Chartered accountancy has a long history of being a male-dominated profession. Indeed, according to the most recent member statistics from the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), only 35% out of all of South Africa’s registered chartered accountants (CAs[SA]) are women, with female African CAs(SA) making up just 5% of total membership.
While still woefully underrepresented, African women in this high-powered industry are nevertheless breaking through the glass ceiling.
One such person is KMPG’s Financial Services Partner and Head of Global Mobility Africa, Palesa Makobe.
Born and raised in Soweto, Palesa says she found herself facing the barriers to entry that many young African women come up against while pursuing a tertiary education.
“One of the things I remember most vividly is how my first year trainee pay cheque, which amounted to R77 000 a year, was still more than what my mother – a nurse and single parent – earned. It was then that I realised just how much my mother had to do to put food on the table, as well as to put my sister and I through school. She even managed to pay for my first two years of university before I was awarded a bursary from KPMG,” Palesa reveals with pride.
Yet, even with her studies paid for, Palesa’s path to becoming a CA(SA) was not a smooth one. Having finished her undergraduate degree at Wits, she found passing the honours degree challenging.
Although discouraged because it could put an end to her dreams, her tenacious character refused to let this obstacle get the better of her: “I wasn’t above asking for help and, when I did, I discovered a programme at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal that was providing students like me with the academic support needed to achieve their honours degree. The SAICA-run Thuthuka Repeat Programme not only empowered me by helping to bridge the skills gaps, but it’s an initiative I will always be grateful for.”
Passing the exams that would get her to her CA(SA) was the highlight of her professional journey so far: “When I found out that I had passed my board exams. The sheer relief of knowing I never had to do this again is something I will never forget.” After she qualified, “one of the first things I did was to help my mom fix the house. It was an awesome feeling do something for my mom.”
During her more than ten years at KPMG, Palesa has quickly climbed the ladder from trainee to manager, senior manager and now partner. Achieving her new position late last year, Palesa was thrilled to take her mom with her to KPMG’s global partner event in Amsterdam. Not only was this the first time her mom had ever been overseas, but the experience still makes her chuckle because “generally partners in the rest of the world are a lot older, so while walking around people kept coming up to my mom to tell her how great it was that she had brought her daughter with her on the trip.”
Her time at KPMG has opened Palesa up to a world of professional experiences. From managing teams and big name clients, to achieving an Encore Award for her contribution and management in the domestic treasury environment and also being a finalist in last year’s Standard Bank Rising Star Awards, Palesa is clearly thriving in her role.
However, she is not doing it alone.
Giving people the chance to grow is Palesa’s passion. As part of KPMG’s National Transformation Committee, a former board member of the African Woman Chartered Accountant Forum and mentor for the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants in Southern Africa’s leadership programme, Palesa relishes helping the people she meets overcome the challenges that stand in their way so they can achieve their full potential – no matter where they come from.
In her role as a passionate mentor, Palesa’s message for aspiring female CAs(SA) is that “you need to find ways to champion yourself, while still remaining feminine in the male-dominated CA world.” She also lives by the idea of surrounding yourself with people who are passionate, committed and dedicated because “you can only get as far as you think you can.”
When asked what she hopes to achieve as a young African female CA(SA), Palesa smiles wisely: “My hope is that in 10 to 15 years’ time, the person sitting in her chair won’t have to answer that question. I’ll know I have done my job when success becomes less about being African or female, and more about just being a good CA(SA).”
Having achieved so much already, Palesa is already on the path to helping do just that.