People who changed the profession
Whether they were driving transformation or working to instil a culture of ethics, the pioneers who shaped the accounting profession in South Africa have one thing in common: their passion for the industry spurred them to do all they could to ensure it is world class.
Every industry has its stalwarts; the people who saw what was and determined that it could − and should – be better. In South Africa, those people had obvious challenges: the lack of transformation within the industry was a significant problem, while there was a clear imperative to ensure that professionals adhered to the strictest standards in terms of ethics. The profession of today is a testimony to their efforts. Of course, there remain areas to be addressed, with questions around the recent dubious practices of some firms causing concern amongst many professionals. But, with the current generation of industry stars setting an example for the next, it is certain that these, too, will be overcome. We salute them!
Linda de Beer
‘My career has been driven by a broad objective: to serve the public interest. In my view, every director or company that I can help; every set of accounts and technical standard or guide that I can contribute to disseminating adds to the credibility of our companies, our capital markets and, ultimately, the wealth of our people.’
This guiding principle has led Linda through a career which has contributed significantly to the upliftment of reporting standards in South Africa.
Her election as chair of the International Auditing and Assurance Board’s Consultative Advisory Group stands out at a career highlight: ‘I didn’t think “a girl from Africa” like myself would get the most votes for that job,’ she says of the 35 international organisations (including the World Bank, CFA Institute, Basel, IOSCO and others) that voted her in. Meanwhile, her recent appointment as chair of the Public Interest Oversight Board in Madrid was something ‘I could never have dreamed of’.
Linda was also honoured to have been asked to be named a director of the turnaround board at Tongaat-Hulett late last year.
Some of her recent highlights include her 2016 appointment to the Investor Advisory Group of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board in the United States (where she was one of only two non-Americans) and the publication of the book The auditor: quo vadis co-written with Mervyn King.
Linda was involved in motivating for the adoption of international standards (IFRS and ISA) without amendment in South Africa and later pushed for FRS to obtain legal backing in the Companies Act of 2008. ‘International standards enable investors to understand the “language” we speak when we report, and this builds trust and confidence in our companies and our market,’ she explains. She played a key role in the establishment of the JSE’s GAAP Monitoring Panel (now the Financial Reporting Investigations Panel Committee) while at SAICA, and initiated a process where the association more actively started taking action against CAs(SA) who failed to complain with the IFRS. She also served on local standard-setting structures and was closely involved in many aspects of debate around the 2008 Companies Act. Linda served on the King Committee from 2002 until earlier this year and was part of the drafting of King III and IV, training many directors and executives on the King codes over the years. Since 2010 she has served on the boards of numerous listed companies, currently Aspen, Momentum Metropolitan, Omnia and Tongaat-Hulett, often chairing their audit committees.
Professor Amanda Dempsey
A career in accounting was almost a foregone conclusion for Amanda: ‘After completing my aptitude tests at school, the inspector told me that because I was good at maths, I should become a CA,’ she recalls.
Although she had always wanted to teach, she realised early on that school was not her milieu. In contrast, from the moment she first entered a university, she felt that she had found her second home. ‘I even told my professor that I would return to education as soon as I had completed my articles,’ Amanda says – which she did, commencing her career at the then Rand Afrikaans Universiteit (RAU) back in 1985.
Her journey with the university has been interesting, she notes, starting from the time she watched the institution being built from her house, just down the road, as a schoolgirl. As a lecturer, she remembers her first 10 years teaching a purely Afrikaans, and largely affluent, student body. The first major change came with the introduction of English as a teaching medium, and this metamorphosis has continued so that today’s University of Johannesburg is recognised as providing an educational home to a number of students from South Africa’s poorer communities as well.
Amanda says that she has transformed along with the university. She joined the faculty as a lecturer of Accounting 1 and remained in this position for 22 years before being appointed to head of department and soon thereafter, dean − a position she held for 11 years. Her current post as senior director of the School of Accounting has allowed her to return to her roots in accounting education.
Amanda played a crucial role in helping more black students sit in her lecture halls. Her involvement with the Thuthuka Bursary Fund started in 2002 with an initial focus on school-level accounting in the Eastern Cape. She then shifted her accent to historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs), project managing the University of Fort Hare’s (UFH) SAICA accreditation process, travelling to East London every evening to make the early morning management meetings that took place on Tuesdays. From there, she drove to Alice to lecture for six hours, returning in the evening.
