I have finally reached an agreement with the SA Revenue Services (SARS) on settling a tax assessment. It is a substantial amount of money that fell due in the wake of the global recession, which crippled many entrepreneurs and small businesses.
SARS knows full well that I have been a diligent taxpayer throughout my employed life and have studiously observed my tax obligations. Mostly, my tax affairs have been uncomplicated enough for me to sort out. At times, I have also had the benefit of an accountant whom I have trusted implicitly and who never once caused the Receiver to throw my submissions out.
However, I have repeatedly requested that SARS enter into mediation so that we are bound by a mutually accommodating settlement agreement. Without such a deferred settlement agreement, SARS reserves the right to continue to stuff a taxpayer around and treat them like dirt, even as the taxpayer tenders payment of the outstanding taxes.
I’ve never questioned or appealed the value of the assessed tax I must pay, never denied my obligation, have simply ploughed on with attempts to meet it. But the bully that is SARS would have none of that. I have been subjected to unrelenting, aggressive and abusive pressure – harassed, threatened, staked-out, robbed (what else would you term an illegal dispossession of an asset?).
SARS officials’ first stab at what it thought an appropriate settlement payment was an off-the-planet proposal based on the cost of bringing back a bucket of water from Mars. It couldn’t remotely be considered sensible and certainly not reasonable in terms of time constraints applied. I should have known that such an opening gambit would set the tone for a difficult relationship. And so it has turned out.
The challenge of settling the debt wasn’t helped by a business property deal that went sour due to a crooked partner’s collusion with rapacious, unethical bankers. Neither did illness.
(When Benjamin Franklin wrote that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes”, he did not consider the taxman’s viciousness is never allayed by pending death. This I discovered when I received notification – not a formal, legal notice, mind you – of yet another SARS action as I lay in a hospital bed before my heart transplant in 2016.)
SARS has reserved for itself the right to chop and change, to ride roughshod, deny facts, act illegally, avoid accounting, fail to communicate, ignore requests for justifications, refuse to negotiate in good faith. This has held up an agreement in a matter where the substantive issues are not in dispute; I simply object to the manner in which they discharge their mandate.
They’ve acted in this way despite total co-operation from me, full disclosure, accountability. SARS today still insists that “this matter is long overdue” and it’s all my fault, rather than the bullying attitude of SARS officials.
And, by the way, the Tax Ombud, Judge Bernard Ngoepe, whose job it is to mediate disagreements between SARS and taxpayers, agrees that what he refers to as the taxman’s “skop and donner” approach when dealing with taxpayers must be ratcheted down.
Some of the legal provisions which SARS relies on are unconstitutional, but nobody’s challenged them yet, so they continue as before. For example, SARS believes it has been given carte blanche to act as if taxpayers are not entitled to any notice of action either pending or which has already been taken against them. In my matter, there has been no basis for ex parte processes or similar levels of secrecy.
On this, the Office of the Tax Ombud (OTO), also agrees with me.
So, SARS and I are in a season of rapprochement. That does not mean it has reversed any of its illegal actions. As a result, I have not withdrawn the formal complaint I laid with the OTO in April 2017 already, flagging SARS officials’ flagrant disregard for the law. But that has been a palava all of its own, as the OTO has shown itself to be among the most ineffectual agencies of our government.
Initially the OTO did not properly assess my complaint in terms of its mandate and it was declined. Only after I objected to that outcome was the complaint accepted; Since May 2017, the OTO has tried to secure SARS’s compliance with its recommendation that SARS make good by me. SARS has simply ignored them and proceeded to repeat their action.
Judge Ngoepe’s office’s purported commitment to its mandate quite simply is a fiction. But Ngoepe probably knows this already. As pointed out above, he certainly is aware of SARS’s bullyboy tactics. SARS is not afraid to show the officials, who must call them to account, the same proverbial, disdainful middle finger that it gives to taxpayers. The taxman knows full well that there is nothing Ngoepe’s team can do when SARS simply ignores its “recommendations” to do good by unhappy taxpayers. The OTO has no teeth.
SARS and individual or corporate taxpayers are bound by mutual obligations and mutual interests. SARS cannot simply behave badly, illegally, unethically, inefficiently, bureaucratically, and in ways that deny the protection taxpayers enjoy under the law. This is not the relationship of mutuality and civility that it ought to be.
It’s an abuse.