Sars commissioner Edward Kieswetter. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA/FINANCIAL MAIL
Sars commissioner Edward Kieswetter. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA/FINANCIAL MAIL

Decide where you stand. That’s the message the newly appointed SA Revenue Service (Sars) commissioner, Edward Kieswetter, has for his colleagues at the tax agency.

Kieswetter takes the reins at the embattled revenue service — one of the many institutions hollowed out by state capture — next month.

The new Sars boss is not unfamiliar with the effects of state capture — or with what needs to be done to clear out the rot. For the past year, he has served on the board of Transnet, one of the state-owned enterprises weakened by rampant corruption and mismanagement over the past decade.

The new Transnet board, under Popo Molefe, hit the ground running when it was appointed a year ago, wasting no time in removing those allegedly considered complicit in state capture — including group CEO Siyabonga Gama — and recovering money allegedly looted through procurement contracts.

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So what did Kieswetter learn from his time in the Transnet trenches?

"There are many who, through their silence or through their incompetence, stood by and allowed [state capture] to happen," he tells the FM. "But there are many who were actively part of the sophisticated engineering of state capture — [creating] a false sense of demand in certain areas, or [inflating] that demand to blow up a grand procurement plan worth hundreds of millions or billions of rands, and then … siphon[ing] off some of that value."

The problem, he says, is that "there are still those among us who are in denial about state capture".

The message he delivered to his colleagues at Transnet, he says — the same one he will deliver at Sars — is that he can draw only one of two conclusions about those who deny the "real and devastating" state-capture project: "You are either ignorant or incompetent, or you are complicit. You must decide where you stand."

It’s a pertinent message. Last year, judge Robert Nugent headed a commission of inquiry into governance failures at Sars. These were partly credited with revenue shortfalls that resulted in a VAT increase in 2018 — the first such increase in more than two decades — which hurt the poor.

On Nugent’s recommendation, disgraced Sars boss Tom Moyane was fired in November. Nugent found that Moyane lacked integrity and had colluded with consultants Bain & Co to implement a restructuring of Sars that severely weakened the agency.

Leadership is about lighting candles. It’s about dispelling the darkness not by fighting it, but by adding its antithesis — by adding light
Edward Kieswetter

So Moyane has gone, but there are concerns that little has yet been done to weed out those aligned to him.

For Kieswetter, the matter is simple: if you’re not on the side of SA’s young democracy — of healing and deepening that democracy — then "you are part of the problem".

He says the Nugent commission flagged certain individuals in the breakdown of Sars, adding that he will follow up on, and accelerate the implementation of, the commission’s recommendations.

While Kieswetter notes that internal disciplinary procedures and processes have been instituted in some cases, he says he will "make sure that [these are] very quickly dealt with because [they] create uncertainty in the organisation".

But he says he will not pick an argument with anyone simply for the sake of it. "It would not serve me well if I walk in on day one and suspect everybody. If I do that, then those people who are actually complicit — whether by omission or commission — they would kind of get away with it, because I would be generalising and painting everyone with the same brush."

He does, however, intend to move quickly, engaging with senior leaders and inviting them to share what they know with him.

"People will quickly reveal their true colours — where they stand — and I will invite people to tell me where they stand," he says.

Kieswetter says he cannot afford to include anyone in his senior leadership team who is not dedicated to turning Sars around.

However, he does not need people to be loyal to him personally, but rather to the revenue service’s purpose.

For his own part, he says, when President Cyril Ramaphosa sent out the thuma mina call, he had to rethink his retirement plans, instead putting up his hand and saying "If I am needed, send me."

The new commissioner, the son of a labourer and a seamstress, was "born on the slopes of Table Mountain". Growing up in a township, in an environment rife with gangsterism, he was determined that neither society nor his circumstances would define him.

"So from my dad, who was the slave driver, I learnt the ethic of hard work, and from my mum I learnt that I am here to be a blessing," Kieswetter says.

It’s this mix that he will bring to Sars. Not that he’s new to the tax authority. Kieswetter was deputy commissioner between 2004 and 2009, when the agency was headed by current public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan.

Asked about what he expects will have changed in the intervening years, he talks about being a "light" and not focusing on the negative.

"We need to stop talking about the negativity around Sars. The Nugent commission is there; the findings of what went wrong in the past four years are there. It’s sad what the reality is, [but] we have to deal with it.

What it means

: The new tax agency boss won’t just have to fix Sars; he will also have to deal with the politics of his role

"For me, leadership is about lighting candles. It’s about dispelling the darkness not by fighting it, but by adding its antithesis — by adding light."

Kieswetter says since his appointment was announced, he has received messages from staff at the tax agency saying a cloud has been lifted, and that they look forward to going to work for the first time in a while.

"So the first priority for me will be to come in and add light, and go into every room and light more candles to bring hope to displace the despair and lack of motivation and declining morale. And how do we do that? By connecting to the hearts and minds of people; by helping them understand again that the original higher purpose of Sars is still pretty much there," he says.

To that end, Kieswetter says perceptions of Sars have to change: it has to be respected, not feared. Only then will the decline in tax morality, compliance and, therefore, revenue be reversed. And that requires the right people, with strong leadership.

But Kieswetter’s role will involve more than just fixing Sars; he will also have to manage the politics attached to his position. He has already come under fire from the EFF, which tried to link him personally to Gordhan and former finance minister Trevor Manuel.

It’s not something he plans to entertain. "I am a professional manager, not a politician," he says. "I am not going to be distracted by people who come out and make these outrageous allegations. This job is too big — I’m going to focus on doing the work."

This is welcome news, given that a defining characteristic of Sars during Moyane’s tenure was the politicisation of the revenue service. In fact, one of Nugent’s crucial recommendations was that Ramaphosa ensure the new commissioner would be "apolitical".

Kieswetter says he will not be walking into his job arrogantly, thinking "a couple of slaps and we fix it".

"I am mindful that this is a daunting task and that I will need all the help I can get from people in Sars, who will hopefully make this a great place to work. [In that way], we can attract great people, as we have before, and engage the broader public to become part of this ecosystem of compliance. We can’t do this on our own."