Polani Sokombela was appointed chief financial officer (CFO) at the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) in March 2022. A seasoned CA(SA), he has worked his way up through the AGSA ranks since starting his career as a trainee accountant at the organisation in 2007. His impressive career highlights the success of the AGSA’s training and succession strategies, which are producing high-calibre leaders from within its ranks.
Fertile ground for those who seek to learn
Polani grew up in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape where his role models were teachers, nurses and doctors. He knew nothing about accounting and focused his studies on maths and science. It was only when the principal of his school, whose son was studying accounting at the time, told him that doing a BComm would be the start of a promising and lucrative career that he gave it a thought.
In high school, however, accounting was not on offer. After completing his matric he went to Walter Sisulu University (then the University of Transkei) where his parents wanted him to study medicine. Accounting was his second choice, but he was accepted and eventually became a CA(SA) ‘by accident’, he says. His parents were unimpressed at first and offered little support. They were convinced that he was wasting the money they had saved for his studies by doing something they had never heard of. That first semester was daunting.
But then his parents heard a show on the radio that focused on accounting as a career, and everything changed. After graduating, he joined the AGSA as a trainee.
‘I have always been an activist,’ he says. ‘While doing my Honours in 2006, I received an invitation to a cheese and wine party from the Provincial Auditor-General of the Eastern Cape. I had met with various firms, but it was the AG’s mission statement that resonated with me: to strengthen our country’s democracy by enabling oversight, accountability and governance in the public sector through auditing, thereby building public confidence. As someone who wanted to contribute to the country, it was exactly what I was looking for.’
He joined the Pietermaritzburg office, and his sense of purpose grew more intense with each year. Surrounded by professionals in various fields, he took responsibility for his learning and growth as a trainee accountant, and for developing competencies in areas like auditing, financial management and reporting, taxation and more.
‘I asked managers questions all the time,’ he recalls. ‘I was always raising my hand when a project came up to ensure that I had as much exposure as possible. My focus was all on technical skills.’
After qualifying, he realised that while his subject matter expertise was solid, he had to learn soft skills too if he wanted to become a leader.
‘I recognised that I was unable to filter my language when speaking to people, and could be too harsh, so I set out to learn how to be a better communicator and to become more self-aware as I was moving from management to senior management roles. It was about learning to handle what is known as “the anatomy of emotions”, understanding what the weaknesses and strengths were of those in my team and knowing how to play to those.’
What is unique about the AGSA, he says, is the opportunity to engage with high-profile people. That requires you to sharpen your verbal and written skills and demonstrate that you have high-level accounting expertise as well as the ability to understand people who represent the citizens of the country. Your messages therefore need be to simple, clear and relevant.
Polani joined the University of Stellenbosch where he completed a senior management programme which taught him more about being a generalist, including topics like marketing, strategic thinking, human resources, communication, leadership, economics and more. After that, he signed up for an executive development programme at the University of Cape Town. This focus on honing his soft skills, which was supported by the AGSA, he says, is the reason he rose to the position he holds today.
He admits that he was not always a good student and that he failed several courses on his journey to becoming a CA(SA), but concludes that failure taught him resilience. He learnt to never stop trying and to use poor results to acquire new wisdom.
‘I recently learnt a new concept – that of being anti-fragile,’ he says. ‘It means that something does not merely withstand a shock but actually improves because of it. Basically, what does not kill you makes you stronger.’
His advice to young people is that while money is important, it’s also vital to have a purpose in life. If they do have a sense of purpose, they need to ensure that they find a way to contribute to society.
‘The public sector is not easy,’ Polani adds. ‘There are many challenges and governance failures. Professional scepticism – having a questioning mind and being alert to anything that may indicate misstatement due to error or fraud – is critical. We must be able to hold those that have been given the responsibility of managing public finances accountable. If you work for the AGSA, you need to keep the ordinary people of this country top of mind. We have much that needs to improve and that can only be achieved if we use public funds appropriately.’
His goals include ensuring that the AGSA remains commercially viable and sustainable and financially independent. Leading by example, he maintains, is vital.
At the top of his agenda is the digital transformation of the office of the AG to increase working efficiencies and free up employees from mundane tasks.
‘We are running this institution like any other audit practice, and we charge fees for our services. Adopting new technologies and driving our bold #CultureShift 2030 strategy will require us to focus on training more auditors and working to achieve a culture shift among a critical mass of auditees across the value chains that deliver water and sanitation, human settlements, infrastructure, and energy, including the metropolitan municipalities, so that there is a direct, meaningful, and consistent impact on ordinary South Africans.’
Talent management is critical in the public sector, and he aims to ensure that when he leaves there is an internal successor in place. ‘The ground here is very fertile,’ he notes. ‘We are surrounded by CAs(SA) who work at the coal face and there is no better educational environment for those with a commitment to serving others.’