By: Anna Majavu
The SA Revenue Service (SARS) has called on women who own micro-enterprises and cross-border traders to blow the whistle on customs officials who sexually harass them and demand bribes. Speaking at a tax webinar for SMMEs, Henson Msongweni, SARS Executive Manager of SMME Traders and Travellers, said SARS had discovered that “women in trade and people in trade with disabilities are somehow the victims within the tax and custom value chain”.
SMME owners had to “know which button to press when they encounter such ugly elements”, Msongweni added. Dr. Tshililo Radzilani, Head of Enterprise Service Charter Champions at SARS, told the audience that women should be freely given a space to conduct trade of their choice at the ports of entry without fear of harassment or prejudice based on gender. “We have heard that many women or any other people of the gender of their choice are ill-treated or mistreated,” said Radzilani, adding that SARS officials should not bully or sexually harass taxpayers who owe them money. “We should not take advantage because they are small businesses, because they are women,” Radzilani said.
New research by Zimbabwean academics Beauty Dzawanda and Mark Matsa of Midlands State University published in the International Journal of Community Well-Being, found that Zimbabwean women cross-border traders buy clothing, footwear and electrical gadgets in Musina or Johannesburg to sell back home. However, they experience poor treatment from border officials “who do not have any urgency when stamping passports for traders”, often taking several hours to allow the traders into South Africa.
One participant in the research revealed that traders can go back and forth to South Africa without a passport as long as they each pay a R500 bribe. Women traders who do not have enough money to pay the border bribe cross unofficially at the Limpopo River. They face “high risks of being insulted and raped by robbers and even some of the officials who will be guarding the places like soldiers if you fail to bribe them”, Dzawanda and Matsa found.
Mandisa Mbekeni, who manages gender equality for SARS, said the revenue service was trying to ensure that all state agencies working at border posts “adopt the concept of a gender-based violence (GBV) free environment”. “In most instances when we fall victim to GBV and harassment there is fear attached to this,” she said. Mbekeni and Msongweni have set up a working group for SMMEs owned by women, people with disabilities, and vulnerable groups to have speedier access to SARS officials.
SMMEs who were planning to grill SARS about their problems at the webinar were likely disappointed. While SARS promised a question and answer session, no questions were allowed from the audience. Instead, a SARS official posed scripted questions to other SARS officials.