Comments delivered by Tax Ombud, Judge Bernard M. Ngoepe at the SAIGA ANNUAL CONFERENCE 2022.
The theme of your conference is; “Step up to the mark and put citizens first”. Within the context of the above theme, the question I am asked to address specifically is: “How can South Africa overcome its obstacles”. Both the theme and the question could not have been raised at a more appropriate time, for the reasons that we all know. Given their importance, they require honest approach and answers; both of which may visit one with some unpopularity. But the situation in which the country presently finds itself, is too grave to worry about that; therefore, I congratulate you on choosing such an important theme and critical question, just at the right time.
In order for us to be able to overcome our obstacles, we must, first and foremost, be frank enough to acknowledge them. They are many, varied and fundamental; fundamental in the sense that they deeply compromise the enjoyment of our basic human rights: massive unemployment, poor health facilities, poor education, lack of roof over our heads, no running or regular running water, and an unreliable electricity supply; that is, a failure to provide even the most basic of services. Let us remind ourselves that this is not a country without resources; it is a question of how resources are used or, more appropriately, misused. A country without resources cannot produce as many billionaires as we have, let alone the plethora of millionaires; it cannot be reported to have the biggest gulf between the rich and the poor in the world, because we would otherwise all be poor; yet that is not the case, in fact, the fear is that the divide is getting wider. It must be arrested.
In attempting to address the burning questions you ask, we must go further to again be frank enough to accept that the root cause of the ills that bedevil us is the lack of economic development; directly or indirectly, they are all linked to that. It follows, therefore, that we must generate economic development. For government to be able to do that and to address the basic needs of the people referred to earlier, it requires money. The problem here is that the government is not an employee, there to receive income; on the contrary, it is an employer. To have money, it needs to collect tax but which, as I argue later, must be used prudently for the benefit of the people. That is where I step in as the Tax Ombud and that is why perhaps you invited me; a task I have been charged with for the past 9 years, with my term ending possibly this month. In that role, I must make sure that the South African Revenue Service (SARS) collects tax in a fair and lawful manner. I take taxpayers’ complaints up with SARS and, where appropriate, make recommendations if I find in favour of the taxpayer; I even investigate systemic issues which, by their nature, affect a number of taxpayers. But, my role being impartial, I have also taken the attitude that taxpayers must give to Caesar what is due to him; that, inasmuch as they should not be made to pay one cent more than they should, they dare not pay one cent less than they should. The duty to pay tax does, at the same time, give taxpayers the right to demand that taxes be used correctly and with some accountability – a point to which I return later. Indeed, with prudent and honest use of taxes, we may find ourselves borrowing less from international financial institutions, for example; we might find ourselves with a manageable or increasingly decreasing foreign debt. To the very pertinent question you ask “How can South Africa overcome its obstacles?”, I therefore answer it from the perspective of how we use people’s tax.
The same frankness with which we acknowledged our problems, must lead us to accept that many problems largely resulted from the fact that we did not use the people’s tax correctly. If any further evidence was needed to confirm that, the Zondo Commission’s findings have settled all the doubt; in fact, it largely confirms what had all along been an open secret. We therefore know that through rampant corruption and theft, we wasted the wealth of the nation. Before I venture further as to how we can get things right, let me restate, for context, the magnitude of the waste revealed by the Zondo Commission: billions, possibly trillions, have been stolen; what is more, a lot of that money has allegedly been taken out of the country with the result that not a cent thereof will ever be invested here; I call that a total theft. The Office of the Tax Ombud, which has for years been ensuring that taxpayers are treated fairly so that they are tax compliant, is deeply hurt by all these revelations. By exhorting taxpayers to pay not one cent less, and by warning them against tax evasion and against aggressive tax avoidance schemes, one feels as though we lead them like sheep to the slaughter house, where they would be devoured by wolves and vultures. 1994 came and, soon thereafter, we began to drop the ball and abandoned the bigger picture we had envisioned. It was also partly because of my role as the Tax Ombud, witnessing what was happening to the resources of the country, that I felt the urge to put down some thoughts,
raising issues in my book: “Rich Pickings out of the Past.” I cannot therefore entirely divorce myself from some parts of that book in answering your million dollar question, namely, how can we overcome our obstacles? Well, we can; provided we reflect on our past, both before and post 1994. I must make it clear that while I recognize your role in guarding the nation’s wealth, my points go beyond just your or your profession. For, was it not so that, in any case, monies were stolen, not only despite the supposed vigilant watch of accountants, but in some instances, through their active assistance? Indeed, some were alleged to be thieves themselves; large firms were implicated; so too a host of other professionals such as engineers and lawyers. It is therefore clear that professional ethics alone were, and cannot be, sufficient on their own. The cause of the rot must, in my view, therefore have been deeper and wider. Our traditional belief that men and women steeped in professional ethics are safe keepers of our national wealth, has been deeply shaken. We must therefore, in our quest for answers to your questions, look at all of our society of which we are, professional or otherwise, an integral part after all.
