Your age on the day when you can first write the qualification CA(SA) behind your name is of less importance than your reasons for becoming a chartered accountant. Journeys differ considerably. The drive and enthusiasm of people at both ends of the spectrum – people who qualify at a very young age and those who do so when they are more mature in years – are inspirational in different ways. Two extraordinary chartered accountants talk to Accountancy SA about their journeys and insights about the profession.
Shaah Bootha CA(SA)
Shaah Bootha completed Grades 8 to 12 at school in less than half the time that it usually takes. He went on to complete his BCom degree at the age of 18, then passed his first board exam at 20 and the second board exam at of 22 – as one of the Honours Roll Top 10. Registering as a CA(SA) at just 23 in 2016, when most of his peers had not yet finished their first degree at university, Shaah was the youngest qualified CA(SA) in the country and was also awarded the PwC Experience Award.
Since 2018 he has been in his current position as Financial Manager: Corporate Services Reporting at C Steinweg Bridge (Pty) Ltd, reporting directly to the Group Financial Director.
Bootha credits his parents for much of his early achievements: ‘My parents sold me on the idea of being one of the youngest people in the country to have finished high school.’ His father, Professor Akbar Bootha CA(SA), is the former director of the School of Accounting Sciences at North-West University – someone who has been important along the road of many youngsters’ route towards their CAs(SA). His two sisters were also pursuing the qualification.
Shaah was home-schooled by his mother, Shireen, a qualified school teacher with a master’s degree in industrial psychology. ‘Despite my dad being in the profession, it was my mother, strangely enough, who was the driving force in promoting the CA(SA) qualification as a route of study for all three of us. We often joke that if she could have helped it, she would have included the designation on our birth certificates.’
Nevertheless, Bootha admits that a career choice at a very young age was not that easy. ‘Although many people expected me to follow the CA route, the most daunting challenge for me was to commit to a field of study straight out of matric and stick to it for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be boxed in and restricted. Whilst I was unsure about what I wanted to study, the one thing I knew was that I wanted to be a future business leader and captain of industry.’
Because he was fortunate enough to have been exposed to the profession from a very young age, it ‘allowed me to gain a more comprehensive understanding of what the qualification entailed, and I came to realise that being a CA(SA) is a lot more than the number crunching many assume it to be. In South Africa you see people holding the CA(SA) designation who are successfully operating in various roles across different industries. Numerous company executives and remarkable entrepreneurs hold the designation. I settled on studying accounting, as I felt going the CA route would be the ideal foundation to assist in developing the skills needed to be a corporate titan.’
Thoughts on issues affecting young people
Bootha’s example is inspirational for many young people. Yet, he says, ‘I think I still have a long way to go in respect of my own career and personal growth before I could truly consider myself qualified to be a trusted advisor to young leaders. However, what I always try to do is act as a sounding board for many aspiring CAs through their journey.’
He adds that ‘a significant part of my success has been attributable to the various support structures I’ve had throughout my journey and I thus feel it is necessary to try and return the favour … During my time at PwC, we were assigned trainees for whom we were to act as coaches in respect of their personal and career development. Despite no longer being at the firm, I still try to periodically catch up with some of them to talk about their aspirations.’
With poverty being one of the greatest challenges that South Africa faces, together with the issue of joblessness among young people, one wonders what young accounting professionals can do to help to address such challenges. ‘Sadly, I don’t think there is a quick fix solution to this. Due to the situation being so dire, people often feel overwhelmed in tackling these issues, as they feel that their contribution won’t make an impact and, in the process, they lose hope. Companies as well as individuals can play a role in addressing these challenges through being more socially responsible citizens,’ comments Bootha.
‘More importantly, I feel we need to assist in improving our education system. Appropriate education can act as the backbone for uplifting society, addressing unemployment and poverty alleviation. Education should not be viewed only as formal schooling, but it should be a process of providing relevant skills. I believe in this way we will make great strides in the fight against unemployment. Professionals could further assist through participating in more formalised mentoring, or learnership programmes, by volunteering their time to various learning institutions and passing on more practical skills to other individuals.’
Asked whether he would recommend the profession to other young people, Bootha quips: ‘Someone told me while I was an undergrad that being a CA is a great profession because there’s tons of money to be made. Perhaps it’s too early in my career to make a call on that!’