She is extremely proud of the difference Thuthuka has made to HDIs, citing UFH’s status as the first HDI to achieve accreditation to teach a four-year degree as entry into the Initial Test of Competency exam (ITC) of the SAICA as an example of what has been achieved.
‘Transformation is close to my heart,’ Amanda says, noting that the most recent transformation is also one of the most significant: the shift to online learning. In the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, the university moved learners and staff to a digital environment in little more than a week, delivering more than computers to the 5 000 students in need and providing data for all students to ensure that their learning continued uninterrupted. These efforts have ensured that UJ is one of only two universities which will complete this academic year during 2020, without lowering standards.
Greg’s passion for the accounting profession was sparked when he commenced his articles: ‘It was the most incredible learning experience; a privilege to see inside different organisations,’ he recalls.
With his appreciation for knowledge ignited, it is not surprising that he found a niche in research and academia; a love he has been able to indulge through his work as a part-time faculty member of the Gordon Institute of Business. ‘This is something I wouldn’t have been able to do were I still employed in a corporate,’ Greg muses, adding that he most likely wouldn’t have been able to find the time to pen his book Valuations, mergers and acquisitions, either.
As it is, being self-employed has given him free rein to explore his areas of interest, and so when, in 2009, SAICA approached him to chair a group to explore the possibility of creating a new high-level assessment, incorporating the principles of the previous financial management exam, he accepted with alacrity. ‘We were given a whiteboard with the chance to be creative in our thinking, and I’m very proud of what we achieved as a team,’ he reflects.
The new assessment drew attention from other international bodies, which lauded the entirely fresh approach of using case studies in an accounting setting. The team’s concept of assessing responses without a marking plan was equally unique – and somewhat controversial. Nonetheless, by grounding this novel rubric in international best practice, the team was able to develop an assessment that is not only efficient and accurate, but which introduces a stretch challenge for trainees.
Greg says that he is deeply honoured to have mentored a number of upcoming professionals, commenting on the quality of talent that South Africa is home to – but, he says, such talent is nothing without ethics. ‘The profession currently faces troubled waters,’ he comments, noting that the involvement of CAs(SA) in high-profile state capture and corruption cases has done severe reputational damage. This affects the auditing profession, too, as people doubt the value of an audit if its outcomes cannot be trusted. The best solution may be to split the consulting and auditing functions of firms, which will boost credibility, he maintains.
Greg is also concerned about the complexity of financial statements in their current form which, he believes, are incomprehensible to non-CAs(SA) – another area which should be addressed.
Nonetheless, he insists that the value of the CA(SA) qualification remains. ‘The fact that many CEOs of listed companies in South Africa are CAs(SA) shows the versatility and value of the educational process,’ he concludes.
Vassi Naidoo’s career was shaped largely by what he was not allowed to do in terms of the apartheid laws prevailing at the time of his studies and early career. His entry into the profession is a case in point: although he had his sights set on becoming a quantity surveyor, he was unable to obtain a permit to study at the University of Natal, and so completed a BCom at the University of Durban-Westville.
The disparaging and racist comments made by his lecturers only spurred Vassi to try harder and achieve more in the accounting profession – only to find that life was no easier once he had graduated. ‘Deloitte, where I worked, was bound to tell clients if a non-white staff member would be working on their audit, and sometimes they refused,’ he says, acknowledging the organisations which backed their staff members as ‘unsung heroes’. ‘For example, my managing partner told one client that the firm would resign if they didn’t accept me as the Deloitte partner on the audit.’ As it turned out, this action led to his meeting with the client in London − the first step in a journey that ultimately saw Vassi assume the mantle of Deloitte CEO in 1997 and serve as a global board member of the firm. In 2005 he was transferred to the global firm in London, where he served on the UK Executive and the global executive of Deloitte before becoming vice-chairman of Deloitte UK.
Determined to ensure that other non-white CAs(SA) should be able to avoid the unnecessary challenges he encountered, Vassi dedicated his life to the advancement of black people in the profession; a commitment recognised by a citation and commendation by the University of Natal, the very institution that had shunned him as a student. His efforts led him to establish the Deloitte School of Accounting, which later became the National School of Accounting – where the Thuthuka Bursary Fund (of which he is a past trustee) has its roots. He was also instrumental in making sure that South African accounting graduates could serve their articles in the United Kingdom and qualify as CAs in their home country.
Often a lone voice in the industry, he appreciates the platform granted by SAICA over the years to motivate his ideas, such as using English as the profession’s business language, ‘no matter how unusual or partisan’.
