The big story: Zuma’s dirty laundry

A major court judgment this week has set the cats among the pigeons over the issue of taxpayer privacy. 

It all centres on our dear former president, Jacob Zuma. Because of course it does. 

As News24 put it yesterday: “Eight years’ worth of former president Jacob Zuma’s tax records could be in the hands of journalists within the next 10 days, after the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ordered the SA Revenue Service (SARS) to hand them over ‘in the public interest’.”

The handover probably won’t happen so soon, if at all. SARS has battled intensely to keep Zuma’s tax records under wraps. Not, it says, because of who he is, but because of the “far-reaching implications the disclosure of taxpayer information could have on its ability to collect revenue”, News24’s Karyn Maughan wrote.

The application was brought by journalists from the Financial Mail and investigative outlet amaBhungane. 

This is a test of how much information should be made freely available, as per our Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA), which is used by the media and general public to access state information. 

Judge Norman Davis thinks that access should include tax records when they are in the public interest. 

So what’s next? SARS will probably appeal the judgment as it thinks it will inhibit taxpayers from being honest. But the investigative journalists who brought the appeal intend to immediately start digging into the records if they are released at the end of next week. They’re looking to back several explosive claims journalist Jacques Pauw made in his book The President’s Keepers: that Zuma did not submit tax returns at all for the first seven years of his presidency; that he owed millions in tax for fringe benefits he received for upgrades to his Nkandla residence and that he received “donations” from illicit sources like tobacco smugglers, Russian oligarchs and the infamous Gupta family. 

Remember, investigative journalists were key to exposing the Guptas in the first place. While the legal tussle over privacy carries on, we’re looking forward to more stellar SA investigative journalism – sooner or later.

This article appeared as part of The Wrap, 18 November 2021. Sign up to receive our weekly updates.