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Letter – Time to blow the whistle on tax criminals

Versions published in the Cape Times, the Mercury and Pretoria News.

11 December 2019 – We are the victims of tax criminals and it’s time we blew the whistle, writes Yusuf Abramjee.

You don’t have to look far to find some of the worst and most blatant theft in South Africa.

But the villains in this instance are not your usual suspects. And you may not even think that someone is being robbed.

This devastating and blatant theft is there in the counterfeit T-shirts being touted by friendly vendors on the street. It’s there in the cut-price medications on the shelves in your local corner shop. And it’s there with the smiling traders offering you a special deal on cigarettes or petrol.

You, like millions of others every day, may think you’re getting a bargain when you hand over your money for these goods, and that no one is the loser.

But what is being stolen are the taxes that should be paid to create a better nation. And the losers are all law-abiding South Africans.

The looted cash adds up to tens of billions of rand every year and should help to educate our children, protect the vulnerable and create a brighter future for all.

Instead that cash is simply making organised criminals even richer. They pocket the taxes they are legally due to pay and use this money – our money – to live in luxury, siphoning their fortunes into overseas bank accounts and acting like theyare above the law.

Meanwhile, we are left to struggle with a lack of basic services in a country with a desperate need for investment in schools, housing and sanitation.

The scale of the problem across multiple sectors is truly alarming.

Illegal trade is costing South Africa an estimated R100 million in lost taxes every single day.

Criminals illegally selling fuel are making a fortune, while law-abiding citizens are left to pick up the tab through the ever-rising prices at the pump.

It is so lucrative for the crooks that they are prepared to hijack petrol trucks in broad daylight.

They steal the contents – worth about R400,000 a time – and sell them on the black market.

Meanwhile, the money that has been lost by the state and the fuel companies is added on to the bill we pay to fill up our cars and motorbikes.

Illegal fuel is a major factor in why petrol pump prices today are more than double what they were 10 years ago and why the tax duty included in that price has risen by a staggering 220%.

Illegal alcohol traders are costing the fiscus more than R16 million every day, but it is not just the financial cost that should worry us.

Counterfeit alcohol is completely unregulated and results innumerous social issues.

These include underage drinking and excessive consumption of cheap dop, leading to alcoholism, sickness and sometimes death. The criminals don’t care what they’re selling as long as they make a profit.

It is a similar story with the crooks peddling illicit pharmaceuticals.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says illegal medicines are a serious problem in South Africa and can be easily bought both in the shops and online.

It is a lethal black market that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the WHO.

Black market cigarettes are an even bigger business for the tax criminals.

Illegal tobacco traders are depriving our country of some R8 billon a year – money that could be spent on improving our schools, building police and fire stations and rolling out broadband.

Research shows that one in three cigarettes smoked in South Africa is illegal. In the informal sector it is even worse, with illegal products sold in most township shops.

The illegal textile and clothing trade also has a very visible cost for ordinary South Africans.

The legitimate industry in this sector has the potential to contribute massively to the domestic economy and provide much-needed jobs, but it is constantly hamstrung by illegal importing.

As President Ramaphosa has said: “When we allow illicit goods to come in it undermines you, it undercuts you, and it destroys your jobs.”

So when we consider the full cost of criminal tax evasion – the lost revenue, the lost jobs and the lost lives – the scale of the problem and the desperate times we are in demand that it be confronted and defeated.

I and my fellow directors of Tax Justice South Africa are determined to pressurise Government, SARS and the police to fight this scourge.

And we believe it is the duty of every law-abiding citizen to blow the whistle on tax criminals by using the anonymous tip-off lines offered by SARS and Crime Stoppers International.

For too long, we may have been tempted to turn a blind eye to shady dealings where no visible harm seemed to be done.

But illegal trade is not a victimless crime. We are all victims in one way or another. And we must all play a part in bringing the criminals to justice.

*Yusuf Abramjee is an anti-crime activist and Head of Tax Justice SA. He is also Vice-President of Crime Stoppers Internationals (CSI) – the global authority on anonymous tip-offs.