Throughout an illustrious career (including his appointment as partner of one of South Africa’s Big Four; the first person of colour to hold such a position), one moment stands out in particular for Vassi: ‘Crookes Brothers, which was a client of our Durban office, brought my grandfather to South Africa in 1906 as an indentured labourer. The year I signed off its accounts, the company hosted a tea party in my honour. It was quite something; the grandson of an indentured labourer signing off his employer’s accounts.’
When Johnson Njeke first joined the accounting profession, he was one of only 10 African accountants in the country; a clear sign that the pain and frustration of the apartheid era that enforced racial segregation in places of learning and work extended to the accounting profession. Although he admits that there is still much to be done, he is heartened by the diversity – in terms of both race and gender – that the profession has achieved since those days.
Johnson has, of course, been a key driver of some of these changes, having played a major role in ensuring that accounting education is more accessible for students at historically disadvantaged universities. To this end, Johnson worked with Professor Jeff Rowland of Rhodes University and Professor Piet Booysens of UKZN, paying site visits to such institutions to gain an understanding of the capacity in their accounting departments. From here, they encouraged partnerships between these and other universities; the collaboration between UJ and the University of Fort Hare being a case in point. ‘It was a triumph to see Fort Hare students able to take a place at UJ without having to first complete a bridging course, and an even greater triumph to see Fort Hare accredited in its own right,’ Johnson states, noting that it is his greatest joy ‘that students from rural universities are freed from the cycle of disadvantage because they can now enter the same programme as any other aspiring accountant, rather than investing time in a bridging course. This used to add up to a further year to their studies. By making it possible for historically disadvantaged universities to gain accreditation, we’ve created a more even playing field.’
Johnson was part of the Examinations Committee of SAICA that investigated allegations that the examination system discriminated against black students. Having participated in the marking and adjudication process of the board exams, he became convinced that there was no substance to the allegations.
Johnson later partnered again with Professor Rowland, as well as Professor Geoff Everingham, on the editorial committee of Figure that, a book about the history of the accounting profession in South Africa. Johnson says that it was enormously satisfying to be part of this seven-year chronicling of the profession’s journey.
‘Our world of work is completely different to my days as an articled clerk,’ Roy muses. The most noteworthy of those differences, he says, is the drop in ethical standards; a major source of disappointment to someone who has always valued his CA(SA) qualification for the opportunities it has opened for him.
He has tried to repay the profession by creating opportunities for others. This ethos was in place even during his student days, when he was the secretary of the CA Students’ Society. His most significant involvement, however, has been as a trustee of the International Accounting Standards Committee Foundation and chairing the governance review task team which changed the structure of the SAICA board. Roy also played a role in altering the constitution of SAICA, including the appointment of non-CAs to the board, and chaired the committee to nominate a new board. ‘This career has been extremely good to me, so I like to do what I can to give back,’ he says of his involvement in these initiatives.
He is also pleased to be able to support a network of like-minded individuals, saying that it’s the existence of such a network that makes the profession such a valuable one. Roy first experienced this as a partner at E&Y, then made a point of implementing all he had learnt in this position as president of the JSE. Roy held this post during a particularly exciting period of its history, at the time when the market was entirely deregulated. This position was followed by another, equally stimulating stint, this time as CEO of Liberty. Roy says that his time here stands out for the privilege of working with Donald Gordon, a fellow CA and then chair of the company. ‘It was wonderful to work alongside someone who had an intuitive understanding of business.’
Roy is confident that the prestige of the profession, such as it was under the leadership of businesspeople like Gordon, will return – although this will be a lengthy process, he says. ‘Reputations are developed over decades and lost in years, so it will take time to restore the confidence of the investing public and the consumer,’ he says. However, with a strong ethical underpinning, it can happen – and, with auditing firms appearing to be regaining their standing in society, there are signs that the ethical base is returning.
Monica knew that she wanted to be a CA from the time she was a child; her interest in the profession having been piqued by the accountants visiting her home to discuss her father’s business. She joined SAICA as technical director after completing her articles. One of her first and most significant tasks was creating new auditing and accounting standards for the profession; a job she relished because of the opportunity to apply her imagination to finding ways to fix industry failures. She also enjoyed lobbying the government on various industry issues.
Monica’s experience has always been shaped by her international outlook; when just 30 years old, she was sufficiently well-versed in practices at both a local and international level to be invited to represent South Africa on the International Accounting Standards Committee. ‘It was exhilarating to be part of this community, interacting with the best accountants in the world.’ The experience contributed to her passion for the betterment of financial markets.
