The tax debate internationally and in South Africa is increasingly focusing on closing perceived tax loopholes (in order to increase collections) and increasing self-assessment through vigorous audit by SARS of the satisfaction of their compliance requirements by taxpayers.
In pursuing this goal, Judge Davis has been appointed the Chairman of The Davis Tax Committee and has been quoted as saying that the challenge for the committee is to design a tax system to, inter alia, achieve “the spending needs of government and distributional ambitions”.
The collection of taxes is important but addresses only one part of the equation. Taxpayers are constantly told by Minister Pravin Gordham, SARS and by practitioners that it is the moral thing to do to pay their taxes and in this way contribute to uplifting our country and to some extent redress the wrongs of the past.
What is not being addressed effectively is the public perception of rampant corruption and misuse of public funds which often runs into the billions. Perceived levels of corruption remain unacceptably high. The Global Organization Transparency International ranked South Africa 72nd out of 177 countries in 2013.
The Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela in her annual report, presented on 15 October 2013 was quoted as saying “All that I can say to this nation and this committee is corruption in this country has reached crisis proportions”. The Minister of Finance, Pravin Gordham, in a recent Discovery Invest Leadership Summit describes corruption as “a disease of the system that needs to be stamped out”.
Public mistrust is evidenced in a number of ways, for example, in the level of outrage expressed in the form of service delivery protests. It is understandable that many people respond with anger to increased taxes and toll fees, if they perceive that the existing taxes are wasted. It is a recognised fact that taxpayers are happy to pay their taxes when distribution and expenditure is transparent and accounted for.
Many South African taxpayers have been comfortable to pay taxes on the basis that they were being used to uplift previously disadvantaged areas and services. Thus, if the perception is that this is not the case, evasion may increase.
Despite efforts by government to deal with corrupt politicians e.g. Pravin Gordham is his 2013 Budget Speech and Medium Term Expenditure Budget Statements, not enough is seen to be done.
Perhaps the Davis Tax Committee should take a tip from the Ancient Greeks. The ancient Greeks employed a system of liturgies which required the rich to pay for certain government projects (instead of paying tax). Surprisingly, the rich often spent more on these projects than required, tacitly acknowledging that since they had benefitted from their society they have an obligation to give back. Extending this principle to South Africa, the suggestion would be for government to extend public private partnerships to public works. In brief, this is how it could work.
The Tax Act would contain an annexure of approved projects e.g. a hospital, school, public road, etc. The taxpayer could apply, instead of paying the tax due over to government, to actually build the hospital, school, road, hospital, etc, which could then bear their names. In this way, tax morality would increase (pride in completing the project and uplifting the community and ensuring that taxpayers funds are used appropriately, avoidance of corruption, etc.) and taxpayers funds would reach their intended destination. The principle should be available to corporate and high net worth individuals.
It has been said that you don’t fight corruption by fighting corruption. Traditional methods of investigating and prosecuting need to be accompanied by efforts to instil an attitudinal change and to bring about a new culture of accountability and transparency.
As ridiculous as the suggestion of taxpayers undertaking public work projects may be, the satisfaction, social recognition and legacy that a completed project would bring to the taxpayer is more than any money could buy.