Culture of fear and racial tension at SARS, says Kieswetter

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Edward Kieswetter
Edward Kieswetter

New SARS Commissioner Edward Kieswetter says his engagement with employees has revealed a work climate marked by a culture where there is a lack of trust in the tax agencys leadership, as well as racial tension.

Kieswetter, who took over as SARS boss on May 1, said he had embarked on a process of engaging with staff, in a bid to get a better understanding of the troubled tax revenue service.

"... I found that many of our staff have lost trust in the leadership, many of them have a broken spirit. We have unfortunately created a culture of fear and intimidation, and racial tension is sadly high in the organisation," said Kieswetter.

Kieswetter is tasked with turning around the organisation, which has been tainted by allegations of poor governance under its former chief, Tom Moyane, who was fired by President Cyril Ramaphosa following a judicial inquiry into the affairs of the tax agency. The commission, led by Judge Robert Nugent, recommended Moyane's removal.

"When people lose trust, they take it out of each other," he said.

Breakdown in confidence

The former group chief executive at Alexander Forbes is no stranger to SARS, as he previously served as deputy commissioner between 2004 and 2009. He said he was aware that times had changed.

"I was here 10 years ago, and risks have changed, economic drivers have changed. Our responses need to change, and part of what I need to do is not to simply think that things would be the same as they were 10 years ago."

The Nugent report, which was released in December 2018, painted a bleak picture of governance failures, and systems it said were "dismantled" under Moyane, impacting effective revenue collection and organisational efficiency.

"Today we report a loss of skills, we report a decline in morals, a breakdown in public confidence, [and] an environment that is unfortunately characterised by fear," he said, dynamics he described as unhelpful in building a resilient organisation.

Implementing Nugent recommendations

Kieswetter mentioned that he had told staff he would be implementing the recommendations of the Nugent inquiry.

"I am clear where I stand on the Nugent commission and the state capture project, and I made it clear that the recommendations are taken seriously and that I will address them."

He said during his engagements with staff, he was inspired by the realisation that the organisation still had people who still believed in the organisation and had "institutional memory" of the old SARS era. 

"That memory is an asset".

'Illicit unit'

Rebuilding capacity of the organisation, including the reintroduction of enforcement units that were dismantled under Moyane, has been at the forefront of the new commissioner's strategy.

Kieswetter said SARS was currently working to identity how best to address the illicit economy phenomenon, stressing that there are people within the organisation who are currently dealing with the issue as it manifests itself. 

"You don’t start with the unit, you start with the work," he said, adding that under the acting commissioner Mark Kingon, SARS had immediately responded by creating capacity, as some of the people who were previously involved in the work were still around. 

"When we have decided what our response ought to be, we will create capacity to deal with it, and that might give birth to what you call a unit."

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