After leaving SAICA in 1995, Monica joined the World Bank. Her major contribution of this time continues to leave its mark even today: it was Monica who insisted on the introduction of stricter controls to be implemented by countries wishing to borrow funds from the bank.
Monica’s next move was similarly impactful: returning to the markets in South Africa, she took to digitising the JSE with the implementation of STRATE, which she ran for 19 years. Her work here is a point of pride: ‘Before the introduction of STRATE, South Africa was considered one of the worst emerging markets in the world in terms of operational and settlement risk; afterwards, we were judged by the World Economic Forum to be amongst the top three countries in the world in terms of financial market infrastructures and standards.’
Monica left in 2017 to focus on an entirely new area: blockchain technology. ‘I realised that we couldn’t deal with corruption, audit failures and the issues that brought about the financial crisis in 2008, as the entire system was broken,’ she says. Inspired by a paper that motivated for decentralised record-keeping in an immutable ledger, with multiples copies of the ledger written for all the actors at the same time, using the internet of value so that auditing procedures could be conducted in real time, Monica joined ConsenSys, the biggest blockchain company in the world. ‘It’s a company that has real potential to change the world of finance, along with many other industries,’ she enthuses.
South Africa’s auditing industry has faced significant challenges in recent times, Graeme points out – and the turmoil is far from over. To the contrary, as the profession strives to address the expectation gap that has grown among its publics while striving to embrace the opportunities made possible by new technologies, practitioners can look forward to more unsettling times.
Not that this should dissuade aspiring professions from entering the field, he maintains. ‘I joined the industry because it gives you an enormous number of options, and that holds true even today,’ Graeme says. Its flexibility in terms of career opportunities aside, the CA qualification also offers exciting international exposure. Graeme points to his own experience as an example: because one of his clients had operations in Siberia, he was able to spend time in a place he otherwise wouldn’t have visited.
Travel is only one of the aspects of the job that Graeme has enjoyed. He counts among the greatest advantages of auditing the chance to work with diverse teams of interesting people. He has also enjoyed working with high-calibre clients, including the likes of Barloworld, Anglo Platinum, Murray & Roberts and Netcare. Then there is the privilege of giving back to the auditing community: Graeme was part of SAICA’s education and exam committees for more than 20 years. ‘I first got involved because the partner I was working with after completing articles was part of the committee and encouraged me to take part, too. He nominated me for the committee, and it was so much fun that I wanted to stay on.’ Graeme credits SAICA’s Professional Development team for making it a joy to be part of the initiative.
Going forward, Graeme believes that accounting and auditing will always be necessary, despite technology which makes it possible to automate many of the processes currently overseen by practitioners. However, it will be even more important to find avenues to address the expectations held by the public. ‘I believe that we have to accept that these expectations are a reality and that we have to meet them. On the other hand, we don’t have to do so alone. I think that there should be recognition of the role the broader financial reporting community has to play, too.’ Progress is already being made in this area, Graeme says, pointing to new regulations in place, such as the JSE’s recently introduced requirement that CEOs and CFOs sign off on the adequacy of internal controls for listed companies. ‘I’m in favour of this, because I don’t think it should be the sole responsibility of auditors to address expectations,’ Graeme states.
Ajen says that his 25-year career at EY has enabled him to live his purpose – something that, as a purpose-led individual, he values intensely. ‘Whether it is solving complex challenges with our clients, giving back to our communities or being able to mentor and grow our young people, I get to enjoy these things every day,’ he notes.
His involvement with Thuthuka, which he chairs, is a prime example of this ‘lived purpose’. His first engagement with the fund came about in 2010, motivated by an observation he had first made upon joining the profession as a trainee in 1993. ‘Seeing that black people were poorly represented in both firms and the corporate sector, I wanted to play my part in transforming the profession. There is no better channel to do this than through Thuthuka.’ The fund has grown to become the single largest organisation driving transformation in South Africa’s CA profession.
Ajen is particularly proud of Thuthuka’s extensive reach; working with students at school level, guiding them through fully funded programmes at university, and ultimately walking the journey to qualification alongside them. ‘Every CA we produce is a great achievement. Today, the majority of younger CAs (under the age of 35) are black professionals; a clear sign of Thuthuka’s tremendous impact.’
