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In conversation with new Sars head Edward Kieswetter

Having ‘miserably failed in retirement’, the incoming commissioner looks forward to leading his team in rebuilding an organisation that is trusted.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: President Cyril Ramaphosa has chosen the former chief executive officer of the country’s largest insurance and retirement fund advisor to restore South Africa’s tax agency, which has missed annual collection targets each year since 2015. None other than Edward Kieswetter has been tasked with rebuilding skills and trust within Sars, and between Sars and taxpayers as well.

Edward joins us on the line this evening. Edward, I must start off with congratulations on your appointment. I can imagine it is with a feeling of excitement, but also of understanding the daunting task ahead of you. How are you feeling at this point?

EDWARD KIESWETTER: Thank you. Good evening. I think you hit the nail right on the head. It is a mixed feeling. On the one hand it’s a huge honour and privilege to be asked to serve in such a critical role at such a delicate time in our country’s history. At the same time I step into it understanding the daunting nature of the task.

But thankfully this is not a one-man show, and I will rely on the help of many, many thousands of committed, honest and hardworking men and women. I particularly would like to commend the incumbent acting commissioner, Mark Kingon, who has done a sterling job holding the fort in this interim period.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: When the South African Airways CEO was appointed, Vuyani Jarana, the first question I asked him in an interview was “Why did you apply for this job, because SAA seems like such a complex institution to try to fix?” His response was that he felt that, based on his experience, he had a lot to offer in order to change the way we viewed SAA. Is it the same for you, taking into consideration your corporate experience, but also including your experience within Sars? How are you planning to approach this journey ahead?

EDWARD KIESWETTER: When our president made his inaugural State of the Nation address, and reached out with his sincere and genuine Thuma Mina invitation, what came out was it’s easier to stand on the side and to criticise. But eventually some of us must be prepared to roll up our sleeves and offer our help, especially in areas where we think we can add value. So it’s not a difficult decision to put one’s name into the hat and to say “I’m here to serve”.

When I left Alexander Forbes, it was my very intention to lead a more balanced life, spend more time with my family, and go into some sort of semi-retirement. I am here to tell you I have miserably failed in retirement. So I decided to join government – and especially to support our president in this role is a privilege and honour.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: I know you haven’t started, and I suppose we’ll do one of those things where, from May 1, we’ll give you 100 days and then we’ll check with you to see if everything is okay, and if you are still happy with your decision. Nonetheless, you’ve probably had an opportunity to see what has been happening within Sars, particularly when it comes to some of the revelations that have come out of the Sars inquiry. I suppose a whole host of things worry you – with the taxpayers and yourself and the president as well. But as I mentioned in the intro, you are being tasked with rebuilding skills and trust in Sars. Where do we even start? The low-hanging fruit, in your opinion? I know it’s before you even walk into the building, but from your perspective right now, how do we build that trust between Sars and taxpayers?

EDWARD KIESWETTER: You know, leadership is an important role in any organisation. It’s not nice when you get up every morning and read in the newspapers and on the media negative press about your organisation. It’s understandable that people lose faith and the morale dips, and they lose confidence and trust. At the top of one’s priorities has to be to openly engage with our staff and to create a sense of hope and trust; but also to restore within them the pride to work for an organisation that is respected. For me that’s very important.

In addition to that, it’s important to address all of those skills, capabilities and efficiencies that have been eroded over the last number of years. So that’s the first thing, and that’s an internal assignment.

Alongside that, and equally important – because, remember, one of the key priorities of Sars is to collect the revenue that is due, and we have seen the decline in revenue – is the need to reach out to South Africans, to the taxpaying public, and to also restore their confidence and trust. The South African Revenue Service must be respected, not feared, and to do that we must be able to continue to provide unquestionable service, led by an extensive higher purpose. And then, where necessary, enforce responsibility because, unfortunately, you’ll always have those individuals, corporates and citizens, who may take chances. In the past 10 years we’ve seen some of that blossoming.

I would like to believe that now that we have restored certainty to the institution we can also begin the work of addressing those inefficiencies and ensuring that government receives the revenue that is its due, in order for government to continue to build and address the needs of South Africans.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: On that note, we are always hoping that Sars becomes that institution that was highly recognised, highly ranked. How do we as South African citizens help you and your team to get Sars to where it should be?

EDWARD KIESWETTER: There was a time, before I joined Sars the first time, when it was fashionable to sit around dinner tables and to talk about how we had ‘scored’ against Sars.

Then we reached an era where South Africans across all spectrums were proud to be taxpayers, and paid their taxes on time and joined the queues. I think they called those the ‘tax-filing seasons’ that they announced every year. That’s what we have to restore. We call on every single South African to understand that without us paying our taxes, we do not have a democracy. Any chance we have in restoring and rebuilding the fibre of our society begins with every South African feeling part of this project of paying their taxes to comply with the obligation under the law.

Naturally, the flip side of that is to hold our public office bearers accountable for the quality and the nature of how that money is spent, and every South African is called to be an activist and to become involved in the wellbeing of our country, and not to stand on the side and be indifferent.

NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Edward, thank you so much for your time this evening.

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That’s what we have to restore. We call on every single South African to understand that without us paying our taxes, we do not have a democracy.

A Freudian slip? Surely you meant to say…. without us paying our taxes we do not have a kleptocracy?

Pointless paying tax when trillions of it gets looted and ends in Swiss bank accounts, while the rest gets spent on vote buying via social programmes and unnecessary state employment

I’m all for paying tax, but I am not in favour of working to support one of the most corrupt regimes in the world

Got nothing to do with fixing “trust”. Nobody will ever trust SARS. Rather fix the extreme bureaucracy and hostility and incompetence for a start.

