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Cover Story: A career 20 years in the making

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Becoming a chartered accountant was all Vusi Nkabini dreamed of while growing up in Mpumalanga. Over nearly two decades, he failed his board examination five times and missed two exams, but he never quit. This year his dream became a reality when he qualified as a CA(SA) at the age of 52. By Monique Verduyn

Near the former mission station at Botshabelo, to the north-west of Middelburg, lies the township of Mhluzi. That’s where Vusi Nkabini was born in 1962.

Established in 1879, two years after the town of Middelburg, and only incorporated into greater Middelburg in 1994, Mhluzi lacked basic services, which meant the young Nkabini did his homework by candlelight. Both his parents were farm workers who never had the opportunity to go to school, but they were firm believers in the value of education. What they wanted most for their son was to have a better life.

“My father was prepared to sacrifice everything to make it possible for us to go to school, even if that meant walking barefoot,” says Nkabini. Today his mum and dad are retired, and are rightfully proud of their son, even though, as Nkabini acknowledges, they do not fully understand what it means to be a CA(SA). The significance is enormous – Nkabini is now a governance and compliance manager at the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa) and one of just over 3 000 black CAs(SA) among more than 37 000 in the country.

A YOUNG BOY WITH A BIG DREAM

Nkabini attended a farm school in the area for five years and showed great promise as a young learner. When he was in Standard 3 (now Grade 5) he taught his father how to read addresses and make sense of invoices. He also helped him to obtain a learner driver’s licence. “He went on to get his driver’s licence and became a delivery man, a remarkable achievement for someone who had only ever worked on a farm.”

In 1976, the year in which Wiseman Nkuhlu became the first black person in South Africa to qualify as a chartered accountant, Nkabini started high school at a township school 12 kilometres from home. “I walked 24 kilometres every day: to school and back, in the rain, the cold and the heat of summer. After a few years I went to stay with my grandmother who lived closer to the school and I went home only on weekends.”

Despite the hardships, Nkabini came top of his class every year, from Grade  1 to matric, which he passed with exemption in 1981, gaining first class passes in Biology and English. His subjects included Afrikaans, isiZulu, physical science and maths, a subject he enjoyed immensely and at which he was talented. It was during his high school years that 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 there was no money to pay university fees, forcing him to put his goal on hold.

That next year, after two weeks of working as a “spanner boy”, he joined a laboratory in Witbank and became a laboratory technician. A young man who was easily bored, he borrowed study guides from a former classmate who was registered at Unisa and pored over them when shifts were slow.

“That was how I fell in love with the business world and started to learn about commerce,” he says. “For the first time I understood what GDP meant and how inflation worked. Before this, my only knowledge of commercial transactions was paying for groceries at the local Pick n Pay.”

He signed up with Unisa as a part-time correspondence student and worked hard to achieve distinctions in first-year accounting and economics, followed the next year by first-class passes in business economics and commercial law. He admits that he battled to hold down a full-time job and study at the same time, often working nightshifts and having very little time off. But his commitment and determination clearly paid off.

NOT INTELLIGENT ENOUGH

However, the people around him were not very encouraging when he made it known that he wanted to work toward a qualification as a chartered accountant. “One of the guys who lived in my street was an HR officer and he told me plainly that accounting was only for really intelligent people and that there was no way I’d make it,” Nkabini recalls. “Another one was working for an audit firm and he too advised me not to waste my time, telling me I would be better off becoming a social worker.”

Refusing to bow down, Nkabini approached his employer, SA Cyanamid, a subsidiary of an American firm. The company was under pressure to apply the Sullivan Principles, which promoted corporate social responsibility and an end to segregation. The management did their duty and Nkabini was awarded a scholarship.

In 1986 he went to Rhodes to begin his CA(SA) journey. He was required to repeat a few courses that he had completed at Unisa, as Rhodes would not give him accreditation for these, but his time there was a positive experience. He became one of the first black students in the country to tutor second- and third-year accounting at the university, which gave him a small income to supplement his scholarship.

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 as it was the first time I had ever been in a commercial environment. All I had known up to then was the laboratory and the lecture theatre and I had a huge amount to learn about the world of business.”

In 1990 he sat for the board exam and failed. He puts that first failure down to a lack of focus and guidance. He wrote the board exam another four times between 1990 and 1994 but failed each time, causing him to put his dream on hold for 13 years.

He moved on from KPMG to Anglovaal in 1993, but the department closed down a year later and so he joined ABSA in the Johannesburg CBD, where he worked as a management accountant. In 1996 he was employed as the financial manager at City Deep Cold Storage.

“It was the new South Africa and every company in the country was trying to hire black people. I would be placed by an agency and six months later, once the commission and fees had been paid, the same agency would call me and tell me they had found a great job for me at another company. It was difficult to stay in one place for very long. On the plus side, my income increased every time. When I joined Anglovaal, my salary went up by 80%. Every year after that it increased by between 20% and 30%.”

