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Impartiality key for new tax ombud

Thalia Holmes

Retired judge Bernard Ngoepe's diagnostic skills will be put to the test as South Africa's first tax ombud.

Tax ombud Bernard Ngoepe. (M&G)

As former judge-president of the North Gauteng high court, retired Judge Bernard Ngoepe is probably comfortable with the role of adjudicator. But his diagnostic skills will be put to the test in a new way with his role as South Africa's first tax ombud.

Officially opened to the tax-paying public on Monday, Ngoepe's office has unofficially been operating since October 1 following his appointment, a move that was provided for by the Tax Administration Act of 2011.

The thinly staffed office has been operating with an interim workforce largely on loan from the South African Revenue Services (Sars) – the body about which its complaints will be received.

Despite this, Ngoepe outlined his strong intention to maintain the independence of the office, which will be accountable to the finance ministry rather than the revenue service.

"We hope that we can be truly independent," he said. "We hope in due course … people will have confidence in the general administration of tax."

Slew of complaints
In the six months between then and now, the office of the tax ombud has been approached 673 times. Complaints were divided into serious issues, systemic issues, emerging issues and recommendations. But 91% of the approaches received fell outside the ambit of the office. Only 9% (61 complaints) were deemed as valid. Of the complaints received, 70% have been resolved, and 30% are in progress or still awaiting feedback from Sars.

At Monday's launch of the office, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said the public may wonder why a tax ombud had been so long in coming. "You may ask why it [wasn't established] 20 years ago."

The answer, he said, was that the need and ability had evolved with South Africa as a democracy. In establishing the office now, he said, South Africa could draw from the best practice of other countries.

"The model that we've developed is one that is adapted from those of Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia – and their experiences over the last 15 or 20 years in terms of how the tax ombud actually works, and what is appropriate for South Africa," Gordhan said.


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