This bodes well for the profession’s future outlook, especially in terms of ensuring that the country’s demographics are accurately represented. All the same, Ajen is candid about the hard work that goes into creating this representative profession: ‘Producing new CAs is complex. You need strong foundations at school level, especially with mathematics. You then need to get into a fully funded residential university to guarantee your chances of success, and you need to do so without earning any money at the same time. You need the self-discipline to get through a rigorous four years of study and a further three years of training before qualifying.’ Ajen points out that there are many points along this process where things can go wrong – but, he says, the team’s passion for transformation and tireless efforts help to ensure that students are able to overcome the challenges they encounter.
Thuthuka draws inspiration for the road ahead from Madiba, Ajen continues: ‘We know that we have reached a summit and that we are already enjoying some early success, so we can afford to rest to catch our breath. However, the journey is not yet over. We cannot rest until the CA profession is truly reflective of the demographics of the society in which we live.’
Professor Wiseman Nkhulu
After 44 years in the profession, Wiseman is a true industry veteran – yet its potential to make a positive impact on society still excites him. ‘We’re looked upon to confirm that those who have been given stewardship over our resources and finances are doing so with integrity and fulfilling their responsibilities appropriately. That’s the most magnificent part of what we do,’ he says.
He says that, as a teacher at various levels, it has been a privilege to contribute to the development of the profession, with many of his pupils going on to become leaders themselves. ‘It’s always exciting to be able to interface with former students as colleagues.’
Wiseman has, furthermore, contributed to the profession’s ability to meet its obligations through his participation in various forums and committees. He says that as a board member, and later president, of SAICA, it has been heartening to witness the association adopting transformation as a key imperative – and more heartening still to have seen SAICA’s first black CEO appointed while he held this position. The evolution of Thuthuka, and, with it, an increase in the number of black professionals, has also been a highlight.
Although he concedes that the industry is facing a challenging period at present, Wiseman notes that this is not the first time it has done so. He points to the early 2000s as an example: although the issues created by overlooking the overgeared start-ups that populated the IT industry at the time was largely an American problem, the industry rose above the resultant issues by implementing a greater accent on leadership and regulation. South Africa has to do the same, Wiseman insists: ‘The leaders of our profession – and of the big firms in particular – should bear in mind that business is not simply about growth and profitability. We also need to keep an eye to integrity and quality.’ This applies not only to the firms themselves but to their clients. As the profession works to restore the public’s trust, it is critical to assess clients’ integrity and the outcomes of each project, checking how these will be used. ‘It’s up to our leaders to respond faithfully, honestly and boldly to the public’s concerns,’ he says.
Wiseman further emphasises the need for professionals to remain abreast of new developments, especially in the technology sphere. ‘AI and automation are set to have a dramatic impact on the profession, so we need to guard against becoming irrelevant,’ he states.
With a natural aptitude for maths as a high school student, accounting seemed a natural fit for Margo. ‘If you got distinctions for maths in matric – as I did – it was assumed you would go on to become an accountant,’ she says simply. However, because family finances didn’t allow for full-time study, she completed her course on a part-time basis.
Margo would go on to become head of the School of Accounting at Wits in 1987; a post she held until 1995. The first woman to hold such a position, she was later appointed Professor Emeritus.
Margo says that her Scottish upbringing had a significant influence on both her outlook and choice of career. ‘Scotland had a proud tradition of academia; it’s considered to be the highest priority.’ This view had a bearing on how she saw her role as a professor: ‘There was a job to do, and I had to do it.’
Her approach to education has been straightforward and forthright: ‘It’s about upholding the morals and ethics of the profession. I focused on teaching my students to do their job properly, with no deviations from the Companies Act.’ She maintains that accountants are professionals; no more, no less. ‘I don’t believe that accountants should be wise men, working out deals and looking for opportunities.’
It’s not surprising that she takes an extremely dim view of the profession’s recent brushes with corruption. She believes that the current generation faces an enormous task in holding the profession together; however, she is optimistic that the strong ethical foundation for which South African CAs were once known can be rebuilt. This will be helped if professionals hold each other accountable; something which was easier in the days when the industry – and, consequently, networks − were smaller, and colleagues knew what they expected from each other. ‘It takes strength to turn away from what’s happening,’ Margo acknowledges, ‘but you have to ask yourself: am I happy to go along with something I know is wrong, or do I want to uphold what I know to be right – knowing that this places me in opposition to most people.’
’Margo says that her peers have a role to play here, too: ‘We can never stop telling people what is right,’ she insists. ‘Changing a culture takes a long time, and it doesn’t happen unless people are working for it at all levels, from the classroom to the dining room table.’