SARS: Dealing with a Corporate Bully


How do YOU deal with a bully? A corporate one?

With a new (old) Minister of Finance in place and talk of a new chief taxman to head the SA Revenue Services (SARS), it’s worth revisiting some problems that beset law-abiding citizens who interact with SARS officials.

These include confusing service level promises, policy gaps (but not so obvious that staff won’t still insist that they exist), inefficiencies, flawed systems and staff who treat you like a moegoe or a tsotsi when you want to conduct any economic activity.

For over a year, I tried to bring a close corporation out of dormancy. It was one long nightmare. It took nine visits to the local office to sort it out. It’s not just about jumping through the hoops – as bad as it’s been sorting out re-registration, obtaining tax clearance, proving turnover, auditing, old Vat number, new Vat number.

Their systems are not integrated. From one official to another, on one system or the other, you’re most likely to get mixed messages about what you need to do to comply.

Do something at the counter – it won’t reflect online. Call the contact centre – the person at the counter when next you sit down with  them won’t have a record of it. In my experience, verbal discussions – even agreements – with SARS officials are not transferred to other officials or even reduced to a file record.

One time, after a third application for a tax clearance certificate was declined, an official in the SARS call centre told me I had typed in the wrong registration number on the application, bizarre given that I had been using this number for over 15 years. The call centre was unable to assist me further, apart from stating that I should go back online and re-apply, this time with “the correct number”.

Oh, and don’t ask anyone what the reasonable turnaround period is for any SARS responses. It could range from a couple of hours to never. Actually, they never say never, except for the one honest official, sitting in the call centre, who said SARS “never” guarantees how long any process takes.

Why is it so difficult to obtain copies of policies and legislation that SARS relies on? They either claim they can’t find it or point blank refuse to disclose the policy on the basis that it’s an internal one. And why does SARS insist on relying on documents that patently do not give it the protection its officials find comfort in? Previously, I waited a couple of months to obtain confirmation that it was okay to register a personal banking account for a SARS business tax profile – I didn’t need it, SARS officials insisted I did until I asked them to provide me with the policy which said I needed it. They couldn’t and eventually accepted what I was tendering.

My only conclusion from SARS’s lack of transparency is that SARS fears some entrepreneurial character might use its intellectual property to start an alternative tax collection agency. More seriously, these experiences are a sad reflection on both transparency and the training provided to staff, who merely mouth what supervisors seemingly have told them, rather than knowing what exactly they’re doing and why it is important.

Coupled with vindictiveness. They will send you away simply because they believe they can. The most recent example of this was an official who would not accept an electronic submission of my PAYE slip by my employer. I had to bring my own copy – until I did, and then he said it was okay for him to use the electronic copy, he was simply making sure that I could get the hard copy. WT*?

At one stage, trying to keep calm while the official across the desk went through a list of twenty questions, I considered evoking Red’s (Morgan Freeman) line from Shawshank Redemption as he sits in a parole hearing: “so you just go on ahead and stamp that form there, sonny, and stop wasting my damn time. Truth is, I don’t give a shit”. But I just knew that was going to make my time in the SARS office even more unpleasant.

I’ve tried being nice and speaking in a voice that’s almost a murmur. I’ve tried shouting and being totally over-the-top. I’ve tried holding SARS officials to account. I’ve used cajoling. I’ve stuck to principle. Truth is, nothing helps. I’m quite open to ideas from the peanut gallery.

Given a tough economic environment, local business owners and managers need radically different and enlightened approaches in order to sustain those whose livelihoods may depend on their efforts. A vastly improved service offering from SARS must be part of that mix of approaches – in the interests of our country.

Sadly, legitimate business people complying fully with all commercial and governance requirements will be met at every turn by a bullying and inept bureaucracy gone mad.

But one thing SARS has proven to be good at: Scratch them in the wrong place and you can bet they’ll shortly be following up on some outstanding paperwork or taxes they’ve just noticed in the unofficial audit they did on you after they received your complaint.

SARS: Dealing with a Corporate Bully
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