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Commissioner unveils ‘completely’ virtual tax season at SARS

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 01 Jul 2021
SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter. (Photo source: Twitter)
SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter. (Photo source: Twitter)

To kick-off the 2021 tax season, the South African Revenue Service (SARS) today unveiled a “completely” virtual tax filing season.

The announcement was made by SARS commissioner Edward Kieswetter, who notes that no physical branches will be open for in-person public engagements for at least the next six weeks.

Kieswetter points out that this is mainly because of the COVID-19 third wave, which has also resulted in the country being moved to a stricter adjusted level four lockdown.

“As we find ourselves in the third wave, all engagements with taxpayers will be through our online digital offerings.”

The commissioner told the media that SARS wants to minimise risk to taxpayers and its staff.

He notes that last year, SARS paid out R29.4 billion to just over 2.38 million individual taxpayers, and intends to do the same this year.

The shift towards a virtual tax filing season is directionally aligned to the vision of a smart, modern SARS but is also triggered by the current pandemic. “In particular, our commitment to render the essential service, whilst minimised, is a high priority and remains such throughout the tax filing season.”

Detailing some of the strategic objectives, he highlights the revenue authority has introduced more simplified letters that issue a specific request for information that is outstanding, and when further verification is required, the SARS Web site features a number of how-to YouTube videos, auto assessments, and has enhanced its artificial intelligence chatbot named Lwazi.

Additionally, there is eFiling and the SARS mobi app, which taxpayers can use to file taxes, upload and edit documents.

The SARS online query system can be accessed via the Web site, and will be available to request tax reference numbers and to upload supporting documents.

He reveals that taxpayers can now request specific personal income tax-related services by sending an SMS to SARS on 47277.

“If you SMS your ID and a keyword for automated services, we will respond to give you a booking slot, provide you with a tax number to give you a statement of account with outstanding tax balances, and to alert you to the obligation that you are required to file.

“Our artificial intelligence chatbot – Lwazi – can be used to request a tax number, a statement of account and also your audit and refund status. This means you don’t have to call us or stand in long queues or hold on and use your valuable time to find that.

“All of these functionalities are now available online using our eFiling platform as well as our mobi app and chatbot.”

Furthermore, on the toll-free number (0800007277), taxpayers can make bookings and request a call back.

“An agent will co-browse with you and will guide you through your return in order to complete and submit it correctly.”

He notes that SARS has also enabled the use of non-smart devices for the appointment booking system. “We have enabled these phones to communicate with us by simply sending an SMS to SARS at no cost to the taxpayer.”

To introduce convenient ways of engagement, such as a “call back” functionality and provide coaching to facilitate and assist taxpayers to convert from manual filing to online digital platforms, SARS has made enhancements to the eFiling platform and mobi app, he adds.

He says if taxpayers do go to branches, which should be a last resort, SARS will observe social distancing, hygiene and other related protocols.

“We really want to discourage taxpayers from arriving without an appointment, since we want to avoid the indignity of long queues but also the risk of exposure to viral infection.

“Once branch visits resume, when a taxpayer arrives at our doors, we will first attempt to convert them to one of our digital offerings with the help of our frontline staff.”

According to Kieswetter, last year, SARS was able to convert more than 450 000 taxpayers who were traditional branch filers to online filing. SARS also assisted over 180 000 taxpayers in branches by appointment.

“These efforts have ensured that more than four million previous branch interactions were migrated to our digital platforms, and it’s a tremendous improvement to the service offering for those who do have to come to our branches.”

The SARS tax season will run from 1 July to 23 November. Provisional taxpayers, including trusts, have from 1 July to 31 January 2022.