Matthew Lester
Matthew Lester

Matthew Lester, one of SA’s foremost tax experts, lost his battle against illness on Monday at the age of 56.

He qualified as a chartered accountant and then did his national service at the receiver of revenue as a tax inspector, which he found he was quite good at. But he turned from being a game warden to a poacher as a tax consultant. That didn’t last long, thanks to his father, who told him: "Those who can’t, teach. And those who can’t teach, lecture. And those who can’t lecture, consult."

He arrived at the department of accounting at Rhodes University in 1998 to "rehabilitate" himself from being a tax consultant. The real motive, I suspect, was a lifetime passion for fishing and walking his dogs.

The loss of Matthew’s talents to the receiver of revenue and the tax consulting profession was an immense gain for every tax student who ever sat in his classroom. In 2001, he received the Rhodes University Vice-Chancellors Award for distinguished teaching. In 2009, Matthew received the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ Southern Region Honours Tie for his contribution to education.

By then he was doing a series of tax updates on the national circuit, where there was often standing room only. Matthew’s wit, his ability to talk to the most conservative or liberal audiences and show the facts as they were was truly remarkable.

In 2011, he moved to the Rhodes Business School. A new course — stewardship and governance — was introduced, which enabled Matthew to propel his passion for ethical governance into a new dimension. He was adamant that there was a moral perspective to taxation and he would regularly tell spellbinding stories about the negative effects of base erosion and profit shifting. In other words, just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.

He was appointed a member of the Davis tax committee in July 2013, which he served with distinction. The commission accepted his recommendations for the turnover tax system for microbusinesses to be retained with lower tax rates and more relaxed deregistration requirements, as well as his recommendations to tighten up on interest-free loans to trusts. It adopted his advice to apply a higher estate-duty rate on estates in excess of R30m.

As the Davis tax committee noted: "These were in fact Prof Lester’s interim attempts to address the massive wealth inequality in SA until such time that a more comprehensive wealth tax can be considered."

Matthew was deeply committed to social justice. He was committed to trying to find a way to solve #FeesMustFall and frequently met with students to explain how the national budget could be configured.

In his home town of Kenton-on-Sea in the Eastern Cape, he helped small businesses get off the ground. Free financial advice was rendered to anybody who wanted it.

His mind was always busy contemplating how SA could achieve a better life for all.

He wrote: "South Africans have to start confronting their future, as what SA is today is clearly not sustainable."

Laughter was his vehicle to convey his frank message. Solutions were offered and people came away feeling inspired and ready to commit. He was optimistic about SA and said 95% of us are determined to work towards improving the country.

SA has lost a great mind. Hopefully, his legacy of a fair and equitable tax system will prevail.