/ 20 May 2021

Q&A Sessions: Kieswetter, the choral master of tax

South African Revenue Service (sars) Commissioner Edward Kieswetter Interview
No nonsense: Edward Kieswetter says ‘the actors of state capture, until today, still have their tentacles everywhere’, even in the revenue service. (Dwayne Senior/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Commissioner Edward Kieswetter, head of the South African Revenue Service, will not tolerate any political interference at the tax authority.Once voted SA’s best boss, he tells Lynn James about growing up in Cape Town and his love of music – he is a choral conductor — and red wine

You initially studied electrical engineering — you hold three master’s degrees — and your field of study includes maths, science and education. What motivated you to study this broadly? 

I was born in Maitland, Cape Town, and grew up in a single-roomed flat with my parents and four siblings. I was torn between studying music and electrical engineering. My parents were both involved with music in our church, and they were both soloists with beautiful voices. We probably learned to sing before we could talk. Because of poverty, we could not afford musical instruments, so our most natural musical instruments were our voices. 

Due to the political situation, my parents could not afford to send me to university because bursaries were only available for teaching and nursing, and I did not want to study either. So, for the first eight years, I studied part-time while working. I was 26 years old when I went to university for the first time. I did the first four years of my engineering studies at the Peninsula Technikon, now known as the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. I went on to study at the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape. 

You are not new to the South African Revenue Service [Sars] and held positions at Eskom and Alexander Forbes. What would you regard as the highlight of your career? 

My dad, who passed away four years ago, was a slave driver, and I learned the ethics of honest, hard work from him. My mom taught me the purpose of my life. The profound lesson that I am here to be a blessing. We always knew during the apartheid years that we had to invest in ourselves to grow. The home that I grew up in equipped me with the skills to survive and a sense of purpose. 

There are many career highlights, but I think the proudest moment was when I was a young power station manager at Eskom at the age of 39. Because of my staff I was voted South Africa’s best boss. We receive accolades from boards, shareholders and the media. But when your staff votes for you, I think it’s the best reward any manager can receive. 

Sars collected an additional R138-billion in revenue despite the poor economic conditions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. This is good news, but you still have concerns about some wealthy individuals. 

We must acknowledge the progress we are making. But one must be careful not to declare victory too soon. Someone as close to the fire as I am knows the work that must still be done. One mountain we must still climb at Sars is to completely restore institutional integrity and build a winning organisation. Secondly, we still must ensure that those who have the financial means to arrange their affairs are still obliged to pay tax. 

The rich live well within their means, and they accumulate wealth. Some of this wealth they then choose to spread between onshore and offshore savings. In principle, there is nothing we object to. But they do not hold wealth in their names and often hold it in trusts, companies and other entities, which places distance between them as beneficial owners and legal owners. 

They often also take their funds offshore because it is easier to mask their wealth by using these accounts. But there are a few things they need to do: seek the approval of the Reserve Bank; do it within the formal financial system to ensure there is a trail of evidence and disclose it for tax purposes. That is my concern now. 

You aim to rebuild Sars into “a smart and modern entity with unquestionable integrity”. What has been some of the pushback?

From the moment of the announcement of my appointment, certain constituencies within society questioned the process and tried to overturn the appointment. We have been very clear that state capture was real and that the actors of state capture, until today, still have their tentacles everywhere, even in Sars. No one stands up and owns the wrongdoing, yet you and I see the evidence as members of society. 

Our society is still factionalised and, generally, when there is corruption happening, it is between people with political capital and financial capital. Our stance has been very clear at Sars. Where there is evidence that an employee undermines our mandate or colludes with other parties to undermine our work, it will not be tolerated.  

You have an interesting family heritage. Tell us a bit more of your origins. 

My grandfather hails from a German family who entered South Africa via South West Africa (today Namibia). He married a woman who had a mix of Malaysian and Khoi heritage. My maternal grandmother was born on the island of St Helena, and my grandfather is of European descent. I guess I am probably more universal than anyone else because I come from the east, west and south (laugh). I ended up in a coloured township called Kensington in Cape Town, where I spent my childhood days. 

Tell us more about Edward, the choral conductor? 

We grew up with music, and I started singing at a very young age. I could not dance because it was regarded as a sin. I did learn to play the recorder and messed around on the keyboard, among other instruments. As a young boy, my son saw me conducting, and he took it to the next level. Both my sons hold master’s degrees in music, and they are both very active music performers and teachers. It all started with my parents. 

You have quite a few hobbies, from collecting wine, writing books for your children and even trying your hand at architecture.

I am a creator and a very curious person. Writing is a way of expressing your thinking, so I often sit down and write. I recently finished a book about my parents with the title Parents Perfect For Me. It really is a love letter to my parents, thanking them for their impact on my life. I started my love for design and building quite by accident. One of my subjects as an engineering student was drawing, and I managed to draw up plans for an outbuilding, which I submitted and was approved. I enjoy red wine and collect quite a lot. Obviously I had to find a place to store it and designed a wine cellar when I designed my house. 

Being a choral master, what’s your favourite genre? 

I have quite an eclectic taste in music. But I do find a liking in orchestral, classical and choral music. I also, through my sons, started liking theme music for movies. Often, when people watch movies, they don’t appreciate the depth of creativity that goes into the written theme music. Very often, long after the movie, I still listen to the music.