordhan. They have included Mr Symington's 2009 memo in submissions to the court.

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran

Bill Corcoran is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South Africa