Tax Ombudsman vows to continue to hold SARS accountable
By Thabo Mohlala
The tax watchdog said it is bracing itself for a spike in complaints related to delayed payment by SARS due to the Covid-19 pandemic
The office of the Tax Ombudsman (OTO) has managed to put millions back into the pockets of taxpayers after the South African Reserve Services (SARS) unfairly withheld or delayed to pay their refunds.
In its annual report 2019/20, launched two months ago, the OTO revealed that it has helped secure over R116 million for the top 10 tax refunds, saying this money could have been unfairly lost to SARS, had it not intervened.
According to the OTO, a further R73 million in refunds and R6 million in interest payments has been secured from SARs on behalf of a taxpayer who had lodged a complaint with the OTO.
The OTO was formed eight years ago as a legal and independent entity to review and help taxpayers to address complaints related to procedural or administrative disputes with the tax collector. For a long time the tax collector has faced accusations and claims of unfair delay in payments or freezing bank accounts of taxpayers without prior warning.
Speaking exclusively to Business Report, Tax Ombud Judge Bernard Ngoepe said that: “Many taxpayers generally feel intimidated and accept substandard services from SARS, often losing millions of rands as they fear lodging complaints with the OTO; this should not be happening especially when this office is there to assist them.”
Ngoepe said one of the common complaints they receive regularly from taxpayers relates to SARS’s delayed payments of tax refunds and failure to adhere to set timelines for attending to objections and appeals.
“With so much pressure to be put on SARS as a result of the pandemic, we do anticipate that there is going to be an increase in disputes”, said the judge. He appealed to the public not to hesitate to approach his office for assistance, saying his office is ready to resolve taxpayers’ complaints for free and fairly even during Covid-19 lockdown restrictions.
Ngoepe said the OTO has succeeded in reversing “unfair decisions made by SARS on numerous cases, including the lifting of stoppers on taxpayers’ bank accounts and ensuring that the revenue collector attends to objections and appeals timeously, fairly and professionally”.
He encouraged taxpayers to feel free to approach OTO, as their services are free of charge.
“We are impartial and right in the middle. We will listen to their complaints and if they are right we will help them and if they are not we will also advise them that they are wrong”. He said they have expeditious processes, 15 business days turnaround time and they constantly inform complainants about the status of their query.
Said Ngoepe: “We are committed to ensuring that there is a healthy balance between taxpayers’ rights and obligations on the one hand, and SARS’ powers and responsibilities on the other hand. We are committed to ensuring that taxpayers only pay what is due and not a single cent more.”
However, Ngoepe said he is not satisfied about the footprint of the OTO as “there are many taxpayers who are not aware of the office and its duties”. To raise its profile, he said, the OTO has recently embarked on road shows targeting Durban, Cape Town and Limpopo to engage the media and inform people about the office.
In addition, said Ngoepe, they always try to educate taxpayers to make them understand OTO’S role and also encourage them to pay their taxes. “We believe when people understand their obligations to pay tax and are treated fairly it becomes easy for them to comply,” he said
He said the increase in the volume of complaints and the rate of success of his office in assisting taxpayers illustrates the need for the existence of the OTO.
Ngoepe welcomes the spirit of collegiality between his office and SARS, saying the latter is beginning to implement some of the recommendations it made. “It is heartening to see some measures being taken to improve SARS and its operations. We are beginning to see some improvements as a result of issues we’ve raised. There is a need for SARS to capacitate its staff and ensure they interact and treat taxpayers well and fairly,” said Ngoepe.
Notwithstanding the “fruitful relationship” between the OTO and SARS, Ngoepe said “we have no qualms about making findings against the revenue collector”. Similarly, “we do not shy away from making a finding against a taxpayer where appropriate”.
But he expressed disappointment at the fact that the OTO is not yet financially independent and still depends on SARS, adding that it is not an ideal situation especially when the OTO investigates the taxman. He said it is a matter they would continue to pursue to ensure the body is not only physically autonomous from SARS but that it is also self-funding.