South Africans generally appreciate that our wildlife resources are amongst the country’s greatest assets – which is why Pretty Makukule, as newly appointed CFO of SANParks, holds a significant responsibility in her hands.
When she’s not sitting behind her computer, you’re likely to find Pretty Makukule adding another rep to her Bulgarian split squat set or pushing her downward dog to its edge. While these activities may seem unrelated to her career, she insists that her performance at the gym improves her performance in the office. ‘Bodybuilding has taught me a lot about life,’ she muses. ‘I’ve learnt that just when you think you can’t take any more, you’re able to find that little bit extra to help you push on through. It’s about resilience.’
Resilience is something that Pretty has in droves. It’s a skill she developed early on, learning under a tree and writing the answers to sums in the sand instead of on a chalkboard. ‘Things got interesting when the wind blew our answers away!’ she laughs, recalling that the only time the junior grades spent time in one of the school’s few classrooms was when it rained, when the entire school would squeeze inside.
A winding road
Pretty’s journey from rural Bushbuckridge to award-winning CA was kickstarted by her teachers’ recognition of her talent for mathematics and science. She was encouraged to concentrate on these subjects, eventually earning a bursary to study medicine at Wits. However, before starting her qualification, she was told she would have to complete a bridging course – a development which would change the course of her life. ‘I decided to take a gap year instead. During this time, my cousin told me about the University of Limpopo. I thought I might fare better there, so I headed off with a packed suitcase and my hot plate, with no firm idea of what I’d do next.’ As it turned out, all the science streams were full. A chance conversation with a fellow student led Pretty to enrol for a BCom, and after finding out that accounting was the most popular subject choice for students in the faculty, she chose this as her focus.
She wasn’t convinced about completing her articles once her studies were over, however: ‘Because I had so much “black tax” to pay, I thought it would be better to aim for a better-paying job,’ Pretty explains. Starting out as a teller at Standard Bank, she swiftly worked her way to become a business banker, the first black woman in Nelspruit to hold this position. This was where she was first introduced to the public sector: ‘I had many government clients, and I heard them talking about how the public sector needed more people with my efficiency and service ethic.’
That was enough to encourage her to make the switch. Starting in 2002, she took on various jobs within different public sector institutions and municipal entities, starting out as a senior clerk until she was headhunted for the CFO position in the Department of Science and Technology in 2013.
By now, she had broadened both her view and her skills base considerably but, eager to continue on her trajectory, she decided to study an MBA, achieving the Top Achiever Award for her dissertation. But even this didn’t quench her thirst to know more about financial management, and so she revisited the idea of completing her CA. She admits that she found the road ahead rather daunting – ‘even people younger than me, who study full-time, struggle with the qualification’ – but still managed to earn six distinctions during her BCTA. ‘You know what they say: if you want something done, give it to a busy person!’ she says.
Then came the next hurdle: articles. Pretty was ready to leave her job to complete this step, and had even started making enquiries at various companies, but was relieved that her work experience negated the need. She passed her CA board exams on her second try – and now uses the story of her rather untraditional path through the profession to motivate the youngsters she takes joy in mentoring. ‘I’m here to remind them that no matter what obstacles you face, you can still find your way,’ she states.
Indeed, her achievements stand as proof that your beginnings need not stand in the way of success: Pretty has been named the Public Sector CFO of the Year at the African Women Chartered Accountants Awards and received seven nominations for this year’s CFO Awards.
Greening the future
Pretty’s own experience makes it easy to understand the value she places on education; a passion she was able to explore as CFO of the Department of Higher Education (the first woman and first person of colour to hold this position). However, when the offer came to take on the same role at SANParks, she didn’t hesitate. ’I have a huge interest in sustainable finance and ESG,’ she explains.
Since taking on the position in September 2023, she has concentrated primarily on contributing to the organisation’s strategies for the future. Her main focus is on driving operational and cost efficiencies: ‘Only 20% of our revenue derives from government, but our aim is to become entirely self-sustaining. This means that we need to find areas where we can increase revenue, which is where managing cost efficiencies come in. We already have a good system in place but there’s always room for improvement.’ Pretty has also turned the spotlight on the strategic allocation of resources. The rest camps in the Kruger National Park, the country’s flagship conservation area, is a case in point: Pretty would like to see these upgraded to the point where hospitality is as much a draw card as conservation. ‘This requires focusing on building new infrastructure, upgrading and maintenance,’ she points out.
She is also responsible for resource mobilisation, looking to sources such as international donors and other organisations for funds or donations in kind. This will also help to develop the communities around parks – a project close to Pretty’s heart.
Finally, she would like to see the largely manual-oriented environment updated so that the organisation becomes fully digital. ‘We have a lot of information which can be translated to add value for our stakeholders,’ she comments.
Pretty’s contract will see her turning these goals into realities over the next five years – and after that? ‘I’m hoping to have completed my MSc in sustainable and green finance so that I can help the organisation fully implement its green strategy. At the same time, I’d like to dedicate more time to the foundation I established to honour my parents,’ she says.
Why the public sector?
‘South Africa is truly a land of infinite possibility, and the state remains the country’s biggest employer,’ Pretty says. ‘It requires loyal, dedicated and committed workers to offer an excellent service to its citizens. The public sector will always hold a special place in my heart because I believe that’s where committed South Africans can do their best work in creating the country of our dreams. Within the public sector, there are thousands of highly skilled and motivated people who show up every day to move the country forward.’