Sars’ deadline for South Africans with secret Swiss cash

2015-02-15 17:00

South Africans who have stashed millions away in secret HSBC accounts have until the end of this month to apply for leniency before the taxman gets tough.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) – with information obtained by French newspaper Le Monde – this week revealed the data of more than 100?000 clients from 180 countries. It was compiled by former HSBC employee Hervé Falciani.

Of these, 1?787 were South African clients, with deposits worth about $2?billion (R23.4?billion).

These included Fana Hlongwane, arms consultant and special adviser to former defence minister Joe Modise, and Jean-Yves Ollivier, a former South African resident and an Algerian national who the ICIJ described as a peace and hostage negotiator who played a role in securing Nelson Mandela’s release from prison 25 years ago.

Hlongwane’s accounts collectively held as much as $12.6?million in 2006/07, while Ollivier’s held $707?619 in the same period.

According to Falciani, a few of these HSBC clients tried to evade tax.

But a spokesperson for Ollivier told the ICIJ all was above board. “Mr Ollivier became resident in Switzerland in 1994. He has paid all taxes due.”

Hlongwane did not respond to requests for comment.

Vlok Symington, an SA Revenue Service (Sars) group executive, said it had received information about current or former South African residents who held HSBC accounts.

“Sars is in the process of analysing the information received, but early indications are that some of these account holders may have used their HSBC accounts to evade local and/or international tax obligations.”

He said people who had evaded tax could use Sars’ voluntary disclosure programme (VDP) to get their tax affairs in order.

But time is running out – the process lapses at the end of this month.

“Taxpayers who may have used their HSBC accounts to evade local and/or international tax obligations, and who do not make use of the VDP may expose themselves to the risk of further punitive actions by Sars in future.”

Sars would not say when it had received information about the HSBC accounts, but Falciani has said he reached out to European tax authorities as far back as 2008.

Only the French government responded.

In 2010, the French authorities made the data available to other governments.

Symington said South Africa had taken part in global programmes where tax information was exchanged.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development forum the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes is chaired by South Africa. It includes 125 member jurisdictions and the European Union, of which France is a member, making it the largest tax group in the world.

Falciani has written a book on account holders’ attempts to evade tax titled La Cassaforte Degli Evasori (The Safe of the Tax evader) with co-author Angelo Mincuzzi. “The book tells the story of Falciani at HSBC and how the bank was helping tax avoidance,” said Mincuzzi.

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