ZAM Reporter

South Africa | Tax and Corona

'People need help to comply with rules', say ex SA Revenue Service employees.

Collecting tax and organising a COVID 19 lockdown have more in common than you’d think. In both cases, people have to be convinced to do something that is considered unpleasant, but that nevertheless needs to be done. In an op-ed published in South Africa, former South African Revenue Services (SARS) officials Ivan Pillay, Sridharan Kesavan* and Yolisa Pikie draw on their experience in getting people to pay their taxes to suggest a coherent government strategy in the fight against the virus.

That the abbreviation ‘SARS’ for South African Revenue Service is the same as part of the name of the SARS-CoV 2 virus is purely coincidental: the former SARS officials are definitely on the side of the ‘good guys’ fighting the virus. They want to avail their expertise to assist with the management of lockdowns in particular.

Stating firmly that 'this is a war against a virus, not a war against people', the authors emphasise that governments have to achieve their citizen’s voluntary compliance with lockdown rules. A government must do so by putting itself into the shoes of its citizens and residents and answering the questions: 'what do I need so that I can comply? What makes it difficult for me to comply?'

South Africa has seen anti-lockdown protests in poor communities where people often cannot stay at home because there are no indoor toilets, or access to water, and/or there are many to a single room. The South African police and army have been criticised for violent action against people found simply looking for daily necessities in the streets. The authors propose a ‘coronavirus compliance model’ that takes into account the needs of the public to comply with the rules.

The word ‘compliance’, central in the article, is a direct reference to the ‘compliance model’ widely followed by tax authorities to convince, enable and assist the public — for example by adopting simple processes and reducing queues — to pay its taxes. At the time when the three officials worked at SARS, the tax authority was lauded worldwide for the effectivity with which it improved its standing with the public in South Africa as well as tax collections.

'The compliance strategy at SARS was about achieving easy processes for people to follow when paying tax', says co-author Ivan Pillay. 'Needs for the management of the lockdown are different but the same principle applies. If you help people to do the right thing, the vast majority will do it. Then you are only left with a small portion of people who are unwilling or malicious'.

To do this, 'the population has to be segmented into various groups that need assistance to enable it to comply with the protocols developed by the government', the op-ed proposes.  Besides the breadth of the 'general population, which covers most of the people residing in the county', in-depth planning is needed for 'a second segment of groups that need special attention, like medical and law enforcement professionals, people who have travelled abroad, migrant labourers etc'. A third ‘leverage’ segment then consists of “'the media, large organisations, religious groups, community groups, etc, (which) will help the population to comply'.

Law-and-order only for those who break rules.

'So over and above the general planning and rules you need specific plans for communities that require support and assistance, just as much as you need specific plans for the elderly and health workers', explains Pillay. 'The key element is that no group or community can be left uninformed or deprived of support. Then you can limit enforcement, meaning a law-and-order approach, for those who break the rules, that is, for a small group of the really unwilling or malicious'.

The article by the three former SARS officials suggests a coronavirus strategy both on the medical and on the lockdown management fronts, since testing for and treating of COVID 19 cases need to happen while the general public stays home to prevent virus spread. The authors propose that intervention teams on different levels in society — district, provincial and national — should execute, coordinate and monitor both the testing and treating activities on the medical front and the information, service and enforcement activities needed for lockdown management.

The officials write that they are aware that 'Many governments are (already) doing what has been suggested, even if they do not follow the exact framework'. However, they add, 'even though most governments eventually do organise themselves in the manner suggested, it is through a hit-and-miss process and valuable time is lost. Before they know it, they would be reacting to events rather than follow a strategy. The suggested framework can help governments to become more efficient and effective in the fight against Covid-19'.

Ivan Pillay, Yolisa Pikie and Sridharan Kesavan were all removed from the South African Revenue Service in 2014 under the — now widely acknowledged as disastrously corrupt — Jacob Zuma government. Zuma replaced then acting commissioner Ivan Pillay by Tom Moyane, a former correctional services director who had in the past been a babysitter for Zuma’s children. A commission of enquiry found in 2018 that Moyane had 'arrived with no integrity' at SARS and had 'dismantled the elements of governance one by one'. After Moyane was fired by new president Cyril Ramaphosa, in November 2018 the tax authority has been making efforts to get back on its feet.

*Note: Sri Kesavan contributed together with Dr. Tarun Kumar Singhal, Professor, Symbiosis Center for Management Studies, Noida, India