South African Revenue Service (SARS) Commissioner Tom Moyane believes the institution he leads is “under attack”, is facing an “onslaught” and generally is being undermined. Briefing the parliamentary finance committee on Tuesday, Moyane cautioned about the first signs of “a disturbing trend whereby tax compliance levels are beginning to deteriorate” that could negatively affect the country’s coffers. Moyane took his fight-back to MPs amid ructions over the presidential instructions that cut short Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s investor road show abroad without much of an explanation, heightened speculation of a Cabinet reshuffle, and Day One of a court hearing for a declaratory order that the finance minister could not intervene in a decision by banks to close accounts of various Gupta-owned businesses. By MARIANNE MERTEN.
The running battles between Pravin Gordhan and Tom Moyane, who EFF leader Julius Malema during a media briefing in February 2016 described as “Zuma’s nanny” in exile, are not new, and hold many twists and turns. These are steeped in the factional tensions within the governing ANC and its alliance partners.
Most recently, there was Moyane’s request to President Jacob Zuma, who appointed him in 2014, to assign a third party as mediator between him and the finance minister, which emerged at a media briefing called by the SARS boss late last month.
There was the issue of the leaked “confidential letters” showcasing the frosty relationship between the two – at least some of it over a dodged handshake – published in the Mail & Guardian.
There was the issue of Moyane opening the case with police in Pretoria over an allegedly unauthorised investigative unit within the tax collecting authority that led to last year’s ultimately aborted fraud case against Gordhan, former SARS commissioner Oupa Magashula and SARS deputy commissioner Ivan Pillay. The charges over the approval of a retirement package for Pillay, who was subsequently rehired as a consultant, were formally withdrawn in late October 2016, but only after the drama of SARS senior lawyer Vlok Symington being held hostage by Hawks investigators, and reportedly a bodyguard of Moyane’s.
And then there is the issue of Moyane’s deputy Jonas Makwakwa, who was suspended in September 2016, alongside SARS employee and girlfriend Kelly-Ann Elskie, pending investigation of a series of money transactions into his bank account between 2010 and last year.
But on Tuesday Moyane sidestepped these issues raised in questions by DA MPs David Maynier and Alf Lees and EFF MP Natasha Louw. He said he could not answer regarding Symington because the charges he subsequently laid are still under investigation by the police watchdog, the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (Ipid). Ditto, the outside legal firm probe of Makwakwa. And after having written to the presidency with regards to mediation, Moyane told MPs: “The matter is still with the Presidency.”
Instead, Moyane painted a picture of there being “unwarranted attacks to sabotage SARS”. It was a focused effort to reverse the public discourse that it was the National Treasury that was under sustained pressure, painting the tax collector as victim of a negative narrative by the media and commentators.
“The attacks on SARS could sabotage our country and have had an impact on the morale of the staff,” said Moyane. “These attacks (on SARS) not only impact negatively the reputation of the institution that I lead… but they impact extremely negatively on the morale of the 14,500 men and women of SARS.”
And he added: “What concerns me most is the apparent bias and mischievous attitude by some to cast aspersions on the character of the institution, to perpetuate a negative narrative of an organisation that is falling apart.”
Similarly, questions over claims that SARS is withholding VAT refunds were dismissed as inaccurate. On average, refunds are being paid within 22 days and backlog cases are being cleared, said SARS Group Executive: Strategy Development and Analysis Marius Papenfus: “In addition to this achievement, the majority of refunds are being paid out.”
Moyane declined to answer questions by Maynier and Louw, respectively, on the “civil war” or “warfare” between himself and the finance minister. “There’s no blood on the floor. That question is not going to be answered,” said Moyane, after arguing that any war analogy, concrete or metaphorical, was inappropriate. “My understanding, civil war means where blood is being shed, where people are killed… English is my third or fourth language… The word civil war, my mind races to the situation of Somalia.” And as far as warfare is concerned, he said: “You don’t see guns and tanks. I will not be able to respond. Yes, there are differences of opinion.”
But what did emerge was the SARS Commissioner’s bugbear over the finance minister’s Budget comments on the R30-billion tax collection shortfall, also reflected in the budget review document.
Moyane insisted it was important to “debunk” this figure, which he described as “an albatross”.
It was all about the troubled economic times. “Under my stewardship we surpassed levels… SARS has outperformed the economy,” Moyane told MPs. “R30-billion is not the first time there is a shortfall.” And he proceeded to point out there had been a R60-billion shortfall in the 2009/10 financial year. That, of course, was the year when, in May, Gordhan was appointed finance minister and Magashula took over as SARS commissioner. SARS group executive Randall Carolissen echoed this, saying: “This casts a very bad light on SARS, this R30-billion.”
The Budget documentation makes it clear the R30-billion shortfall was the first since 2009/10. Elsewhere on the page, Moyane also quoted: “This is the largest tax revenue shortfall relative to budgeted estimates since 2009/10.”
However, in response to ANC questions on what SARS was doing about collusion, particularly in the financial sector, Moyane said he’s awaiting a legal opinion on what the tax collector could do. This comes as Zuma, in response to a DA parliamentary question on a possible commission of inquiry into the financial services sector, said: “I am not considering appointing a commission of inquiry at the moment.”
Moyane and his team of seven executives were in Parliament reluctantly as all hands were needed on deck as only three days remained to collect around R80-billion of taxes before the end of the month. “Being here places a huge burden because it is defocusing us on the work at hand,” the SARS boss told MPs.
But they came, took the opportunity to put their riposte, and did so seemingly successfully. The finance committee’s acting chairperson, ANC MP Pule Mabe, in a subsequent statement on the meeting, said: “The men and women that are tasked to lead the revenue service is a team that has the capacity to deal with the refunds and shortfalls that SARS faces.” DM
The original photo: SARS Commissioner Tom Moyane (GCIS)
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