Prof Annet Oguttu – tax law pioneer

Prof OguttuAuthor: Yolande Botha (Tax Talk Editor)

Annet Wanyana Oguttu is one of the country’s most accomplished tax professionals. Professor Oguttu completed her doctorate in Tax Law at UNISA in 2008 and she is currently a professor of Tax Law at UNISA where she is the first black woman to hold the position of full professor in the College of Law. She talks to us about her career and her life beyond tax.

Q: How would you describe yourself?

A: I am a Ugandan by birth, and now naturalised as a South African citizen. I am married to Dr James Wabwire Ogutta. We have been blessed with three lovely children. I owe all that I am and ever will be to God’s goodness and grace which gives me the inner strength to be hardworking, remain focused, resilient and be the best I can at what I do. Career wise, I am a professor of tax law at the University of South Africa (UNISA). I hold a Doctorate in tax law, a Masters in tax law, an LLB, a Diploma in legal practice and an HDip in International Tax Law. As much as I am grateful for these qualifications and other accomplishments; these achievements are not what define me or drive my life, but I am glad that I can use them, along with my talents, experiences and personality to bring some positive change in the lives of those around me.

Q: Where does your interest in tax stem from?

A: After completing my LLB, I wanted to do my Masters in a lucrative commercial law subject. I happened to be good at tax law in my undergraduate studies and so I decided to pursue my Masters in it and I have loved it since then.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your work at UNISA?

A: I love the set up at UNISA. It is an Open Distance Learning Institution: most of my work is office based; I do not have to be in class lecturing every day as most of my teaching and post-graduate supervision work is done online. This gives me flexibility to plan and prepare my tutorials in advance. It also gives me time to conduct research and publish and to work on other related projects that may come my way.

Q: What inspired your decision to pursue a career in tax higher education?

A: One never really knows how your future is going to play out. One just has to trust your instincts and the guidance from above, taking one step at a time as opportunities  avail themselves. I never set out to pursue a career in education. After completing my Masters in Tax Law, I immediately enrolled for doctoral  studies while practicing as an advocate. By then we were staying far away from my University, and research on my studies was not proceeding well. When my supervisor informed me that there was an opening for me to lecture at UNISA, I welcomed it with open arms.  Having completed my doctoral studies and being published quite widely, I grew through the ranks over the years to where I am now,  being a full professor in tax law. I am grateful to be on this career path, it has brought out the best in me as a lecturer and researcher; keeping me up to date and broadening my understanding of tax law which enables me to  be involved in consultancies and giving expert opinions on  income tax, international tax and tax treaty issues.

Q: What advice would you give to students who wish to pursue a career in tax?

A: Tax is a great career choice. There are few tax experts out there and they are well paid. The challenge though is that tax is a very complex subject and many students find it hard to pass. Most students find the volume, detail and complexity of tax law overwhelming and intimidating. This is because tax statutes are technical in nature, often very complex and sometimes illogical in content and form. However, tax invariably impacts on most areas of commercial practice. It is therefore important that students who intend to study commercial subjects have some knowledge and understanding of tax even if they do not intend to become tax practitioners, as they may often find themselves in the situation of having to advise a client on a problem that may involve some aspect of taxation. Tax is certainly not an area in which ignorance is bliss.

Q: How would you describe the state of South African tax law?

A: Unlike most African countries, South Africa’s tax law is highly developed and comparable to many developed countries. South Africa portrays aspects of a developed and developing economy. The developed aspect of its economy explains why it has over the years introduced tax laws that are in line with international trends. This has been augmented by the fact that South Africa’ has observer status at the OECD and it is a member of the G20. The challenge though is that the developing aspect of the economy poses constraints to the effective administration of some of these laws. Nevertheless, measures have been taken to build SARS’ administrative capacity to administer these complex laws. The e-filing system has for instance been very instrumental in ensuring efficient submission of tax returns. The Tax Administration Act introduced in 2011, has also been key in ensuring proper administration of taxes. Measures to ensure fiscal accountability are also in place; evidenced by the policy measures adopted by National Treasury, working hand in hand with the SARS to ensure the efficient collection of taxes and administration of the tax system. These measures are augmented by the office of the Tax Ombudsman which reviews and addresses any complaint by taxpayers regarding a service, procedural or administrative matter arising from the application of the provisions of a tax Act by SARS.

The comprehensive annual Budget Speeches by the Minister of Finance often give an indication as to the state of the tax law in South Africa. These give an indication of how much tax was collected in the previous year of assessment, how various sectors of the government are going to be funded in the current year, the new taxes, rates and measures that will be introduced to prevent any fiscal evasion and avoidance. This is often followed with annual amendments to tax legislation. In 2013, the Minister of Finance set up a Tax Law Review Committee (the Davis tax committee – which I am a member of) to assess South Africa’s tax policy framework and its role in supporting the objectives of inclusive growth, employment, development and fiscal sustainability, among other things. Obviously tax is not the silver bullet to resolve all South Africa’s economic challenges and budgetary deficits. Taxes however play a pivotal role in raising revenue for the government; and it is initiatives such as the above that mark the state of South Africa’s tax law as being in line with international trends.

Q: What advice would you offer to South African tax professionals who are operating within the current legal framework?