Collecting taxes due is all well and good but what about expediting refunds due rather than trying to delay payment. SARS should pay penalties for late refund payments like they charge on overdue taxes.

Then the issue of incentives paid to sars employees to find additional taxes. There are many instances of unethical and illegal behavior that go unchecked and add to the woes of being refunded.

Yes honest Joe, paying incentives to find additional tax is highly controversial; tax practitioners are making a lot of money from this because expert advice is needed around every corner when SARS challenges entries on tax returns. I’ve seen it play out with the changed tax regime for people working abroad on oil rigs.
Is this practice likely to help restore trust in SARS?

Dear Louise
I’ve just seen your comment about “Tax Practioners making lots of money”.Yes, professional Tax Advice/assisstance is required more than ever due to SARS practices, yet please dont generalise. Other than maybe the Big Four Audit Firms, the smaller firms are battling to keep their doors open – I am a Tax Compliance officer who can attest to, not only ourselves, but most tax practices making a loss 9 out of 10 times on the tax side. This is mostly due to SARS inneficieny, incompetance, excessive and unnecessary audits and of course holding on to refunds – I can go on for ages! I have been in Taxation for 20 years, and whereas in the past, one could spend max 6 – 8 hours per annum on an average Individuals taxes, we now spend anything from 16 hours – if we try to bill these relatively ‘small fry’s’ for the actual hours spent, they dispute the bill. Often, especially with long-standing clients with whom we have established good working relationships, we find it hard to Invoice for actual time spent, from a ethical point of view (even though SARS are the reason for dramatic waste of time!). Nobody knows what Tax Practitioners go through nowaday dealing with SARS – I have spent about 5 hours trying to trace a SARS query, which was never received, causing them to revise assessment incorrectly and are harassing the client for money he doesnt owe! Then one generally has to do the same thing 3 or more times for SARS. Trying to communicate with someone who knows what they are doing is impossible – the call centre aren’t equipped to assist. And their favourite practice is simply disallowing expenses, even where all proof provided, and to establish why, can take months. Us as Tax Practitioners have to try to relay to often frustrated taxpayers what the status is, and often take the blame as until one has had to deal with SARS on a daily basis, you simply cannot understand what Tax Practioners have to deal with. Working 14 to 16 hour days is not unusual, and as mentioned, recovering even half that time is more often than not impossible. I worked at SARS many years ago when still an organisation with skilled, competant staff and taxpayers were treated with respect and dignity. The aggression and blatant disregard for taxpayer rights now seen on a daily basis is frightening! And the fact that much of the revenue that reaches their coffers is stolen by corrupt (often politicians) makes it even a harder and bitter pill to swallow. Mr Kieswetter, you have an enormous job ahead of you – if things dont change fast, our already minimal registered taxpayers are going to rapidly decline. So spare a thought for the honest, diligent, extremely hard-working Tax Practitioners who do a very difficult job – we have constant stringent deadlines and pressure and frustration and are definately not making lots of money. Not many know, but it is a taxpayers Constitutional right to fair and effecient tax administration, so essentially countless taxpayers Constitutional rights are infringed on on a daily basis.

Mr Kieswetter, please start with a bid to stop SARS harassing compliant, law-abiding, tax payers. The strategy to avoid paying refunds by demanding face-to-face meetings at a SARS branch to “confirm banking details” before releasing a refund is completely unreasonable, and nothing more than a time-wasting tactic to delay the payment of these refunds. In my case, I had already done this a few months before! Not only this, but the bank account has been operated for many years, including having a VAT debit order over it! Tax compliant South Africans are generally productive people who are gainfully employed adding to every South African’s benefit – we cannot afford to waste a day (and to travel great distances) to bend to SARS’ bidding in such cases.

Yes, people do feel they’re being harassed when every trick in the book around the interpretation of the law and new regulations is used to extract more tax, and knowing that the SARS official is working on some type of commission structure.

I am not proud to be a taxpayer. On the contrary I resent paying. For many reasons but especially because there are double standards. Connected people here don’t pay tax. And they are allowed to get away with it. Just look at the previous president.
SARS us just the muscle of the mafia and we are paying protection money.

Do ministers and MPs who pay a laughable amount of R1,200 p/m for their upmarket, luxury, official government homes get taxed on that benefit? (Some call it the gravy train.)
Does the perk from low monthly rent for ministers/MPs for their government homes get taxed one wonders.

So when will you go after the money laundering SARS ex no. 2 Makwakwa?



Please take me off your mailing list.

Thank you & God bless.

Hopefully he does not become known as Commissioner Edward Arsekieser

Start by taxing all the the bribes and money stolen as revealed in the State Capture inquiries . Please
remember that ILL GOTTEN GAINS ARE TAXABLE . So SARS stop talking to the public like we criminals go after the big dogs even if they part of the ruling elite . This is even more important when one considers that there exists a real possibility that NO ONE IS GOING TO JAIL FOR STATE CAPTURE . I smell an amnesty in the air !!
We will know in a year or two …..

Agreed. We now have three wasted years, to investigate the nine wasted years, after which will follow the wasted eternity.

And when will Mr Kieswetter start taxing the billion Rand dark-cash flowing through the taxi industry?

Not sure you’re being reasonable – if it’s money under the table SARS wouldn’t know about it, and then can’t tax it.

Zuma and Moyane where stealing so much that all we could do was, evade and avoid taxes. We actually got good at it.

I and many others who did this have broken this habit to support Ramaphosa and Kieswetter as they work to recover our economy.

I did laugh when Moyane naively lied and said there was no culture of Tax evasion. It was becoming a national past time as people planned around braais and in Boardrooms to avoid paying Tax.

End of comments.





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