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Rogue tells the story of a once-inconspicuous unit in the SA Revenue Service (Sars). It can be seen as an inaugural study of state capture in contemporary SA.

The tale is given additional heft because it is written by insiders: Johann van Loggerenberg, former head of investigations at Sars, and Adrian Lackay, the tax authority’s former spokesman.

Both had been employed by Sars for more than a decade when allegations of a "rogue" investigative unit first emerged.

These claims soon grew increasingly extravagant — including that members of the unit ran a brothel, spied on President Jacob Zuma, intercepted taxpayers’ communications and conducted illegal covert investigations. In the end, both Van Loggerenberg and Lackay lost what had been successful careers.

At its height, the unit consisted of 26 specialised investigators, largely focused on organised crime and mostly reporting to Van Loggerenberg.

Here Van Loggerenberg argues why, contrary to the initial accusations, Sars was fully entitled to run an investigative unit to bring delinquent taxpayers to book.

The allegations were first printed by the Sunday Times, which coined the term "rogue unit" — a phrase that became ingrained in the public psyche in the course of 35 stories being published over two years. In the end, the newspaper retracted many of its claims.

Van Loggerenberg and Lackay’s book argues that those allegations were nothing more than imaginative writing, holding up a mirror to every journalist in the country in the process. They systematically dissect the Sunday Times stories and motivate why those assertions cannot be true, using publicly available information. In some instances, they accuse the journalists of tailoring events to a "preferred" narrative and selectively using available information.

Those who have followed every twist of the saga won’t find much new in this book. On the contrary, much of what has been published in the media arguing against the narrative of a "rogue unit" has been omitted.

But it’s useful for people who may have found reports about the "rogue unit" confusing. For example, many won’t understand why finance minister Pravin Gordhan now supposedly faces the threat of arrest, or what the charges against him may be.

Rogue provides a useful linear narrative .

It is given added gravitas by former constitutional court judge Johann Kriegler, who writes a powerful foreword.

Kriegler is known as a stickler for truth, with a fine eye for detail. He writes: "I felt honoured to be given an opportunity to associate myself with a band of remarkable public servants for whose efforts I have gained profound admiration."

Van Loggerenberg and Lackay’s account reminds one of Muldergate (1980) by Rand Daily Mail journalists Mervyn Rees and Chris Day, which describes their investigation into the apartheid-era Info Scandal. (But in Rogue, the journalists aren’t the heroes.)

One of the poignant themes of Muldergate is the manner in which the security branch twisted strands of truth into powerful lies by misusing journalists and implementing "strategic communication" tactics, known as stratcom. The reader gets the distinct feeling that the same "stratcom tactics" have been used in the Sars case.

(The book also has echoes of Blood on their Hands (2016), the tell-all account by former KwaZulu Natal Hawks head major-general Johan Booysen, who was accused of heading the Cato Manor "death squad".)

Though Rogue is an essential read, it will probably not count among this year’s bestsellers. It is carefully crafted in the extreme — not least because of legal constraints relating to the Tax Act and pending litigation. To circumvent these issues, the writers mainly depend on already published material.

There is also frequent use of pseudonyms, which is more irksome than functional, especially because the subjects are often identified in the media stories quoted in the index.

Most important, however, is the writers’ inability (again due to legal constraints) to reveal what the unit was working on and what secrets Van Loggerenberg really kept in his safe.

This dampens the effect, which is why Rogue can’t legitimately be called a "tell-all" version of the truth. In the end, the reader is left with more questions and a sense of outrage.

There are crumbs leading to a conclusion, however.

The writers do imply, by quoting the media, that the unit took on mighty adversaries during its lifetime. These include the Gupta family, EFF leader Julius Malema, cigarette companies like British American Tobacco and Amalgamated Tobacco Manufacturing, alleged underworld figure Mark Lifman, businessman Thoshan Panday, ANC funder Jen-Chih "Robert" Huang and even Zuma on Nkandla.

Considering the names on this list, Rogue leaves this reader with the question: what would the political landscape have looked like today if the Sunday Times had not written its first "rogue unit" story?


Rogue: The Inside Story of Sars’s Elite Crime-busting Unit
Johann van Loggerenberg, with Adrian Lackay
Jonathan Ball


* Van Wyk is a journalist at the Mail & Guardian