In 2022, Municipal IQ recorded 193 service delivery protests. This is a powerful statement made by South Africans whose quality of life has been diminished by their municipalities’ inaction, and it is the plight of these individuals that motivates Shabeer Khan, the Accountant-General of South Africa.
Shabeer explains that one of his primary responsibilities as Accountant-General is to provide an accounting framework that drives financial management throughout the public sector. The office of the Accountant-General resides within National Treasury, which derives its mandate from the Constitution, as he explains. This specifies that his office is responsible for ensuring uniformity in the classification of expenditure and the creation of state-wide norms and standards.
Shabeer is in charge of a large team that performs a variety of legal and technical duties to ensure compliance with the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) and Municipal Finance Management Act (MFMA). In addition, it supports important governance structures in the field of public financial administration, such as audit committees and internal audit.
In addition, his office and the Intergovernmental Relations team drives several programmes with an emphasis on skills development and capacity-building in local government, including the City Support Programme primarily aimed at the metros focusing on planning, strategic areas of service delivery and Pink, a Swiss-funded initiative to improve supply chain management in smaller municipalities. According to Shabeer, the Municipal Financial Improvement Programme − which aims to address six key areas including unfunded budgets, revenue management, asset management, supply chain management, accounting, and auditing − is the most noteworthy initiative.
A life given to service
Clearly, the position of Accountant-General requires not only great talent but also great stamina. Fortunately, Shabeer’s prior experience prepared him for the demands of his current position: his career began with internships at the Auditor-General, where he rose through the ranks and acquired a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics and nuances of the public service.
He was invited to join the Department of Tade and Industry (DTI) as the CFO in 2013. This is where Shabeer acquired his reputation for meticulousness and integrity. ‘At the time, achieving a clean audit was a significant objective for any government department, so this became one of my first responsibilities at the DTI. It entailed establishing fundamental disciplines of controls and governance, ensuring that they were embedded in the department’s internal systems, and then driving them with determination.’ Shabeer’s strategy accelerated the DTI’s achievement of its objectives. ‘Clean audits are now the norm rather than the exception, but I still consider them one of the most important requirements for effective service delivery.’
The DTI and the Department of Economic Development amalgamated in 2019 to form the Department of Trade, Industry, and Competition. Shabeer was still making his mark as the new organisation’s CFO, overseeing the merger of the two departments. ‘We needed to ensure that everything was in order in terms of financial management, and that the new mandate was achievable.’ When the Director-General of the department retired two years later, Shabeer was appointed to the transitional team that would lead the DTIC until a replacement for the DG could be found. Shabeer spent the majority of 2022 as the Acting Director-General, but it was also during this year that he interviewed for the position of Accountant-General, leaving him with a difficult decision a few months later. Shabeer recalls, ‘I was caught off guard when Cabinet made the announcement that I was the new Accountant-General and I was thus forced to choose between the two positions.’
In the end, the summons from the Accountant-General’s office prevailed. ‘As a practitioner in the field of public financial management for so many years, I saw this as an opportunity to resolve some of the critical deficiencies I perceived in this field.’ He negotiated with the Minister of the DTIC to leave the department in December 2022 and assume the position of Accountant-General in January of this year.
A tricky task
Shabeer does not pretend that his job is easy; on the contrary, he notes that the Zondo Commission’s report has revealed many of the country’s problems and that it is his responsibility to use his prior experience in auditing and financial management to find solutions. As accounting officers and institution leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure the integrity of these fundamental controls, says Shabeer. He adds, however, that National Treasury has a vital role to play: ‘A number of municipalities have been placed under Section 139 administration because of poor financial management. Money has vanished, infrastructure has collapsed, and revenue remains uncollected, all of which impede their ability to deliver in this crucial area.’ The Treasury must intervene in these situations, he says.
Shabeer laments the inadequacy of resources to address fundamental financial discipline. ‘We are working with the tools and instruments at our disposal to drive reforms and transformation in this area,’ he explains. The PFMA and MFMA are crucial in this regard. ‘We have begun a process to evaluate and strengthen the legislative framework so that we can address fraud, governance, and red tape issues. One of our objectives is the elimination of burdensome reporting requirements. We want managers to govern, but we must also hold them accountable.’ Shabeer and his team have established significant milestones, such as modernising and simplifying reporting. It’s all about making good governance simple to achieve; for instance, by introducing web-enabled tools and automating the Financial Management Capability Maturity Model (FMCMM) and audit action plans so that addressing these challenges and issues is made easier.
