Commitment to transformation in the profession is belied by negative university environments and poor support for Thuthuka. By Monique Verduyn
The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) has made steady progress in helping to produce more black chartered accountants. Blacks in total form about 21% of the CA(SA) population. This is largely due to the success of the Thuthuka Bursary Fund launched in 2004 to transform the predominantly white chartered accounting profession.
While tensions over funding for tertiary education ran high in the last quarter of 2015, Thuthuka, a private sector bursary scheme, has proven what can be done to help poor students. In 2014, the fund supported 919 undergraduate students at the University of Johannesburg, University of the Witwatersrand, University of Cape Town, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Stellenbosch University, University of Pretoria and University of the Free State. Thuthuka bursary funds are secured through donations from the private sector and are then matched by the government through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
WHERE THE CHALLENGES LIE
Despite the successes achieved, the pace of transformation remains slow. Chantyl Mulder, Executive Director, Nation Building, SAICA, attributes this to a combination of poor maths education, antagonistic university environments, and lack of support from the CA(SA) community.
‘It is inconceivable that our universities together cannot even produce 20 black [African and coloured] CAs(SA) per year for our profession,’ she says. ‘Certainly, some universities show greater commitment to transformation than others. The University of Johannesburg, for example, has demonstrated its commitment by being the biggest residential provider of black CAs(SA) in South Africa, and the biggest contributor of first-time African candidate chartered accountants in the country. It is also the biggest participant in the Thuthuka programme, and has created the most amenable and empowering environment for black accountancy students.’
Mulder pulls no punches in describing the lack of support for black accountancy students at some of the country’s other universities. ‘It’s insidious, and difficult to pinpoint, but when Thuthuka project managers who run our programmes at the universities inform us that they are losing the battle, we know how difficult it must be. One of the biggest challenges is that while you may have the Vice-Chancellor and all the senior academics on your side, the damage happens when students confront antagonism lower down the line. Because they are often too scared to talk about what is going on, it is difficult to confront this covert racism.’
The status quo highlights the critical importance of encouraging newly qualified, young black CAs(SA) to become academics. Among the most successful SAICA initiatives in the past year was its partnership with the University of Cape Town, the Department of Higher Education and Training, and Walter Sisulu University, to build the capacity of WSU by working towards re-accrediting WSU’s BCom (Accountancy) programme so as to further skills development and employment opportunities within the largely disadvantaged communities of the Eastern Cape.
‘Given the dire shortage of CAs(SA) in South Africa, it has been encouraging to see the number of young CAs(SA) who have gone on to become academics at Walter Sisulu University, which has been the beneficiary of this capacity-building programme,’ says Mulder. ‘The result is that accountancy students are thriving there because they have the right role models. It’s also gratifying to see that there are young black professionals who choose to become lecturers rather than going into the more lucrative corporate world.’
Thuthuka covers student’s tuition, accommodation and books costs. Students are given an allowance, as well as non-academic support, such as life skills mentoring.
These aspects of the Thuthuka Fund have made it a holistic support mechanism to students, and its success demonstrates what can be achieved when students have access to the best of the best
‘We have never dropped standards in an effort to transform the industry,’ says Mulder. ‘On the contrary, we have the highest standards in the world. Now, it’s time for all the members of the profession to show their support and put their money where their mouths are. We are calling for an absolute change of heart.’
BLACK PROFESSIONALS MUST SHOW SUPPORT
Mulder points to the cold reception of SAICA’s Thuthuka Pledge Campaign as a sign of the apathy of the profession. SAICA has a database of more than 40 000 CAs(SA). A call was sent out to these members to pledge R500 per year to the bursary fund. Had every member pledged, an additional R20 million would be available to give disadvantaged students the opportunity to become CAs(SA) and create a better future for themselves, their communities and the country.
‘Instead, we received pledges from just 200 members, most of them white,’ says Mulder. An annual sum of R500 is less than the cost of dinner on a Friday night.
‘At the risk of being extremely controversial, the same applies when it comes to corporate funding. The big four (PwC, KPMG, Deloitte, EY) are the biggest contributors to the bursary fund, as well as the banking sector. SizweNtsalubaGobodo is the only black-owned firm that contributes to Thuthuka. Quite simply, black CAs(SA) need to get on board and provide support for black students. People are quick to criticise the slow pace of transformation, but we cannot transform an industry without being able to enrol new students.’
The mathematics crisis
The biggest impediment to transformation, however, is the quality of maths education in the country. A recent Parliamentary response by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga revealed that at least one in four schools around the country does not offer mathematics for Grades 10 to 12. According to these figures from the annual school survey in 2013, the worst statistics were in Mpumalanga, where 56,3% of schools did not offer the subject.
‘In 2014, a total of just 19 000 black learners passed maths,’ says Mulder. ‘What is interesting is that between 30% and 40% of children who pass maths enter the accounting profession. Yes, we get the lion’s share, but this is by no means enough to meet the severe shortage of accounting skills in the country. This is why interventions are critical, through programmes like Thuthuka and by organisations like African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA), which is doing exceptional work. It’s also important for industry bodies to work together so that we do not duplicate initiatives unnecessarily.’
At community level, says Mulder, parents need to encourage Grade 8 learners to take mathematics. Thuthuka is working to help parents guide children on subject choices because teachers are often not properly trained or qualified to provide the appropriate guidance.
‘We cannot change the past,’ says Mulder. ‘But with the help of all stakeholders in this profession, we can have an enormous impact on the future, provided we can increase the pool of students. South Africa has a desperate need for more CAs(SA) as they help to ensure better financial controls and clean audits. Beyond that, on a socio-economic level, the impact that professional people have on their families and communities is enormous. Actively supporting the growth of the profession can not only change lives, but entire areas of the country.’