In addition to specific anti-avoidance provisions and the general anti-avoidance provisions (GAAR) in the Income Tax Act,[1] the South African Revenue Service can apply another established principle to attack the validity of transactions and arrangements, namely the common law doctrine of simulation, or the plus valet doctrine. This is a fundamental principle of the South African common law that concerns itself with the true legal nature rather than the outward form of a transaction, essentially considering the substance of a transaction, rather than its form.

Application of the doctrine was recently under the spotlight again in the Supreme Court of Appeal in the matter of Sasol Oil v CSARS (923/2017) [2018] ZASCA 153 (9 November 2018). Sasol successfully appealed a judgment by the Gauteng Tax Court, which found that certain back-to-back transactions by entities in the Sasol Group were simulated and not genuine. Instead of Sasol in South Africa purchasing oil directly from a Sasol company incorporated in the Isle of Man, a UK company was interposed between the local entity and the Ilse of Man entity, the effect of which was that certain controlled foreign company rules in South Africa did not apply.

The court analysed statements from witnesses in the Sasol Group to determine what the reasons and commercial rationale were for the interposed UK entity. These witness accounts appear to have been crucial (if not the deciding factor) in the decision of the court that the transactions were not simulated or dishonest. In writing for the majority, Lewis JA found that:

“The transactions had a legitimate purpose. There was nothing impermissible about following…advice, and so reducing Sasol Oil’s tax liability. The transactions were not false constructs created solely to avoid…taxation.”

What is arguably more interesting, is the basis on which the minority found that the transactions were indeed simulated. Mothle JA, considering the same evidence, found that the transactions lacked commercial rationale, and this appears to be one of the main reasons for his dissent, demonstrated by the quotes below:

“At the risk of repetition, the…structure perpetuated duplication, with the identified inherent risk of absence of a commercial justification.”

“I would find that Sasol Oil failed to demonstrate to the Tax Court the commercial justification for interposing SISL (UK company) in the supply chain.”

“The failure to provide commercial justification for SISL revealed the absence of bona fides behind the transactions and as such, the additional assessments were justified.”

In the present case, Sasol was successful in proving the commercial rationale for their arrangement to the court. The important takeaway for taxpayers from the judgement is that the facts and circumstances of arrangements should be carefully documented when entering into transactions. Supporting documents, such as minutes of meetings, business plans and even internal notes could all prove to be vital in the assessment if a transaction is genuine, and not simulated.

[1] No. 58 of 1962

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied upon as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your financial adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)