On a more serious note, he says he still thinks ‘the CA(SA) designation holds great value and acts as an excellent foundation for building a career. As a CA(SA) there are endless opportunities available both locally and internationally. This was the main reason I decided to go into the profession, and I can confidently say I haven’t regretted my decision.’
He also comments on some of the challenges lying ahead: ‘In the last few years, the profession has come under a lot of public scrutiny, almost entirely due to a handful of “rogue members” acting unethically. The challenge that lies ahead, not only for SAICA but every one of their members, is rebuilding public trust and confidence in the profession both locally and internationally.’
He believes this can be achieved through further education about the role of chartered accountants and auditors and providing a more thorough understanding of what their responsibilities are. He would also like to see that SAICA incorporates an even larger element of ethics into the SAICA syllabus and training programmes.
‘Most importantly, SAICA members themselves should strive to be upstanding citizens and the personification of ethical and responsible leadership. I recall my father once saying that SAICA shouldn’t have to advertise − their members should be ethical leaders who solve important problems in society and are role models.’
Bootha is proud to be a member of SAICE and says qualifying exams are tough, ‘but looking back, it was worth it, because nothing worthwhile comes easy’.
This young CA(SA) says his ‘ultimate goal is to be recognised as an industry leader’ but also that he wants ‘to make a meaningful contribution to society as a whole, assisting particularly those who are underprivileged’.
Vusi Nkabini CA(SA)
In 2014, only two years before Shaah Botha qualified, Vusi Nkabini CA(SA) became a chartered accountant. Yet, he was already 52 and had a very different journey to success. He remarks that at that stage he was far more focused than he was during his younger years. After a career working for organisations such as Metrorail, the SA Civil Aviation Authority, the Mvula Trust, City Deep Cold Storage, ABSA Bank and Anglovaal Limited, he is today a governance and compliance manager at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (PRASA).
Nkabini thinks the major difference between qualifying as a young man and doing so later was finding the time to focus on studying while working. He believes his experience helped because practical questions were relatively easier to handle than theoretical ones, while the converse was true for younger people. For instance, ‘when I came across a question for stocktaking and stocktaking instructions involving other auditors and different warehouses in my CA exam, I applied my work experience … I must have obtained a distinction for that question. I could visualise what I had previously done and applied it directly to the question!’
He was born in the township of Mhluzi, Middelburg, in 1962 to two farmworkers. With both his parents firm believers in the value of education, they wanted him to succeed – and despite hardships, he passed matric with exemption in 1981.
Even as a schoolboy, his love for figures led him to think about a career in accounting. Like other high achievers, he was encouraged to study medicine or engineering, but he could not get a bursary and a lack of funds forced him to find a job. While working as a laboratory technician in Witbank, he borrowed study guides from a former classmate who was registered at Unisa. Soon he became enchanted by the business world and started to learn about commerce. He signed up as a part-time correspondence student at Unisa. After many years of perseverance, his academic qualifications now include a Bachelor of Commerce (1988) and Higher Diploma in Accountancy (1989) from Rhodes University, as well as the Postgraduate Diploma in Auditing (2003) and a Bachelor of Laws (2018) from Unisa.
Yet, qualifying as a CA(SA) did not come easy for Nkabini. That journey started in 1986 when he went to Rhodes. He received his Certificate in Theory of Accounting (CTA) in 1989 and went to do his articles at KPMG in Johannesburg. ‘This was a major learning curve for me.’ In 1990 he sat for the board exam and failed. He wrote board exam another four times between 1990 and 1994 – but failed each time. As a married man with three children, he had to concentrate on work, but held on to his CA(SA) aspirations.
He registered for the CTA exam more than once because his original certificate expired after five years. Various circumstances, including a bout of chickenpox, meant disappointments. Finally, in 2012, he went on to pass Part 1 of the Qualifying Exam (QE1) but had to write a supplementary examination for Accounting Professional Training towards the end of 2012. He passed but failed the Professional Practice Exam.
Then, just at the right time, SAICA’s Thuthuka Bursary Fund team stepped in to offer him a bursary and the academic support to help him achieve his potential. ‘The study programme started two months earlier than the regular courses, giving us more time to prepare and to identify our weaknesses and get help. I was able to focus on preparing for the exams properly for the first time in my life.’
