South Africa’s new Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke (45), has her work cut out for her. But this dynamic young woman is motivated to make a success of her role and to continue the fight her predecessor, Kimi Makwetu, started for good governance in public finance and against rampant mismanagement and fraud.
As a young girl, Tsakani wanted to be a lawyer like her father, George Maluleke, who served as a judge at the Johannesburg High Court for fourteen years. ‘I’m the quintessential daddy’s girl. I wanted to be like my daddy. I wanted to become a lawyer and I thought I’d become a really good lawyer,’ she explains.
Tsakani grew up in Soshanguve, a township close to Pretoria. ‘The family owned a supermarket where I started working as a cashier from age nine − and from there the responsibilities increased,’ she remembers fondly. It was here that she learnt the basics of accounting while reconciling the day’s transactions.
After she matriculated from St Andrew’s School for Girls in Senderwood, Johannesburg, she enrolled for an undergraduate degree in commerce at the University of Cape Town with the intention of completing her LLB degree afterwards. However, she soon realised that she would rather build a career in accountancy after doing holiday work at two accountancy firms (PwC and KPMG) and receiving a scholarship.
The reason for her change in course was simple. ‘Somebody told me there were very few black people in the profession because black people struggle with the board exam.’ It was then that she decided to prove him wrong and excel as a chartered accountant. ‘I think my father forgave me pretty quickly. I think he enjoyed watching me chart my way towards things that made sense for me.’
Having joined the office of the Auditor-General in 2012 as head of audit, Tsakani has been working as South Africa’s Deputy Auditor-General since 2014 and has been involved in the arduous process of shaping the Auditor-General’s office into a formidable force. ‘Up until then, I kept looking for an environment where I could combine a professional approach to work, technical excellence, with the same professional standards that one would find at reputable accounting firms with this hunger to serve. And I feel like that’s what I found at the office of the AG. My previous roles have definitely prepared me for my new role as Auditor-General. I know the institution. I know what it takes to get it moving and what keeps it strong. It is amazing to work with professionals who could be doing anything but have chosen to serve, invest their talents and devote their careers to serving South Africans. That is what keeps me motivated.’
Throughout her career Tsakani has volunteered at organisations that advocate and support young aspiring accountants, for example the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants (ABASA) and African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA). ‘I realised one day that this seed was planted by my dad. He was one of the founding members of the Black Lawyers Association and very active in the organisation. I suspect I have the same aspiration to serve and help others and to drive justice,’ she explains.
Tsakani is proud to be part of an institution that gives joy and confidence to people, especially in a time they need it the most. However, as a young black woman, Tsakani knows she must work much harder than most to prove her worth. ‘I’ve made peace with it long ago. But remember, I carry the race matter and the gender issue. So, I’ve got to keep proving I deserve to be here and I have something to contribute. I don’t enjoy the same rewards of appreciation for the things that go well as, for example, white men. I have to work twice as hard for half the credit. And I also know the mistakes I make will take on a greater prominence than they would if I were not black and a woman. But I’ve learnt to embrace that as part of the burden of being charged with changing assumptions of what leadership, competence, dedication and work ethic looks like. I can only hope that I do so well that, when I’m done, no one ever doubts that a woman, a black accountant, can be Auditor-General and do really well and that I can make it better for the next generation.’
For her seven years as AG, Tsakani plans on continuing the good work her predecessor, Kimi Makwetu, started. ‘We have a professional outfit of world-class auditors, one that keeps delivering. I want to protect and maintain that capability. Secondly, the office is known for its independence, for producing work that is characterised by credibility and integrity, and I’ve got to make sure that I keep that intact. What I’m excited about is that our professionalism and independence provide a platform for me to drive greater relevance of our work through differentiated audit products that respond to the key risks that we identify. If you take, for example, the work we’ve been doing around the COVID-19 funds – it’s not something we’ve done before – to conduct real-time audits. I want to build on that experience – to look at the key risks that confront government in its quest to deploying financial resources, accounting for financial resources, and demonstrating in a transparent way that public funds are being deployed for the benefit of citizens. We need to find ways to support that and deliver that value. Because of the office’s good foundation, we now have space to be more dynamic and responsive to the moment by innovating different products, leaning into the opportunities that technology provides for greater efficiency and greater reach. It will also involve collaborating with other players, such as civil society and even government, to identify key risks and respond to those quickly.’
Tsakani is planning on spending the first few months of her term working internally with her team to collectively design an action plan. ‘I want the work we do as an audit office to ring true of the lived experiences of us as South Africans. We have to be a credible source of insight. We have to remain an independent voice of what is happening with the public purse, always with a posture of service, of adding value and demonstrating that we are part of the stage, we are part of society and our job is finding a way to close the gap between the promise of what the public sector ought to look like in terms of public finance management and the practice that currently prevails.’ Tsakani and her office will achieve this by leaning on the pillars that keep the office strong: independence, credibility, integrity, professionalism, technical excellence, ongoing development and capacity-building, and leading by example in terms of how the institution is run.
This is not an easy task, and they are facing many challenges. ‘COVID-19 has changed everything for everyone, and we all have to respond to it. If I look at our institution, maintaining the capability we have here is going to be one of my toughest tasks, especially in an environment where resources are scarce. The second issue I will have to confront is the physical threats to our teams. The better we do our work, the more under pressure we are – from intimidation and even outright threats to court cases against us – and this is unfortunately a growing trend, which is worrying. Not only is it the physical threat to our teams, but also whether people will stay in the office. Because our guys are professionals. They could do anything, go anywhere in the world and thrive. They’ve just chosen to do this. If they’re facing intimidation and threats, it’s going to be difficult for them to keep making that choice.’
Having worked for years alongside Kimi Makwetu, who had such a high regard for the institution, Tsakani’s appreciation for it had been sharpened. She explains he was almost militant about ethical conduct at all times and he taught her the importance of making the big, important decisions, even when it is unpopular to do so, and being guided by the foundational principles of the profession. ‘The notion that we inherit an institution that is strong, that is the result of ongoing focused attention by different leaders, inspires me to safeguard it and to build on it.’ She feels South Africa needs a new commitment to dealing with resources in a better way. ‘The space to waste, to lose, to deploy inefficiently – that space is gone. We cannot tolerate wastage of any sort any longer and the institutions that safeguard this need to be strengthened in order to play their role in a collaborative way so that we can stem the leakage of resources, protect what we have and ensure it is directed to where the need is.’ She plans to do this by following up on material irregularities and support the implementation of consequences where there has been wrongdoing.
‘I believe we will have a much greater impact if we have this reset, so that we avoid the loss of resources to begin with and can set about creating a culture where there is less tolerance for people not doing what they are supposed to do. If all of us play our role, it is going to be much easier to change the game.’
Feel free to doubt Tsakani Maluleke because she is young, or black, or a woman. She would love to prove you wrong by digging deeper, working harder and demonstrating consistent excellence!