I cast no specific aspersions on you as professionals, either collectively or individually. But we are convinced, as I have just said, that professional rules and ethics have not been enough to protect us against greed and corruption. One cannot exhaust all the ills that led to the breakdown of society, of which you are part. But, the same frankness requires of us to point out to a few and to suggest as to what could be done. The findings of the Zondo Commission allow for no delay because prosecuting people alone would not be sufficient. 1994 held great promises; we envisioned a prosperous country where our people would enjoy a better life. How come we dropped the ball?
To start with, I think we abandoned our values as a people. These values taught us to distinguish between, simply put, right and wrong and good and bad. The abandonment of these values, some of which guided and strengthened our resolve to defeat apartheid, happened both at the individual and collective levels; as well as the local, provincial and national levels. Our forebears saw it as their sacred duty to nurture in us those values, which translated into simple things such as respect and concern for each other; they sought to inculcate in us the Ubuntu that we now so fashionably talk about, but without even beginning to practice it. Properly practised, these values would tell us, as your theme says, to “put citizens first”. To be able to do so though, you must see yourself as, first and foremost, a South African, a patriot, before you are an accountant, a lawyer, a politician or, importantly, even as a member of a particular political party. In other words, first see yourself as part of everybody; part of the entire citizenry and humanity around you; that would put you in the same boat with them; it would make you share the same sufferings and fate with them. In that way, you would not want to hurt them, to starve them through theft and maladministration; you would not want to deprive people with whom you share a common past of deprivation, want and disease. Those who have no qualms about doing that, have long abandoned the fundamental values referred to above, generously bequeathed to us by our forebears who wisely chose not to go with them to the grave; those are the shameless, the greedy; the thieves. Indeed, in some instances, we have not only violated the oaths we took, but also basic moral rules and religious rules. Supposedly devout Christians, Muslims, Hindus, people of the Jewish faith, have all been caught with their fingers in the till!!
There is a big problem when we tell ourselves that our conduct falls only to be controlled by strict cold criminal law, or, as I told other people, by Minister Bheki Cele’s law. Our conduct must be controlled by all the other sets of rules I referred to above: moral, professional, religious and societal expectations which were enforced by even a sheer fear of a taboo. These sets of rules would shepherd and steer our conduct away from a possible breach of the law.
Incredibly, we have now reached a point where we neither respect nor fear even criminal law! The results are unprecedented lawlessness, greed, corruption, nepotism, etc. The Zondo Commission has, as I have already said, settled all doubt that the ball has been dropped; that the great vision is in danger of total disintegration.
Your question whether the country can overcome its obstacles is so pertinent, that it cannot be avoided; but, here too, the answer must be frank. We are not, as yet, beyond redemption. But we must look back into the past, and extract some valuable lessons. To many questions directed to me about the book, I explained why that title. I refer to the past as “a great teacher”. It’s because history never lies; you may try to distort it, but that does not and can never make it a liar; the liar would the distorter; the past is as fixed as a mountain, or a beacon, and therefore constitutes a reliable point of reference.
Locked in the past are the values whose loss I have just lamented; they should be relearnt. Again, dreadful as our history is, there is much to learn from it. Just one or two points to validate my argument briefly: Ask the past: why did so few whites (not even all white people) who were the champions of apartheid manage to put down so many millions of black people and other whites for so long a time? It was because of their honest and total commitment to make apartheid work, even though it was a misguided policy and just a pipe dream. If they could for so long a time impose an evil system that was condemned by the whole world, how come that we failed, for any length of time post 1994, to make success of a democratic dispensation acclaimed and supported by so many millions of us and by the rest of the world? It is because, amongst others, we failed to learn from apartheid practitioners the importance of honest commitment towards the achievement of a collective purpose. Had we done so, we would have made this country a far better place for our people. Instead, we compromised our principles; we sold our souls to the lowest bidders and gave away our much needed resources for nothing, including to foreigners. Pipping into history, we will learn a lot more. We will find that men and women of all races sacrificed a great deal, including their lives, for a better South Africa. As one of the three judges appointed in 1996 to hear applications for Amnesty, I was told how people fighting for a new South Africa were tortured, maimed and killed. I argue that perhaps if we were to revisit all these, to revisit our painful past, we might be reminded of the high price paid for a new South Africa, and then recommit ourselves to making it a reality.
But it is not only people in leadership positions who lost the plot; ordinary people too have and continue to do so, young and old. My sword therefore cuts at both ends. We have for example seen people in one area burning down several schools simply because they did not want to fall under a particular municipality, prompted by nothing else but thinly disguised tribal bias; we have seen parents preventing their children from going to school simply because they wanted a tarred road through their village; we have seen academic infrastructure damaged allegedly by students themselves; we have seen infrastructure like civic halls and clinics destroyed in the name of delivery protests, only to find no clinic to visit the next day. It has just been alleged that children set their school alight simply because the police confiscated from them what the law allowed the police to do. All these people too, all of us, need to revisit the past for reinvigoration if there is to be any hope of reigniting and redeeming our vision.
Judge B M Ngoepe, Tax Ombud
14 September 2022, Pretoria