Jeff van Rooyen is a natural born storyteller. His memoir Unshackled begins with his roots in the Johannesburg townships of Alexandra, Newclare and then Riverlea Extension, between the 1950s and 1960s.
The opening is candid and hard-hitting: ‘Life in a South African township is often synonymous with violence, crime and poverty,’ he writes. ‘Many children grow up with few prospects. Without support or guidance, it’s too easy for young people to end up feeling hopeless … Some see violence and gangs as a way of life and a culture. The weapon of choice is a gun, and, with easy accessibility, almost anyone is able to get one.’
That he chooses to write in the present tense tragically highlights how little has changed in 70 years. At the same time, his careful documentation of the period of forced removals is brought to life by his observation as a witness and participant in these events.
But this is by no means a bleak story. Having survived the violence of the townships, he gained the knowledge, skills and experience to navigate difficult situations. In his final year at school, his teachers rated him as ‘most likely to succeed’. But life was hard and money scarce.
Thanks to his grandmother, he learnt that there is dignity in all work. His first job was as a machine operator in an engineering firm. He subsequently worked at several businesses, all the while saving for the day when he could finally study towards a degree. With the help of an ex-teacher, he eventually enrolled for a BCom at Unisa. In 1975 he entered the accounting profession. In 1981 he joined a firm that was later to become KPMG. There he was trusted and respected, but when a senior position became available, he was told that the firm’s influential partners would be resistant to a man of colour.
That was what spurred him to set up his own practice and to launch the Association of Black Accountants of South Africa (ABASA) in 1985 to put an end to the marginalisation of black accountants. In 1988, he attended a SAICA seminar where he met Tim Curtis, the visionary managing partner of Deloitte. In a life-changing move he formed a partnership with the firm and watched his client base grow.
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 – including a position as head of the Financial Services Board, 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.
Unshackled recounts his remarkable journey from the township to the boardroom and gives hard-won advice for those embarking on their own personal voyages. Jeff’s voice is clear, authentic and intimate with just enough vulnerability to draw the reader right in. It’s guaranteed to broaden your horizons and make you see the world a little differently.
Reviewed by Monique Verduyn