Clearly, Shabeer possesses the ferocity of commitment necessary to tackle these formidable obstacles. While many other CAs(SA) may choose private practice over the public sector, his passion has been fuelled by the opportunity to make a difference every day. His greatest desire is to share this enthusiasm with entrants to the industry, which is why he is a staunch supporter of National Treasury’s CA Academy. ‘Eighty-five CAs have graduated from the Academy,’ he says with pride. ‘Although I would like to see many more individuals enter the field of public finance management, this is a solid beginning in terms of attracting and retaining talent.’ Indeed, when Shabeer joined the Department of Trade and Industry ten years ago, he was the only chartered accountant among his peers. ‘This brings the Academy’s impact into sharp focus. ‘It is encouraging to observe that our efforts to promote the public sector among professionals are beginning to bear fruit. Although I recognise that there are other intriguing opportunities elsewhere, this is a field in which your work has the potential to have a significant impact.’ He returns to the issue of service delivery to emphasise his point: ‘South Africa’s budget for service delivery is nearing the R2 trillion mark. The public trusts the public sector to ensure that these monies are spent in accordance with the broader objectives of government, which essentially come down to improving our quality of life. We need skilled people, like CAs, to ensure that this is, indeed, the case – we simply cannot leave the responsibility of dealing with such significant budgets and financial resources to people who do not have the right qualifications.’
Shabeer reveals that his office has conducted a survey to determine the capacity of chief financial officers (CFOs) in all spheres of government. Focus was on qualifications of the CFOs and supporting staff, as well as NQF levels, experience, standardisation of CFO structures within each department/municipality staff turnover rates, and competency statements. The skills gap appears discouraging, but the survey is the first stage in determining the resources necessary to support other government institutions adequately.
Determined to make a difference
It goes without saying that the Accountant-General’s work cannot be accomplished in isolation, due to its sheer size and scope. Shabeer states that it requires smart partnerships, and his team collaborates closely with several other government entities in order to fulfil his office’s mandate and promote a transparent, accountable state. For instance, his office’s partnership with provincial treasuries helps to expand its reach beyond the national level. They also share experiences and best practices with their provincial counterparts. Involving professional institutions and regulators, the Accountant-General participates in forums to engage stakeholders in governance and accounting reforms. SAICA, the Institute of Internal Auditors and the King Committee are all important partners, as are the various institutions supporting the mandate of good governance. ‘It’s a long list,’ Shabeer chuckles. ‘Lastly, we work closely with the Auditor-General of South Africa to ensure that synergies are leveraged, and the points of convergence are strengthened.’
When not supervising public balance accounts, Shabeer is devoted to his family: he is married and the proud father of four children. ‘Creating time for family requires a bit of juggling, but it’s essential to strike a balance. I enjoy playing soccer and cricket with my children, as well as the occasional dining out and going to the movies. Family time is enjoyable for me.’
In Shabeer’s case, achieving that almost always elusive sense of equilibrium is facilitated by a strong alignment between his personal and professional values. ‘I believe that once alignment is achieved, passion will almost certainly follow.’ He adds that his desire to make a difference was sparked during his earliest days of public service: ‘If I consider the imperative to achieve a clean audit at the DTI, for example, it was never about the audit itself, but rather how it could assist us in our other endeavours. It assisted in elevating our task.’
Ranking among the Top 35
Shabeer is a former participant in SAICA’s Top 35-under-35 and believes that the competition has been excellent in recognising talent in the profession. ‘I am amazed at the number of young and exciting entrepreneurs that have come through this programme,’ he says. In 2022, Shabeer was also the proud winner of the ‘future fit’ award at the SAICA Chairman’s Difference Makers Award. ‘I was really humbled at being recognised amongst the many giants of our profession. In fact, I have a photograph with Professor Wiseman Nkhulu, whom I have always respected and admired, which I will treasure forever.’
Author Monique Verduyn | Photographer Theana Breugem