‘I may be in the business of understanding numbers, but these are not ordinary numbers. These numbers help to tell the story of how public entities are meeting the needs and aspirations of people in the country. This is what drives me every day,’ says Bongi Ngoma, former AGSA CFO and current national Head of Audit
Circumstances do not limit
Hailing from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, one of the poorest towns and provinces in the country, the Auditor-General South Africa’s Head of Audit, Bongi Ngoma, has in 2021 scooped two of the highest accolades in the financial sector.
In November 2021, Ms Ngoma received the CFO of the Year and Public Sector CFO of the Year in the annual CFO Awards. This was in addition to the Transformation and Empowerment Award. This milestone marks the first time that the CFO of the Year title has been awarded to a public sector CFO. In September 2021, she was recognised by African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) as the public sector CFO of the year, for raising and maintaining the bar of excellence.
These accolades are a culmination of a lifetime of resilience, courage, determination and unyielding efforts to challenge the status quo. As one of three siblings who were raised by a single mum, Bongani is no stranger to roads less travelled, sometimes for women in general and more particularly for black women.
When asked about her ability to make choices and decisions that changed the course of her life and that of her family, she attributes it all to her mum who had the foresight to dream, the courage to persevere and the self-belief to challenge the proverbial glass ceilings. While raising her family single-handedly, her mum obtained two degrees during some of the darkest days of apartheid. She ultimately rose from the ranks of teacher to that of inspector of schools, thus joining a handful of black women who held this position at the time. This inspired Ms Ngoma from her childhood that it was possible to achieve what seemed impossible.
More importantly, she remembers her mum imparting the values that continue to be omnipresent in her life – the pursuit of excellence above all else, resilience, optimism and the importance of using what you have at your disposal to shape your life rather than lamenting what may be absent.
Her mum would also bring home books and magazines which showed Bongi, and her siblings, a life to which they could aspire. Drum, Bona and True Love offered them a perspective of the world that they did not see every day. Bongi still remembers the power of these magazines in her life when she asks, ‘How can a child dream about what they have not seen? Despite our circumstances, dreaming is free, it is not constrained by your reality and remains a powerful force of creation. Yet a child cannot dream of what he or she cannot imagine. However, it is true that, the bigger the vision, the bigger the accomplishment. Those magazines were my window to dreams that became motivating forces in my life.’
She continues: ‘I also recall being surrounded by my cousins who were always dreaming of their futures. Many wanted to become doctors. It was very powerful to be part of a family where dreaming was encouraged and more importantly, taken seriously and never undermined.’
When asked why she selected the accounting sector, Bongi attributes this to fate but, most importantly, being inspired by Nonkululeko Gobodo. ‘I was particularly inspired by the story of Nonkululeko Gobodo who in 1987 became the country’s first black female chartered accountant in a country where race, class and gender pre-determined your status in life. I wanted to be among this group of black women who were trailblazers in the field of accounting. I wanted to break boundaries and be part of transforming the traditionally white, male-dominated sector. Her story became my mainstay and in my darkest and most difficult days, would help me to take one more step, fight one more day, and take one more breath.’
Having chosen her path, the journey was not an easy one. She pursued her accounting degree at the then University of Natal’s Howard College in KwaZulu-Natal. Her studies were initially funded by her mum, for whom no sacrifice for her children’s future was too great. However, with good grades in her first year, Bongi received bursaries from Toyota and Kelloggs.
Armed with her first degree, she left university to begin her articles so that she could take some of the financial pressure off her mum and help with her siblings. This was despite Kelloggs wanting to continue to sponsor her honours degree.
As a young graduate, she was offered the opportunity to do her articles at either Ernst and Young (now EY) or Deloitte. She chose Ernst and Young as they had invested in her throughout her university days, providing an opportunity for vacation work. After completing her articles, Bongi was employed by the Industrial Development Co-operation (IDC) where she remained in various portfolios for 13 years.
Describing her time at the IDC, Bongi says: ‘I was shaped by that organisation. The culture demanded excellence but it was also nurturing and encouraged growth – both personal and professional.’
Bongi joined the Auditor-General South Africa in November 2012 as an executive responsible for Internal Operations, which was later restructured into a CFO, a position she held until June 2021, when she was appointed as the National Head of Audit.
When reflecting on why she does what she does with such commitment and more importantly, excitement and enthusiasm, Bongi said she sees herself as a growth catalyst. Her passion is people and the country and she intends to use her current role to augment her past focus on driving accountability and pursuing excellence.
Where does she see herself continuing to contribute to the country and its people?
Bongi says: ‘I want to encourage young people to dream big because dreams can be empowering. They are a force of creation. I want our young people to understand that they too can harness the creative power of nature, the force that regulates the seasons, creates life and maintains all ecosystems, through their dreams.’
‘I want young people and mainly young professionals to develop resilience and know there are no limits to what they can create. Circumstances are seasonal, they do not constrain what we can be and what we can create if we master the skills to navigate through them by knowing what to ask for and how, and more importantly, be willing to work for what we dream of. Resilience is the breeding ground of excellence, coupled with discipline and commitment − it all does pay off.’
Asked if these accolades mean this is the end of the road, Bongi says, ‘My dreams are constantly evolving and with this, will come a different reality. Today I am honoured and awed by these accolades. Yet, the road ahead is still long. South Africa still needs each of us to build a capable state characterised by professionalism, excellence, and an unwavering commitment to service. I am excited at the possibilities, and I am ready for the challenges and opportunities for creation and innovation that lie ahead.’
Manusha Pillai is Senior manager: Stakeholder relations and events Company at the Auditor-General South Africa