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Editorial: Deafening silence on SARS panel

Monday, 09 March 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Author: BDlive
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Author: BDlive

More than a week after Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene announced that he had appointed an advisory committee to "guide the direction of long-term strategy" at the South African Revenue Service (SARS), nothing has been heard of the committee, its membership or how it plans to fulfil its mandate. Nor are we any the wiser about whether we will ever be privy to the details of its work or its findings.

Mr Nene’s decision was welcome, albeit belated. The government had remained silent as reports abounded on the ructions at SARS, as executives departed or were suspended by the new commissioner, Tom Moyane. The appointment of the committee, under section 11 of the SARS Act, seems to show that Mr Nene at least acknowledged there was a problem — and that Mr Moyane, who was appointed late last year with no experience of tax matters or of SARS, should not be dealing with it without some monitoring by an independent body, which is to be led by a retired judge.

The judge has been appointed; the rest of the eight-to 10-person committee has not and there is no indication of who they might be. That is quite important. And of even more concern is what exactly the committee is going to do, which is still vague.

The formation of the committee was clearly a response to the allegations of a covert unit, its spying and general dirty dealing. By announcing it on budget day, Mr Nene avoided a barrage of questions about the allegations, and the possible political machinations behind them, as well as whether the departure of several key executives would affect SARS’s ability to meet its revenue targets.

Yet the terms of reference for the committee focused on SARS’s strategic and business plans, its operational and organisational plans, its budget and "the events that have been reported on by the media in recent months".

The danger is that we could be looking at yet more of the secrecy and even duplicity that has characterised the way former acting commissioner Ivan Pillay and other executives have been treated by SARS.

Though Mr Pillay appointed the Sikhakhane panel to look into the allegations around the covert unit, and its supposed findings were the basis of his suspension, the actual findings were never released by Mr Moyane. They have been leaked to the media and Mr Pillay’s court challenge of his suspension has shed some light.

More disconcerting is that Parliament has not summoned Mr Moyane to explain himself or give an account of what has been going on at SARS. Parliamentary committees are usually quick to summon other public entities to explain themselves — this time, the relevant committee appears to have been uninterested, or worse, powerless to summon Mr Moyane.

The Presidency too has been silent on events at what Mr Nene has called "our most important fiscal institution".

The way the SARS debacle has been handled so far has reflected a failure of transparency and accountability. Now we have a new committee that will advise the minister and the commissioner but there is no indication of whether and when it will report back to the public on its findings. Unfortunately, it seems to have only limited powers in terms of the act.

But that should be no excuse for the minister to allow it to be a vehicle to perpetuate the secretive behaviour. Mr Nene needs to fast-track the appointment of the rest of the committee so that it can start working. He needs to clarify its mandate and to commit to reporting back regularly on its findings and recommendations. Above all, we want to be sure that it isn’t just a smokescreen.

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Section 240A of the Tax Administration Act, 2011 (as amended) requires that all tax practitioners register with a recognized controlling body before 1 July 2013. It is a criminal offense to not register with both a recognized controlling body and SARS.

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