NASTASSIA ARENDSE: President Cyril Ramaphosa has chosen the former chief executive officer of the country’s largest insurance and retirement fund advisor to restore South Africa’s tax agency, which has missed annual collection targets each year since 2015. None other than Edward Kieswetter has been tasked with rebuilding skills and trust within Sars, and between Sars and taxpayers as well.
Edward joins us on the line this evening. Edward, I must start off with congratulations on your appointment. I can imagine it is with a feeling of excitement, but also of understanding the daunting task ahead of you. How are you feeling at this point?
EDWARD KIESWETTER: Thank you. Good evening. I think you hit the nail right on the head. It is a mixed feeling. On the one hand it’s a huge honour and privilege to be asked to serve in such a critical role at such a delicate time in our country’s history. At the same time I step into it understanding the daunting nature of the task.
But thankfully this is not a one-man show, and I will rely on the help of many, many thousands of committed, honest and hardworking men and women. I particularly would like to commend the incumbent acting commissioner, Mark Kingon, who has done a sterling job holding the fort in this interim period.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: When the South African Airways CEO was appointed, Vuyani Jarana, the first question I asked him in an interview was “Why did you apply for this job, because SAA seems like such a complex institution to try to fix?” His response was that he felt that, based on his experience, he had a lot to offer in order to change the way we viewed SAA. Is it the same for you, taking into consideration your corporate experience, but also including your experience within Sars? How are you planning to approach this journey ahead?
EDWARD KIESWETTER: When our president made his inaugural State of the Nation address, and reached out with his sincere and genuine Thuma Mina invitation, what came out was it’s easier to stand on the side and to criticise. But eventually some of us must be prepared to roll up our sleeves and offer our help, especially in areas where we think we can add value. So it’s not a difficult decision to put one’s name into the hat and to say “I’m here to serve”.
When I left Alexander Forbes, it was my very intention to lead a more balanced life, spend more time with my family, and go into some sort of semi-retirement. I am here to tell you I have miserably failed in retirement. So I decided to join government – and especially to support our president in this role is a privilege and honour.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: I know you haven’t started, and I suppose we’ll do one of those things where, from May 1, we’ll give you 100 days and then we’ll check with you to see if everything is okay, and if you are still happy with your decision. Nonetheless, you’ve probably had an opportunity to see what has been happening within Sars, particularly when it comes to some of the revelations that have come out of the Sars inquiry. I suppose a whole host of things worry you – with the taxpayers and yourself and the president as well. But as I mentioned in the intro, you are being tasked with rebuilding skills and trust in Sars. Where do we even start? The low-hanging fruit, in your opinion? I know it’s before you even walk into the building, but from your perspective right now, how do we build that trust between Sars and taxpayers?
EDWARD KIESWETTER: You know, leadership is an important role in any organisation. It’s not nice when you get up every morning and read in the newspapers and on the media negative press about your organisation. It’s understandable that people lose faith and the morale dips, and they lose confidence and trust. At the top of one’s priorities has to be to openly engage with our staff and to create a sense of hope and trust; but also to restore within them the pride to work for an organisation that is respected. For me that’s very important.
In addition to that, it’s important to address all of those skills, capabilities and efficiencies that have been eroded over the last number of years. So that’s the first thing, and that’s an internal assignment.
Alongside that, and equally important – because, remember, one of the key priorities of Sars is to collect the revenue that is due, and we have seen the decline in revenue – is the need to reach out to South Africans, to the taxpaying public, and to also restore their confidence and trust. The South African Revenue Service must be respected, not feared, and to do that we must be able to continue to provide unquestionable service, led by an extensive higher purpose. And then, where necessary, enforce responsibility because, unfortunately, you’ll always have those individuals, corporates and citizens, who may take chances. In the past 10 years we’ve seen some of that blossoming.
I would like to believe that now that we have restored certainty to the institution we can also begin the work of addressing those inefficiencies and ensuring that government receives the revenue that is its due, in order for government to continue to build and address the needs of South Africans.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: On that note, we are always hoping that Sars becomes that institution that was highly recognised, highly ranked. How do we as South African citizens help you and your team to get Sars to where it should be?
EDWARD KIESWETTER: There was a time, before I joined Sars the first time, when it was fashionable to sit around dinner tables and to talk about how we had ‘scored’ against Sars.
Then we reached an era where South Africans across all spectrums were proud to be taxpayers, and paid their taxes on time and joined the queues. I think they called those the ‘tax-filing seasons’ that they announced every year. That’s what we have to restore. We call on every single South African to understand that without us paying our taxes, we do not have a democracy. Any chance we have in restoring and rebuilding the fibre of our society begins with every South African feeling part of this project of paying their taxes to comply with the obligation under the law.
Naturally, the flip side of that is to hold our public office bearers accountable for the quality and the nature of how that money is spent, and every South African is called to be an activist and to become involved in the wellbeing of our country, and not to stand on the side and be indifferent.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Edward, thank you so much for your time this evening.