BUSINESS MAVERICK 168

SARS: Some taxpayers’ tax forms gone in a Flash

By Ruan Jooste 24 January 2021

SARS eFiling relies heavily on Flash, which was originally developed for games and animation, making it susceptible to alterations. But many local tax practitioners have voiced concerns about the looming deadline. (Photo: Gallo Images/Jacques Stander)

The South African Revenue Service (SARS) issued an apology this week to all taxpayers for the disruption in its services brought about by the termination of support of the Adobe Flash Player platform this month.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

This is after the taxman assured Maverick Business that the disruption would be minimal.

In the official release, and in this author’s opinion piece, SARS explicitly stated that it duly noted Adobe’s notice to discontinue support for some of its products beyond December 2020, and with that in mind, it had already migrated the vast majority of its most critical forms to alternative platforms, most notably HTML5.

These include documents related to income tax for individuals, companies and trusts, and value-added tax (VAT).

SARS has, until now, focused on the major tax types with the highest volumes, such as pay-as-you-earn submissions, for example, which it confirmed were largely completed and operationally stable. But where it has admitted it dropped the ball is in respect of its interpretation that the actual functionality of Adobe Flash would continue beyond the “support” date.

“This error has created frustration for many taxpayers, to whom we owe an apology,” it states.

It is understandable that moving the high number of forms that are required to be migrated from Adobe Flash Player to the chosen HTML5 platform is not an easy task. The migration itself is also very complex in its development, testing and deployment requirements. But despite the thousands of technical, administrative and complex business rules to ensure integrity of data, efficient processing and accurate assessment results for tax purposes, SARS misinterpreted the most basic probability. This is not whether a platform will no longer enjoy official technical support, software updates or bug fixes, but what would happen if Adobe Flash stopped working altogether. So whether SARS prioritised the major tax types with the highest volumes, with the rest planned for 2021, is irrelevant.

In an interview with 702’s The Money Show, Intikhab Shaik, head of technology and solutions delivery at SARS, told Bruce Whitfield that SARS did not expect Adobe would “actually block” Flash Player from working. This happened on 12 January 2021.

The only reaction DM168 could get out of SARS was a reissue of the apology, which further states that in light of these ongoing challenges, SARS has implemented various remedial actions to assist taxpayers experiencing “issues”, including an ebooking system to assist taxpayers facing challenges on how to navigate the system, immediate access to a list of frequently asked questions in this regard, and a dedicated toll-free number to provide further Adobe assistance to taxpayers.

SARS adds that it has been actively engaging with stakeholder associations to find workable solutions for tax practitioners. “SARS has commissioned a virtual support hub to provide technical support to this cohort of taxpayers in the interim,” it states.

But taxpayers and practitioners, among others, say that the guidance provided by SARS to bypass the problems is not working.

“The problem is the workaround does not work,” a well-known director of various listed companies wrote to DM168 this week. “So it’s highly doubtful anyone will be able to file returns including VAT,” she said.

“I really don’t think SARS understands that at month-end people will still not be able to file. I have sat on the phone with their Adobe Flash resolvers and nothing suggested works. More of that is not going to help. I have another appointment on Friday but some people will only wake up to the fact that they cannot file at the end of the month and SARS will then not be able to cope.

“I am concerned that no taxes will be collected, including VAT, at the end of this month, as there is no way it can be done manually. I’m not sure if SARS is going to pull a rabbit out of a hat but maybe there is a plan,” she added.

A conveyance attorney told Whitfield that his firm had struggled for more than a week to submit documentation to settle a client’s transfer duty owing to errors related to Adobe Flash.

“The bypass solutions just don’t work,” he said.

The firm was unable to pay transfer duties on behalf of its clients, which had led to significant professional embarrassment for them, he added. The legal practitioner said he had spent hours on the phone, “yet nobody is taking ownership of the problem”.

Tax forms still to be migrated from Adobe Flash to HTML5 include, but are not limited to, those pertaining to dividend transactions, excise duties and levies, and transfer duty declarations.

Shaik told Whitfield that SARS had migrated only 20 of its 44 forms that use Adobe technology, and that a further 16 should be migrated by the end of this week. Eight more will be migrated over the course of this year.

SARS has committed to migrating all remaining forms to HTML5 in 2021.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that owing to the second Covid-19 wave currently affecting the country, all physical SARS offices will be closed until further notice. The taxman made this announcement on 13 January.

“The revenue collector had earlier communicated that its branches would reopen on 18 January 2021.

“However, SARS management has decided to extend the suspension of physical visits to SARS branches until further notice, while continuing with the [use] of virtual branches to service taxpayers,” the official announcement reads.

The decision to keep branches closed will frustrate some taxpayers who have run into trouble with SARS’ online filing services, or virtual resolution options. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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All Comments 9

  • We don’t have a monopoly in idiocy. A Chinese railroad also stopped working when Flash stopped. But they had the trains running again in a day . They are said to have used a pirate version , which does not inspire confidence in the safety of their solution . Go to Jalopnik website to read the whole report. It’s also interesting to read the comments

  • Are we still paying for the errors of the Tom Monyane era which saw SARS shed experienced staff? Their EDI system was designed and launched by the ex head of Nedbank IT (if I recall correctly) some 15 years ago and has not been upgraded/improved much since then. SARS was the last remaining functional government department and if they fail SA is well and truly stuffed!

  • Ruan, you missed an important element of this story in your (well-written) piece: Adobe gave us seven-and-a-half years notice of their intention to retire Flash at the end of December 2020. Not enough time for SARS, evidently.

  • I sincerely hope that SARS won’t penalize Tax Payers who are not able to submit Returns by the end of January 2021, the last effective business day is 29 January.

  • people should screen-grab the failures as proof that they attempted to comply. This month is also deadline for provisional taxpayers to file 2020 returns and next month is second 2021 provisional tax deadline. I’d email the screen grabs to an external party like your accountant or lawyer so that you have date stamped proof of when you tried. SARS loves penalties and those can get nasty

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