Former AG one of four in final round to choose Sars boss
Four people are in the running for the top job at the South African Revenue Service (Sars) as the interview process to fill this critical position enters the final round.
Those at the forefront include former auditor-general Terence Nombembe, despite his lack of tax experience, among others.
The new commissioner would become the fifth in Sars's history since the start of democracy, replacing Tom Moyane, who was fired in November last year, leaving the institution in tatters. Under Moyane's watch tax collection declined, leaving a gaping hole in government revenue and prompting significant tax increases to make up the shortfall.
Nombembe is head of investigations for the commission of inquiry into state capture led by judge Raymond Zondo. He was seconded to the role early last year from his position as CEO of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica). He was SA's auditor-general from 2006 to 2013. His contract with Saica expired in January this year.
Nombembe is believed to be vying for the position of commissioner against three other shortlisted candidates: acting commissioner Mark Kingon, Edward Kieswetter, previously a deputy commissioner of Sars and former CEO of Alexander Forbes and former Sars head of enforcement Gene Ravele.
A former Sars executive said the qualities boosting Nombembe's prospects were that "he is new, he doesn't have a lot of baggage that he is carrying. He can build new alliances and he can build new blood. He understands audit in and out".
However, a senior tax practitioner who spoke on condition of anonymity said Kingon and Kieswetter were more likely appointees. "Mark has been there the longest, he's got technical and operational [skills]. He has public and private support." Though Kingon was limited politically he was able to effect change at Sars, the practitioner said.
Kieswetter had "a lot of critical thinking skills", was a well-known, learned and articulate public figure who was a former Sars deputy commissioner. He also has experience in banking and the insurance and wealth market.
The tax practitioner said Kingon is considered by the industry to have performed well by stabilising Sars and working on measures to improve tax morality and compliance since it was rocked by corruption scandals and a decline in governance under Moyane, who took over in 2014.
Among Kingon's achievements is the reopening of Sars's large-business centre, dedicated to collecting tax from companies and high net worth individuals, which was weakened by Moyane.
A former Sars executive said Kingon, who has spent more than three decades in various positions at Sars, had strengths in personal and corporate income tax collection and had built firm relationships with tax practitioners, but might not win the job from a political perspective, because of his race. The former Sars executive said Kieswetter, a professor, is considered to be better suited to academia. "Not many people will be too happy to see him back on the beat at Sars," the source said.
Ravele was "too much of a technician" and did not know Sars well enough, and Nombembe had leadership and audit skills but lacked tax prowess, the practitioner said.
Ravele worked at Sars for 18 years before resigning in 2015 at the height of allegations about a rogue unit within the tax collection agency. He was accused of involvement in the so-called rogue unit, which he denied.
He faced a criminal inquiry by the Hawks for allegedly accepting an unauthorised gift from a sequestrated taxpayer. But the case was dropped due to lack of evidence, it was previously reported.
The former Sars executive said the new Sars commissioner would require a deputy commissioner with strong IT skills - irrespective of race.
"Sars, at the end of the day, is just a big IT shop. If you take out those IT investments there is nothing left. The bread-and-butter stuff of Sars is IT. As long as they understand IT architecture they can build good risk engines, maintain them and give people tools to simplify their decisionmaking and their operations," he said.
Nombembe did not respond this week to requests for comment on the interview process. Kingon referred enquiries to Treasury.
Ravele declined to comment.
Kieswetter said: "There's nothing I can add to what's already in the public domain. It's a process that must run its course."
Applications for the position closed in January this year.
This week, a member of the interview panel, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the process "is close to being finalised", but declined to comment further.
The National Treasury said in a statement on Thursday that finance minister Tito Mboweni had extended the term of acting commissioner Kingon until June 11 "or until such a date as the president appoints a new commissioner for Sars - whichever occurs earlier".
Mboweni is mandated by the Sars Act to appoint an acting commissioner. The president appoints a permanent commissioner.
Kingon's latest 90-day term expired on Wednesday. This is the fourth extension since he was asked to act in March last year when Moyane was suspended pending disciplinary action.
The senior tax practitioner said: "They seem to be in the last round of interviews," adding that the new commissioner would probably be announced after Sars gives its annual tax target updates in April.