Mariétte Venter was the acting Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of the Capricorn District Municipality in Limpopo in 2016. The municipality was one of many which had invested funds in VBS Mutual Bank while Venter was on maternity leave. Venter recognised several red flags, demanded the money back and was suspended for her efforts. This is her story …
Mariétte Venter is a CA(SA) of note who prides herself on doing what is right, doing the job right and delivering quality work, even if it means putting herself in danger, whistle-blowing, being investigated and facing the judgement of the public.
Standing up and surviving the VBS bank scandal took immense inner strength and courage and even today it is clear that Mariétte is still dealing with the aftermath of the scandal.
During the time Venter was on maternity leave, the then acting CFO invested municipal funds with VBS. On her return in January 2016, several issues were raised by the audit committee with regard to the MFMA investment regulations. The municipality revised their investment policy to be in line with the regulations. This meant that all banks where funds were invested must be registered in terms with the SA Banks Act and must have a credit rating/grading of BBB or higher.
Mariétte requested details of the investment rating from VBS bank, and based on the response from VBS Mutual Bank, the municipality’s investment with VBS Mutual Bank was not in line with the investment policy. Mariétte therefore recalled the investment, an action which was met with a lot of resistance from senior management. She was shocked when she was reprimanded for doing her job.
‘I think sometimes we walk into situations that we don’t have any idea of and sometimes people get caught off guard with that situation in that critical moment of deciding what to do and what not to do,’ says Mariétte. She admits it was maybe just by grace that she did stand up, that she did recall the money. ‘I was not expecting that a week later I would be suspended and investigated.’
She explains that Polokwane, where she is from, is a small town where everyone reads the newspapers. ‘And then you make front page – “Acting CFO gets suspended” – without knowing what you did wrong. I did nothing wrong. I did my work.’
That is where Mariétte’s real struggle began. ‘I’ve worked my whole life to be a CA(SA). Everyone travels a different road to get there, and I always say I took the scenic route and had to work very hard, only becoming one at the age of 33 … And then you get confronted with this suspension, having done nothing wrong.’
Even today it is difficult for Mariétte to deal with the situation. ‘Even though I had done nothing wrong, I still got investigated by SAICA. When the whole story came out in public, there was the other, I think eight CAs(SA), that were also identified, and I was being investigated as a part of them. That was very tough. It creates a lot of emotion and stress. I think what is really important for an organisation like SAICA to be there as a backup in situations like these so that you have someone to turn to.’
Mariétte explains it was when she was invited as a guest speaker in 2018 at the SAICA conference in Cape Town that she felt she had support and acknowledgement for what she did. ‘It’s very difficult if you’re in a situation and you have nowhere to turn to. That is something that can be worked on – to create a supportive space for CAs(SA) or accountants.’
She believes if CAs(SA) and accountants want to protect themselves going forward, there needs to be a space where you can ask for help, guidance and assistance, as well as support with dealing with the conflict, especially for members in the public sector, where it is extremely political, without much support. Something as simple as a helpline that you can call to ask for guidance, would make an important difference. ‘In the end, the only way we can protect our profession is to support our fellow CAs(SA).’
According to Mariétte, doing the right thing was not even something she had to decide about: it was just natural instinct. ‘Having worked so hard to become a CA(SA), I am here to do whatever is right, and to stand up for it. The other thing that is important to me, is that I have always had a passion for public service. In the municipality, I work with a lot of younger adults, and I want to instil this passion in them. I would like one of them to one day be in the position of acting CFO or deputy CFO … so I have to teach and guide them. I have to show them how to stand up in life, for doing the right thing. And we can only teach others what integrity is if you show it yourself. We can only teach them by example.’
At the time, it wasn’t so much about courage for Mariétte: it was about doing the right thing. ‘All I knew was that the instruction I got was not the right one. I was supported by law. This is my responsibility. That is what I am responsible for, and that function falls within my job, so I have to take the responsibility and step up to what is expected of me, regardless of where the instruction is coming from.’
She also admits she had no idea what the repercussions of her actions would be. ‘The only thing that I could see was that I was struggling to get the money back. I couldn’t understand why I was not getting the support from upper management, but knew I had to do everything in my power to ensure I get the money back.’ She was under the impression management would be pleased that she was able to get it back, only to be suspended for it a week later.
‘There’s a lot of life lessons we have to learn. It is very tough in the public sector, because you will get instructions from upper management to do something even though it might not be the right thing. So, what do you do? I will usually say: “I don’t agree with your instruction or with your approach to this matter and if you want me to, I will advise. However, if you want me to continue, please put it in writing.” Because you are stuck between insubordination and doing the wrong thing, it’s a lose-lose situation.’
For Mariétte the solution is finding a balance between the two – making sure that if you say no to something, you explain your views and if management persists, get it in writing.
Dealing with the pressure and emotional burden from the ordeal was not easy. ‘Five years down the line, I still get emotional about this topic and I think it is something that will stick with you for the rest of your life. Honestly, at the time my world was falling apart,’ she admits. The personal cost and public humiliation of doing the right thing can be enormous.
Although she explains that she can’t give guidance on how to deal with such a situation, her advice is to not lose your professionalism or what you stand for, even when the public or media tries to discredit you, even if they don’t know the full truth of what had transpired.
A week later Council receded her suspension and when she returned to the office, her team celebrated her and appreciated what she stood up for and who she stood up against. ‘That created a bond between my current subordinates because they know that I will have their backs and, you know, everyone makes mistakes, everyone makes honest mistakes. We are all people. But you have to own up to your mistakes, correct them and learn from the situation.’
Although the VBS scandal threatened to destroy her, Mariétte triumphed and today she is humbled by the acknowledgements she received from SAICA, among others. ‘I must applaud SAICA for making an effort to be vocal about ethics and for standing up and protecting our profession and make it better for us to do the right thing by creating a platform.’
There is definitely professional victory in doing what is right, to take a stand and build a better South Africa for everyone. When it comes to ethical behaviour, the reality is that you have to stand up for what is right, even when being aware of the risks and pressures of doing so.
Sharing whistleblowers’ stories
Listen to SAICA’s new Ethics podcast series which focuses on the harrowing, true stories of South African whistleblowers
SAICA has embarked on an Integrated Ethics Plan to help restore trust in the chartered accountancy profession. One of the ways in which this plan will be implemented is via a podcast where whistleblowers talk candidly about the ethical dilemmas they have faced, what they did in response, and which processes they followed to ensure their integrity remain intact.
Each conversation is led by Mpho Mookapele, CEO of the Energy and Water SETA and 2019 Top 35-under-35 winner. Mariétte Venter, a whistleblower in the VBS Mutual Bank matter, shares her story in the first instalment of the podcast series.
The stories told aim to show SAICA members how ethical conduct can be applied in the most challenging of situations. Listen to these real-life heroes talk about their own experiences in doing what is right, all the time.
Author: Pranisha Rama CA(SA), Auditing Lecturer, University of Johannesburg