People wait in queues to be attended to at the South African Revenue Service offices in Port Elizabeth. Picture: THE HERALD/FREDLIN ADRIAAN
People wait in queues to be attended to at the South African Revenue Service offices in Port Elizabeth. Picture: THE HERALD/FREDLIN ADRIAAN

The tax ombud says it’s not unusual for him to find people crying because their bank accounts have been frozen by the SA Revenue Service (Sars).

The ombud, retired judge Bernard Ngoepe, says it’s a tragedy that SA has a plethora of organisations defending people’s rights, but so little education about what their rights are. He says his office is at pains to educate the public about its role.

The office of the tax ombud is mandated to ensure taxpayers are treated fairly by the taxman and that Sars processes don’t prejudice them. The work cuts across VAT, income tax, customs and excise, and the skills development levy, for example.

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The CEO of Ngoepe’s office, advocate Eric Mkhawane, says there are more than 20 acts within the ombud’s ambit.

In spite of “healthy tension” between his office and Sars, the taxman fully appreciates the need for the ombud, Ngoepe says.

In the past financial year, the ombud, with a staff of more than 40 and an annual budget of R40m, handled more than 3,500 complaints and resolved nearly half of those, resulting in 99% of the ombud’s recommendations being implemented by Sars.

Ngoepe is engaging finance minister Tito Mboweni around deepening the independence of the judge’s office and is seeking a commitment from Sars to implement any recommendations made by the ombud in a 15-day turnaround time.

Mkhawane says agreement on this is critical because the 15 days would often be on the back of a mandatory 21 days Sars has to resolve issues, which can also be extended by a further 21 days.

Sars is also expected to produce “close out” reports indicating what gave rise to problems and what steps it would take to avoid these issues arising again. Most problems relate to the delays in the payment of tax refunds, he says.

Sars’s delays in handling disputes are the bane of taxpayers’ lives and can run upwards of 100 days, often in spite of the ombud’s intervention.

Mkhawane says taxpayers have to follow Sars’s complaints procedures unless compelling circumstances exist for the intervention of the ombud, and the office has done this on a number of occasions.

In 2018, for example, staff heard a live radio broadcast where an entrepreneur complained his business was about to go bust because of a dispute with Sars. They contacted the radio and connected with the complainant. Sars had unfairly withheld the taxpayer’s refund. The ombud’s intervention resolved the issue in a matter of days.

Mkhawane says the tax ombud can lobby to investigate almost any issue that points to systemic problems in Sars.

In an attempt to achieve structural independence for the office, Ngoepe says he has been trying without success to engage seven finance ministers.

“What we are asking for is not uncommon. Other ombuds the world over are independent.

“In the post-apartheid era, we are barred from being a member of the international body of ombuds because we are not structurally independent. The delay under the new dispensation is embarrassing, especially since parliament and the Government Technical Advisory Centre have made recommendations to support us,” Ngoepe says.

A spokesperson for the finance ministry said it had received a memorandum from the tax ombud, which it had yet to study. “It is therefore too early for the ministry to comment,” the spokesperson said.