His next job was at water and sanitation NGO Mvula Trust. When his boss, Lucas Dhlamini, was headhunted by the Department of Transport’s Civil Aviation Authority, he insisted on taking Nkabini along. “I felt honoured and appreciated that he asked me to move with him,” he recalls. “We had a great working relationship and I enjoyed my new position as a financial manager at the CAA. But I was living in Roodepoort and when the offices were in Brooklyn in Pretoria, it became a nightmare to travel such long distances every day.”

He left in 2000 and joined Metrorail, a division of Transnet, as the senior finance manager. He stayed with the organisation for seven years, after which he moved to a consulting company that was helping the Gauteng Department of Health to get its books in order.

In 2007, he resumed his studies and enrolled for his CTA once again, as his previous certificate had expired after five years. On the Sunday before his board exams, he came down with chickenpox – at age 45. Anyone who has contracted the virus as an adult will know how severe the symptoms are, including intense pain and even hallucinations. Nkabini was bed-ridden for two weeks – for the duration of the exams.

Bitterly disappointed but undeterred, he registered again in 2008, wrote the exams, and was required to do a supplementary exam for management accounting. He prepared himself to rewrite and felt that he was more than ready. On his way to the exam venue, the taxi he was travelling in broke down. He hailed another one down, but it dropped him more than 5 kilometres from the venue. Already late, he ran all the way and arrived almost an hour after the start.

“I sat at the desk, out of breath and with sweat pouring down onto my answer book. A panic attack made it impossible for me to get past the first question, and I realised that I was in no state to write an important and demanding paper, so I gave up and walked out.”

Bent but not broken, Nkabini took a break from studying for a while. In 2010, the consulting firm he was working at closed and he went the freelance route for a while, doing the books for close corporations and smaller businesses.

In 2011 Prasa appointed him as financial performance manager, His responsibilities included defining the company’s key performance indicators, formulating strategic plans and forecasts, handling performance reporting, and increasing finance operational efficiency and execution.

THE POWER OF PERSONAL RESILIENCE

It was also in that year that a nagging thought kept pestering him. He could not accept failure. An avid reader his whole life, he continued to be inspired by the stories of people like Nkhulu who had succeeded against all odds, and Raymond Ackerman who built a business empire after he lost his job and was left with one week’s wages and a baby on the way.

He also read Larry Di Angi’s inspirational book The magic is in the extra mile: how to break free from common thinking and break through to your dream-purpose. A former homeless person, Di Angi had turned his life around and built a multi-million-dollar business. That’s what inspired Nkabini to develop the mind-set required to overcome the challenges life had presented him and to keep moving towards his personal and professional goals.

“The board exam was the only thing I had ever failed at in my life and I decided then and there that I was no longer going to allow it to defeat me. It was time to level the playing field.”

He registered for the CTA once again, and this time round he was required to rewrite financial accounting. It was a nasty surprise given that this had always been his best subject throughout his studies. Fortunately he passed the next time. In 2012 he went on to pass Part 1 of the Qualifying Exam (QE1) but had to write a supplementary examination for the Accounting Professional Training (APT) towards the end of 2012. However, he passed the supplementary examination, but failed the Professional Practice Exam (PPE) that same year.

By then Nkabini was terribly frustrated and disillusioned. It seemed he was doomed never to qualify. But then he was approached by SAICA’s Thuthuka Bursary Fund team and offered a bursary to repeat his courses and to receive academic support at the same time to help him achieve his potential.

PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF

“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. The programme was stringent and I was able to focus on preparing for the exams properly for the first time in my life. We wrote tests and assignments all the time, helping us to get used to the format of the exams and the expectations.”

Nkabini wrote his exams and one month after turning 52, he qualified as a CA(SA). The significance of this achievement, which he had chased for so many years, left him feeling numb for a while but now he is justly pleased with himself.

“While I was growing up in the township I saw so much poverty and suffering, and I was determined that I would not end up in that situation. The people who were better off had all studied further and it was clear to me that the only way out of poverty was education.”

On the demands of studying accountancy, Nkabini stresses that it’s critical to get the foundation right first. “What you learn in Grade 5 at school is applicable at university level and in the workplace. That‘s why it is so important to get the basics right. If children are taught maths early and properly, they are that much better prepared to study what people traditionally see as a ‘difficult’ subject. In fact, if you have the patience to bed down what you know, it’s not difficult at all.”

Based on his experiences, Nkabini says young people interested in accounting should investigate the options by working during the holidays and getting to know the world of business. He cautions that nothing comes easy.

“As a married man with three children, I would go to my office on Saturdays to study and I waited for my kids to go to bed at night so that I could focus on exams. There are no shortcuts and you have to learn to manage all the different responsibilities in your life in order to get through. But you’ll also find that most people in the industry are happy to help if you ask. Also, we have access to much more information on the Internet than students had 20 years ago. The world around us is more conducive to learning than ever before.”

On becoming a CA(SA), Nkabini says the career options are almost limitless. “Before you become a CA(SA) you look for a job; when you are a CA(SA) the job looks for you.” ❐

Author: Monique Verduyn

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