A: In any efficient tax system, tax laws are never static. As tax practitioners, we require continuous study to keep abreast with the frequent amendments to the legislation and trends in international practices. Tax practitioners need to keep themselves updated regularly on developments; and to endeavour to upgrade their skills set to build up their knowledge capacity. In a globalised economy, a tax practitioner may be required to provide advice to clients regarding their cross border investments. Although a tax practitioner is not generally expected to have a perfect knowledge of all foreign tax systems, he or she should have some knowhow on the workings of international tax laws and tax treaties.

As has been discussed in many tax forums over the last few years, it is imperative that as tax practitioners we adhere to the rules that deal with the regulations of tax practitioners as set out in the Tax Administrations Act. The tax planning work we do for our clients should be balanced with the responsibility we have towards the state to promote tax compliance and to ensure that taxpayers receive advice consistent with tax legislation.

Q: Which tax matters do you think are particularly pertinent at the current moment – either locally, in the broader African context or globally?

A: One has got to look at the bigger picture. Most of the taxes that the government is administering are pertinent to the economy; and each makes its contribution to the national tax basket. There are various factors that determine why a particular tax is not bringing in as much as another. This could include factors such as administrative capacity, economic and fiscal strategies, relative tax rates as well as historic and global developments. It is for the country to consider those taxes that have the potential to contribute more to the tax basket (for example VAT) and improve the efficiency in tax collection. For those taxes that are not  bringing in as much as they should, measures should be put in place to enhance their efficiency by, for instance, plugging tax leakage. This is the case with corporate taxes. With globalization, tax competition, the development of the digital economy and the increased tax avoidance strategies employed by multinational companies to lessen their tax exposure, corporate laws that were developed decades ago are ineffective in preventing the tax avoidance strategies employed in modern business models where the location of business is often separated from where value is created. Internationally, the corporate tax system is at stake. This has raised concerns internationally, that companies are not paying their fair share of tax revenues in the countries they operate in. Thus in 2013, the G20 and the OECD came up with an Action Plan on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting to address these concerns, calling on all countries to work in a co-ordinately and comprehensive manner to address this matter.

Q: How do you plan to contribute to the state of taxation in South Africa as a SAIT board member during the upcoming year?

A: I am humbled and greatly honored by the overwhelming confidence that fellow tax practitioners have bestowed upon me to serve as a SAIT board member. The SAIT is the largest of the Tax Professional bodies, and it plays a leading role in developing sound tax policy and shaping South Africa’s fiscal legislation. I will endeavor to serve our nation in whichever capacity or mandate that will be expected of me. I bring on board a wealth of more than 15 years of knowledge and work experience derived from practice, academia, as a researcher and as a consultant on income tax, international tax and tax treaty issues; which I am confident will be instrumental in contributing to the development of the state of tax in South Africa.

Q: You are very accomplished in various respects. What would you consider to be your greatest achievement thus far?

A: My greatest achievement is being appointed in 2013 by the then Minister of Finance as a member of the Davis Tax Committee to assess South Africa’s tax policy framework and its role in supporting the objectives of inclusive growth, employment, development and fiscal sustainability. I am mandated the Chair of the “Base Erosion and Profit Shifting” Sub-committee. Work on this sub-committee has opened up opportunities for me to meet and consult with high level tax experts nationally and internationally.

Another equally great achievement was my appointment in 2012 by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Financing for Development Office, as one of the ten members of the international “Expert Group to develop a UN Course on Double Tax Treaties” which is intended to develop knowledge capacity on tax treaties for tax administrators in developing countries. The experts enlisted comprise international tax law experts from Canada, United Kingdom, India, Malaysia, Australia, Mexico, Italy, Norway and South Africa. I was the expert enlisted from South Africa.

Q: What are some of the best choices you believe you have made during your career trajectory?

A: The best choice I have ever made is to choose to specialise in International Tax Law, an area of tax law where there are not  many experts. It is a very interesting area of the law with lots of international developments that  keep an eager tax practitioner or researcher very intrigued.

Q: Who are your mentors?

A: In terms of my personal values, I appreciate the role my parents played in instilling in me the values I hold today. These values were cemented by many of my school teachers. We rarely acknowledge our teachers but they play a big role in forging the foundations our careers are built on.

For the stamina and resilience I have developed in my tax career, I commend my LLD promoters Prof Riel Franzsen (University of Pretoria) and Prof Christian Schulze (University of South Africa) whose guidance and uncompromising attitude to excellent work have fashioned my work ethic. I appreciate the indirect mentorship I have gleaned from t listening to lectures , and  studying great books and articles by both national and international authors on tax matters These publications have shaped and influenced my perspectives on various tax law issues.

My husband has also played a major part in mentoring me. He has always been interested in my career development, planning ahead for me, and often coming up with ideas of what my next projects should be. He has been a great companion in my life’s journey.

Q: You are originally from Uganda. How do your Ugandan roots intersect with your personal and professional life in South Africa?

A: I am proud of my origin as a Ugandan. I left Uganda immediately after I completed my LLB degree and Diploma in Legal practice at the Law development Centre (Makerere). I have lived in Southern Africa all my adult life so I am more conversant with how the tax system works in South Africa than in Uganda. I do visit my motherland often and I appreciate the foundations and values that Uganda’s education system inculcated in me. Through thick and thin; these values have enabled me to remain true to myself in my now adopted country South Africa, which has warmly embraced me and availed opportunities for me to grow in my career, mentor others, write books and articles that have contributed to the body of tax knowledge and also serve on various national committees that play a big role in developing South Africa’s tax system.

This article first appeared on the November/December edition on Tax Talk.