Cryptocurrency investing a tax minefield in South Africa

A minefield of taxes lies ahead for crypto asset transactions in South Africa, where a gain in selling Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies is taxed as either revenue or capital.

It is according to Joon Chong, a partner and tax specialist at Webber Wentzel, the leading full-service law firm on the African continent.

Chong is an admitted attorney and a chartered certified accountant who regularly makes submissions to the South African Revenue Service (SARS) and National Treasury on draft tax bills and other practical tax issues.

She said taxes related to the disposal of crypto assets are in line with the same income tax rules that apply to the disposal of shares or unit trusts.

Taxes related to crypto trading is topical after the collapse of the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency market in 2022.

Investors who thought crypto trading was easy to make money will get another shock as SARS looks at how to tax crypto activities.

Work on new tax and financial regulatory laws that will apply to crypto assets has already begun, and the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) is taking the lead.

In a recent presentation, the deputy governor said that the SARB was busy with various workstreams, including a regulatory framework for crypto exchange platforms.

The framework will ensure compliance with anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism measures, exchange control regulations, and tax laws.

The work related to cryptocurrencies is expected to take between 12 and 18 months to finalise.

Interestingly, the term crypto asset, not cryptocurrency, is used in South Africa as the regulatory framework moves towards uniformity. The definition is provided below.

A crypto asset is a digital representation of value that is not issued by a central bank but is traded, transferred and stored electronically by natural and legal persons for the purpose of payment, investment and other forms of utility, and applies cryptography techniques in the underlying technology.

The Income Tax Act 58 of 1962 (ITA) defines a financial instrument to include any crypto asset.

The ordinary meaning of crypto asset includes cryptocurrencies and non-currency assets such as non-fungible tokens, security tokens and utility tokens.

It encompasses all items stored on a distributed ledger on decentralised networks.

Fundamentals of taxing crypto assets

The Income Tax Act does not contain special rules for crypto assets.

The crypto assets will use the same income tax rules as financial instruments such as equity shares or unit trusts.

The disposal of crypto assets is a taxable event. Purchasing goods or services using cryptocurrencies results in the disposal of crypto assets with proceeds equal to the market value of the goods or services acquired.

The disposal of the crypto assets thus triggers tax payable and a cash outflow.

In considering whether the gains or losses from the disposal of crypto assets are capital or revenue in nature, the question will be whether the taxpayer was engaged in a profit-making scheme.

Was there the realisation of an asset for capital gain or the sale of an existing asset for the purpose of generating revenue?

Section 9C — deeming of gains if held for three years

If a taxpayer has held an equity share for at least three years, section 9C deems the gains from the disposal of the share to be capital in nature, regardless of the intention.

The definition of an equity share includes shares in companies or a participatory interest in a portfolio of a collective investment scheme. It does not include crypto assets.

Section 9C arguably does not apply to holding crypto assets, making it more difficult for taxpayers to prove that their crypto gains are capital rather than revenue in nature. It can, therefore, be subject to income tax rather than capital gains tax (CGT).

The intention in the disposal of crypto

Below, we present three scenarios to illustrate how the intention behind crypto gains could be determined.

Scenario 1

AB, who is completing articles at a medium-sized audit firm, used personal savings to purchase cryptocurrencies as an investment, intending to hold it for at least a year. However, AB sold the cryptocurrencies two months later, for one of two possible reasons:

  • AB sold because he needed the funds to repair his car when he had an accident. AB had a small loss but was glad to recover most of the capital put down.
  • AB sold and made a small gain on the sale, as his risk appetite diminished at the first signs of a crash. He had also done more research and realised that he was not as comfortable with the risks as he thought he would be.

Chung said they submit these losses or gains are capital in nature.

However, AB may find it challenging to satisfy the burden of proving a capital intention, especially if the coins were held in an exchange wallet and not in a personal wallet.

In an exchange wallet, crypto assets are stored on a platform which lends itself to easy liquidation and trading. A third party, namely the exchange, is given the right to dispose of the coins. In contrast, coins stored in a personal wallet cannot easily be traded.

If AB is on the highest marginal bracket (ZAR1 731 601 for the 2023 tax year), crypto asset assessed losses could also be ring-fenced to be offset against future crypto asset gains.

Scenario 2

CD works full-time at a bank. She spends every spare moment researching and watching the cryptocurrency markets to purchase and sell cryptocurrencies as a long-term investment for her retirement.

She realises that one has to be quick and nimble to make a profit while investing in cryptocurrencies.

CD had 200 disposals in the first year of 10 different cryptocurrencies (testing the waters), and 1,000 disposals in the second year of 30 different cryptocurrencies.

Chung said in their view, all gains or losses in both years would likely be considered revenue.

Scenario 3

In the third scenario, EF works full-time as a content creator for YouTube, a dog trainer, and a social media influencer.

EF also keeps a few computers in a spare bedroom that he uses to mine cryptocurrencies.

In our view, the gains on disposal of the crypto assets mined would be capital in nature.

EF’s situation is similar to a homeowner who has a home and builds another house on the plot, which is then sold after subdividing the land.

However, the gains would be more akin to revenue from a scheme of profit-making if the value of coins minted became a few million rands and the number of coins minted numbered in the hundreds and not fractions.

When EF requires an infrastructure upgrade or has to rent more space for the machines and installs a cooling system, then in our view, EF would have crossed the Rubicon and is carrying on a profit-making scheme.

Intention may be difficult to prove

The taxpayer’s intention is key in determining whether gains or losses from the disposal of crypto assets are capital or revenue in nature.

However, taxpayers face an uphill battle to prove that their gains or losses are capital in nature due to the high risk and volatile nature of this asset class.

This article was first published by Daily Investor and is republished with permission.

Now read: Liquidators recovered R1.1 billion in South Africa’s biggest bitcoin scam — now the taxman wants it all

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Cryptocurrency investing a tax minefield in South Africa