One month after turning 52 in 2014, he qualified as a CA(SA).
Nkabini comments that the battle to study and hold down a job at the same time taught him determination and patience: ‘I noticed that younger people give up more easily and would just walk out of an exam they perceive as tough, while the older people approach issues with far more patience and perseverance.’ However, in terms of technology, the younger people ‘were one up on us older folks. Studying and obtaining reference material is far easier these days with the advent of technology. In the olden days, we had to queue for a book. Today, one just goes online to obtain information. I also notice that people are more helpful than when I was younger. You can ask anyone for help and guidance. During my youth, educated people, especially in the townships, wanted to be the “cream of the crop” and would do anything to stop or discourage others to join the elite club.’
A CA(SA) qualification changes things
His salary increased by 20% after qualifying but, more importantly, ‘after passing the CA(SA) exams everyone started to take me seriously. Before you become a CA(SA) nobody takes you too seriously; you have to defend your points and arguments. Once you’re a CA(SA), nobody seems keen to question your opinion – even if you’re wrong. They listen to you with admiration and with fewer questions, if any.’
Nkabini says this makes it imperative for chartered accountants to stay up to date ‘because some of the clients take your word as gospel without question. The other professions have such a high regard for our profession – it is therefore incumbent upon us to validate and honour this privilege by keeping up to date with developments to ensure that the public trust in the profession is not misplaced. Since becoming a CA(SA), everyone around me respects my opinion, whether correct or incorrect.’
He illustrates this with an anecdote from the time before he qualified: ‘We were finalising group results, incorporating accounting for goodwill. Someone at head office who had a CA(SA) qualification but who was not up to date at the time, wanted us to amortise goodwill. I pointed out that, according to the accounting standards at the time, goodwill was not amortised but tested for impairment and adjusted accordingly.’ The CEO asked whether Nkabini was a CA(SA). ‘When I replied in the negative, he said: “Mr X is a CA(SA) and there is no way he can be wrong.” He was very surprised when the Group CFO confirmed that I was correct.’
The profession has changed since he started working in the early 1980s, says Nkabini. Among others, ‘it is now paper versus computers. There’s less mundane work and more mental application. It is easier and very quick to use a computer to test the whole population of transactions and accounts instead of only a sample.’ He adds that because of computer-assisted auditing techniques, accountants can now spend more time to analyse the outcome rather than compiling the outcome.
There is more emphasis on regulations than business processes today. ‘Businesses spend more time trying to comply with regulations than running a business (especially SOEs) and thus they fail to deliver on the mandate they are supposed to fulfil.’ He adds that, ‘when things go wrong, accountants (particularly auditors) are the first to be blamed. More is expected from auditors than in the olden days. In the past, auditors just confirmed the annual financial statements. These days they are expected to be auditors and business advisors. There is also a lot of pressure on audit fees, possibly because of the economic strain on businesses.’
SAICA and the future of the profession
Nkabini praises SAICA for its continuous professional development programmes and seminars. The seminars on topics such as the public sector and tax updates ‘create awareness so that even if one is not involved in the specific field or sector, you are nevertheless aware of the changes. It helps to avoid accountants being caught unawares.’
There are still challenges for the profession. ‘The outcry against mandatory audit firm rotation is a case in point. It seems some audit firms are so familiar with their clients that they do not want to change and face new challenges. This is a cause for concern, because familiarity may blind such practitioners when the client’s circumstances change unexpectedly. Professionals must guard against this threat. A compensating control against this is the introduction of peer reviews,’ comments Nkabini.
Pressure to reduce audit fees may result in below-par work, which could compromise professional standards and Nkabini warns that ‘it is imperative that accountants and auditors are not mislesd by management to perform below the minimum standards required by the profession.’
According to Nkabini the choices for someone qualifying as a CA(SA) are wide. ‘You do not have to be restricted once you qualify.’ Indeed, he quips, ‘before you become a CA(SA) you look for a job; when you are a CA(SA) the job looks for you.’
He believes accountants should be broad-minded: ‘One of the greatest things about being a chartered accountant or articled clerk is the exposure you would otherwise never get elsewhere in terms of the various entities and environments. I would definitely encourage anyone to follow the profession.’ Indeed, Nkabini’s youngest son, Nhlakanipho, plans to become a CA(SA).
AUTHOR | Lia Labuschagne