SARS: As IT falls apart

Andrew Donaldson writes on Mmamathe Makhekhe-Mokhuane's performance on TV and before the Nugent commission


LIKE most of the Mahogany Ridge regulars, I had until fairly recently not paid much attention to Mmamathe Makhekhe-Mokhuane, the revenue service’s information technology chief who caused a stir on social media with her testimony on Wednesday at the Nugent commission of inquiry into tax administration and governance at SARS.

Certainly, the tide of tweeted outrage at Makhekhe-Mokhuane’s bizarre and vague answers to the commission was to be expected and indeed deserved, with many commentators suggesting that she could, in fact, even be suffering from a “medical condition”. 

Perhaps, but as the old joke goes, just because someone has been diagnosed as a paranoid delusional doesn’t mean the knives aren’t being furiously sharpened around the corner.

However, where Makhekhe-Mokhuane’s concerned, there may well be method to the madness of her testimony.

If she was deemed to be not only utterly useless, but also irredeemably and absolutely bonkers, could she be held responsible for the chaos around her? Surely, the blame would lie with the big cheese who appointed her — in this case, former SARS commissioner Tom Moyane?

Consider for a moment: whatever she does at SARS, it does not seem to have much to do with IT, apart from maybe watching it fall apart. 

Makhekhe-Mokhuane may have had little choice here; she has only been with SARS for 15 months and, according to the commission’s interim report, released on Tuesday, efforts to modernise IT systems stopped with the appointment of the disgraced Moyane as commissioner in 2014. 

These systems are degenerating as technology advances, prompting fears that SARS’s eFiling capabilities are about to collapse.

Still, there was little evidence before the commission and elsewhere that Makhekhe-Mokhuane had the capability or indeed the inclination to reverse the situation at SARS. Even so, and perhaps unsurprisingly, she remains a highly-paid employee, with one report suggesting she earns more than R3-million a year. 

She had found herself at the trough, in other words, and she dearly wanted to stay there. Pesky commissions of inquiry notwithstanding.

This, at least, is our take on her apparently spontaneous response to difficult questions: “With due respect, sir,” she told retired judge Robert Nugent, “please protect me, please.”

Only hours earlier, she’d said much the same to the SABC’s Morning Live presenter, Sakina Kamwendo, during a long, rambling televised interview in which appeared unable to answer any questions about eFiling infrastructure. 

Asked a second time what needed to be done to fix the IT problems at SARS, she replied: “Ma’am, can you give me protection from yourself.”

It was too much for Kamwendo and her studio crew, who burst into laughter.

There was no laughter, however, when an aggressively cynical and sarcastic Makhekhe-Mokhuane later decided to take the fight to the commission. It started with a suggestion from Nugent that she inspect some minutes of meetings.

“I have a very rare eye disease,” she said, “but let’s try.”

Makhekhe-Mokhuane’s eyes were however good enough to note that her signature was not on those minutes. Nugent responded that the issue was not about her signature but about the accuracy of the minutes.

Such uppityness from the judge was too much for her.

“I report to the commissioner, as I put in on the record,” she said. “And, for the record, I’m not going to sit here and discuss whether I attended meetings … because as and when I get assignments, I get them from the commissioner.

“I think this is beyond a waste of your time. In my understanding of your terms of reference, is to look at the governance but not what I do as a chief officer including when I go to the bathroom. With due respect sir, please protect me.”

“All I want is information,” Nugent said. “And governance seems to me to include, uh, governance — and governance is management of an organisation.”

What’s more, Nugent said he rather supposed that the commission would in fact determine what its terms of reference were, and not her.

“I attended meetings as and when I was able to,” Makhekhe-Mokhuane snapped. “Next question, please.”

“It’s not for you to say ‘Next question’,” Nugent replied.

As entertaining as this exchange was, it was not a patch on what followed when Makhekhe-Mokhuane was asked to explain the reference in her submission to the long tenure of SARS employees.

“The Drakensberg Choir,” she began, “was established in 1967…”

There were startled gasps from commission members as she explained,  “Drakensberg Boys Choir, judge. I’m talking about the Drakensberg Boys Choir…”

“The Drakensberg Boys Choir?” Nugent said.

“Ja, ja, the Drakensberg Boys Choir. It was established in 1967. . .”

“They sing quite well,” Nugent said. “But what’s the—”

“I know! But if you’re a gang, the establishment doesn’t allow you to go there! But it is 2018, and the Drakensberg choir will remain a boys choir. And they sing quite well…”

Makhekhe-Mokhuane abandoned the analogy there, and sparked some debate here at the Ridge. 

What was she on about? The lack of gender fluidity in the Drakensberg Boys Choir? Or was it lack of harmony in the IT department, what with SARS not being the eisteddfodderstomp she’d hoped for?

Then there was the possibility that she may have been acting the incompetent as a survival tactic, a strategy employed to great effect, for example, by the former social development minister, Bathabile Dlamini. 

Rather than being fired for her reckless and grossly negligent role in the social grants debacle, the arrogant Dlamini was redeployed as minister in the Presidency by Cyril Ramaphosa. 

In our government, one doesn’t pass the buck so much as pass the minister — from the one cosy appointment to the next. The continuing fortunes of the home affairs minister, Malusi Gigaba, being another case in point.

But, speaking of Squirrel, back to the commission. On Thursday, Nugent indicated that his recommendation in his interim report that the suspended Moyane be fired at once is final and will not be changed in his final report. 

That is, Moyane must go. Now. Regardless of the disciplinary inquiry he faces. Voetsek. Hamba. Out. Toast. Whatever. Just close the door behind you already.

For his part, Moyane doesn’t quite get the picture, and has defiantly suggested Nugent’s report is “irrational, illogical and an unlawful attempt to fire the commissioner of SARS unlawfully and through the backdoor”.

By way of response, “Long Game” Ramaphosa has given Moyane until Friday to comment on Nugent’s recommendations that he be axed with immediate effect.

Lest there be prattle about the definition of “immediately” and unseemly chatter of testicular fortitude and the lack thereof, it must be pointed out that Ramaphosa’s invitation to Moyane was issued with almost unseemly haste. That is, within hours of the Nugent report’s release.

Besides, more than a year has passed since the first calls for Moyane’s head. What’s a few more days?

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