A child of the townships, Jeff van Rooyen rose above his circumstances through hard work, determination and opportunity.
‘I’ve lost count of the number of times people have counselled me on aiming too high. Most of the time, their advice was that I should lower the bar and set myself what they considered to be more reasonable and attainable goals,’ Jeff van Rooyen writes in the prologue to his recently published book Unshackled: My Journey from the Township to the Boardroom.
Although born into poverty in Alexandra township in 1950, he refused to compromise when it came to his ambitions and, against all odds, he graduated as a chartered accountant. But it was not the career he had in mind while still at school.
‘The role models in our society at the time were teachers and doctors,’ Jeff recalls. ‘The conventional wisdom was that if you were good at mathematics and science, you went into medicine. But none of the local universities would accept me. Because I was classified as “Coloured”, I had to go to the University of the Western Cape. In 1969, at the age of 19, I went to study towards a BSc. But in the first semester, we lost my younger brother and that turned my life upside down.’
He writes in the book: ‘This accident, which was almost unbearable for me, along with the routine violence we lived with in the townships, created a huge sense of vulnerability within me. Looking ahead, it seemed highly unlikely to me that I would live to see my 21st birthday.’
That tragedy, coupled with severe financial woes, made it impossible for him to go back. The question was, ‘what next?’ He needed his matric certificate to apply for a job and he returned to his old school to request a copy. He bumped into his commerce teacher and mentor, Brian Theron, who got him to sign up there and then for a BCom at Unisa. The year was 1970. Jeff threw himself into his studies and completed the degree part-time, over six years. He calls it a transformative period that paved the way for him to become a CA(SA).
Unknown to Jeff at the time, but working in his favour, was the fact that the profession had recently adopted a voluntary code of employment, making a commitment to hire black clerks. He was invited for an interview by Schwartz Fine in Johannesburg and that was his entry into the accounting profession in 1975.
In 1981, he qualified as a CA(SA). He began to visit schools to build awareness of the profession and created a network of likeminded individuals who believed that to contribute to the economy, black people had to develop accounting skills.
In 1985, he spearheaded the formation of the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa (ABASA) to promote the professional interests of black people in the accounting profession.
To put things into perspective, this is a man who, attending a lecture in the 80s, was told that black people could not become CAs(SA). When pointing to himself, he was told he was the exception. He is extremely proud of what the organisation has become, attributing at least some of its success to his insistence on limited tenure – three years – for the president of the organisation, ensuring that there is no stagnation and that ABASA functions as an incubator for future leaders in the profession.
‘I believe in putting your money where your mouth is,’ he says. ’When we established ABASA, there was a lot of external resistance and I decided that to get it off the ground I would have to fund it myself rather than looking for sponsorships. We grew that fledgling organisation into what it is today because it was something that a small group of us passionately believed in.’
Since then, he has had many career-defining moments. The first was when he was admitted as a partner at Deloitte in 1990, four years before South Africa’s transition to democracy. The leadership of the firm was visionary, and they could see where the country was headed.
‘People around me said there was no way I was going to be made a partner, but when Deloitte opened the discussion, I was determined, and I made it happen. It changed my life dramatically, professionally and financially. After a decade there, I applied for the role of CEO of the Financial Services Board (FSB). I really enjoyed that position and I take credit for having piloted a great amount of legislation through Parliament during my tenure,’ he says.
In 1993, Jeff joined the ANC’s transitional team which was working with the previous regime on the restructuring of government and promoting the preparation for and transition to democracy in the lead-up to the 1994 elections.
It was also at that time that then chairman of MTN, Cyril Ramaphosa, asked him to join the board of the multinational company. Other highlights were his appointment as the chairman of Exxaro Resources, which is now moving from coal into global renewable energy, and then lead independent director of Pick n Pay Stores. In 2005, Jeff set up his own business, Uranus Investment Holdings, which he still runs today.
On writing his book, Jeff says he felt it was imperative for him to write his own historical record of what life was like for people in the Johannesburg townships of Alexandra, Newclare and Riverlea Extension, between the 1950s and 1960s, and to describe his own journey.
‘In the townships,’ he writes, ‘I picked up the knowledge, skills and experience to navigate difficult situations. However, unlike in the township gangs, where conflict is often life-threatening in general, usually the worst thing that can happen in politics and in corporate life is that you can get fired.’
But as a young boy, witnessing the chaos of life around him, he was overwhelmed by fear. ‘During the writing process, I believed it was vital to share some of the hardships I experienced, as well as the lessons I learnt. Young people have different challenges today, but the mindset you need to succeed against sometimes extraordinary odds, remains the same. It’s all about self-belief and determination. If you can say to yourself, “I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along,” you also discover that you don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only option that you have.” I have had heart-warming responses from young people who have read the book and that has been very rewarding.’
An unintended consequence of writing, he says, was that the process was extremely cathartic. He writes about growing up with a single mother and being abandoned by his father and pulls no punches about his own personal life.
Through a combination of hard work, perseverance and uncompromising ethics, he climbed the corporate ladder, working for some of the biggest assurance and advisory services firms in the world, serving on oversight bodies, advising government officials and wrapping up a stellar career with a series of directorships on the boards of major JSE-listed companies. All the while, he has been a firm believer in giving back to the communities in which he grew up.
On the profession to which he has committed his life, he stresses that accounting plays a critical role in global financial markets and how South Africa is viewed in the world. ‘Local and international investors rely on financial statements when they make the investment decisions. For decades, the South African accountancy profession was regarded as one of the best in the world, but we have faced some challenges recently. That’s why it is more important than ever for us to understand the immeasurable value of what we do in terms of the progress of South Africa; the fact is that we work in the service of our country.’
When he has time to himself, Jeff loves to read – a passion he developed as a child. He also enjoys many different types of sport and plays golf at least once a week now that he has stopped marathon running.
A patriot through and through, he encourages young people to work abroad, gain new experience and make the most of what life has to offer. ‘We live in a much more global world today, and I believe there will always be those people who travel the world as their oyster and are then drawn back home because they love their country, and they want to contribute to its development.’
In Unshackled, he quotes former American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘You learn by living – you gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience.’
A life spent learning lessons
- Among the many life lessons Jeff has learnt during his career is the value of honesty and integrity. ‘Life is filled with temptations that come your way. It is incumbent on people in positions of authority to understand the responsibilities that we have and to live up to them with honour.’
- Another big lesson is that people must always be very clear about what they want, and what their goals are. ‘If your objective is to become a billionaire and wealth accumulation becomes your god, know that you are never, ever going to reach a point when you are satisfied. To young people I always say that it’s important to have a goal that is greater than just about yourself. The difference I want to make to this generation will have a positive impact on the next generation. Going beyond mere self-interest is what enables us to leave a lasting legacy.’
- Jeff is opposed to prejudice of any kind. ‘For most of my life, I was defined by the colour of my skin and the associated stereotypes. I will not do the same. I judge people on the basis of their knowledge, skills, experience, values and principles. That is how you draw kindred spirits.’ This is a philosophy he espouses in his book: ‘I will cling, with all my might, to the belief that there is a better way, that it is possible for all of us to rise above our narrow racial identities and to build a society that is truly non-racial, a society where we respect people for who they are rather than for how they look on the surface.’