The gloves are off in fight against tax dodgers
IN this world nothing is certain except death and taxes, Benjamin Franklin said over 200 years ago.
For South Africans, however, tax has been anything but a certainty for many decades - thanks to an inefficient tax collection system.
But dodgers beware. SA's tax collectors could soon be knocking at your door.
Pravin Gordhan, deputy commissioner of the SA Revenue Services (SARS), is at the helm of transforming an inefficient and toothless body into what he hopes will be one of the government's strongest agencies.
Gordhan arrived at the SARS in February, fresh from parliament and seeking a new challenge. Despite running what could turn out to be one of the only recession-proof businesses in town, he says he is frustrated by the inability to get things done more quickly.
Among the changes so far has been the transformation of the old government department into the autonomous SARS, enabling greater focus and allowing for better packages to retain and recruit key staff.
Big human resources changes are under way. The current interim incentive packages for staff are expected to be renewed next year.
A major IT shake-up is also on the cards. A network connecting all SARS offices is expected to be in place by the end of the year and new hardware for staff will be purchased.
All these changes come at a cost, and the government is happy to foot the bill, believing the long-term payback to be more than worth it. "Under the previous government, the SARS was neglected. As a result the systems were old and underdeveloped, the people weren't looked after in any serious way, and there was never enough money.
"There is no doubt the government has given a lot of attention to the SARS in the last couple of years. Management change and incentives have made a big difference," says Gordhan.
Tax avoidance in SA is deep-seated - estimates are that tens of billions of rand are currently escaping the net.
Gordhan believes correcting such historical inefficiencies in collection could provide the cushion for the SARS during a recession - as long as transformation stays on track.
Part of transformation is introducing affirmative action.
Of the 11 500 staff at the SARS, 70% are women and 80% white, with management still largely white. He says potential black managers are being identified within SARS for fast-tracking, and he expects 90% of new appointments to be black.
The SARS is also on a recruitment drive, looking to hire from industry and attract university graduates. Gordhan says graduates can build up five years of strong experience and make a significant contribution to the country in the process.
He says the SARS's ideal is to get total compliance, but he knows simple pleading will not get the real dodgers to come to the party. Only when there is a culture of compliance will the burden on SA's thinly spread tax base be eased, he says.
Enforcement will play a major role in ensuring compliance.
"If you are performing your duty as a citizen and complying with the tax laws of the country then you will certainly see a smiling face, a shaking hand and the friendliest service you can imagine. But if you are running your country down and depriving the fiscus of its rightful share of your personal wealth then we see it as our duty to bring you to book.
"We must ensure everybody pays their share. If they do we have larger revenue pool for government to deliver but also a wider spread of responsibility for tax."
Gordhan talks of the current lack of morality when it comes to paying taxes, and says people's expectations of the government can be met only if the coffers are filled.
Gordhan is married with two children.