The chartered accountancy profession has made great strides in building a solid pipeline of prospective chartered accountants (CAs(SA)). Now it is strengthening the public and private sector by professionalising finance professionals.

I believe that in the 40 years of its existence SAICA has done very well in terms of creating high-quality CA(SA) professionals serving different institutions in the private sector − listed and unlisted companies, banks, advisory, audit, etc.

SAICA has created an extraordinarily strong conduit and has delivered wonderful talent which is then deployed across the economy and society. I think we have a lot to be proud of, especially on the transformation front. We have increased the number of women and black professionals who have entered the profession and are playing meaningful roles not only in the audit profession but also in the broader accountancy profession.

But we can do more.

What can we improve?
When we talk about relevance in our profession, the pipeline has been adequate in terms of the number of CAs(SA) who qualify. However, for CAs(SA) to be successful in business, we need other accountants. As an organisation we have to keep looking at ways to broaden the base of quality financial professionals in both the private and public sectors.

You can have hard-working and dedicated CAs(SA) but in order for it to work, they need the support of capable accounting technicians. Some may point to this as the problem plaguing the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (SAIPA) and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), but I do not believe this singular thought process. We all have to chip in and figure out a way to broaden the base. This is where SAICA’s Associate General Accountant (AGA(SA)) and Accounting Technician (AT(SA)) designations come in.

Recently I penned a piece about the relevance of professionals and their obligation to serve society. We have maintained high standards regarding technical competency, but we must also get our accountants attuned to the needs of the communities they are supposed to serve. We do not spend sufficient time during the academic programme to help them figure out the work environment. If it were up to me, I would teach this philosophy to accountants at the beginning of their academic training – perhaps in their first year.

As accountants, we have proven that we can learn anything. Therefore, we must learn to deal with philosophical questions about what makes up society and the structure of the democracy we have and aspire to. We must also ask about the problems facing society and why we have structural unemployment. And we must discuss the struggle with inequality and what needs to be done to sort out poverty and unemployment.

We have all these expectations, but we do not equip our people to manage the complexities confronting society. This is why we produce highly technical accountants that qualify and end up playing important leadership roles in society and yet are not equipped to understand how society works − which is what we really expect of them.

What has to change in the public sector?
Looking at the public sector, I don’t believe that there is a shortage of CAs(SA) serving out there. I’m aware that this view is debatable, but if I look at the investment in skills that has been brought to bear across the public sector – and even more so in the financial administration, management and reporting arenas – it makes me even less convinced that the solution is flooding the public sector system with more CAs(SA).

My approximation is led by noticing what our auditees are struggling with, and these are not technical accounting issues. For example, the qualification areas may be property, plants and equipment issues (PPEs), but how does one account for infrastructure assets?
Indeed, some may say there is a heritage standard for all entities to deal with. However, things like having a fixed asset register, having bank reconciliations in place, managing revenue bases, collecting revenue debtors and knowing who owes you money are the basics that need to be solved in the public sector rather than piling in more CAs(SA).

That is why I believe we need more accounting technicians and general accountants while we put in place diligently monitored systems and processes. We do not need a CA(SA) per municipality or FET college to solve this. At SAICA, we often attempt to mitigate these challenges by appointing retired CAs(SA) at FET colleges. But the problem will not be solved if they help to fix billings or fixed asset registers and then leave.

We must come up with solutions that build institutions. This is about skills, consistency, stability and professionalising. People must remain in their roles long enough to become highly effective. We must avoid short-term solutions and encourage members who interact with government to realise that we have a higher-level duty as accountants.

It is time we as South Africans get real about these conversations and refuse to be tempted by recycled ideas. I know this is done in good faith, but it is about time we ask ourselves why certain things failed to work out and improve them.

Key partnerships are needed to drive the professionalisation of accountants
As SAICA and the CA(SA) profession, we must emphasise the impact of incorrectly completed processes and ask ourselves why the journey in government institutions has been fragmented.

The Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA), for example, should centralise the process of professionalising accountants in government through the National School of Government (NSG). This will ensure that people who enter the public service are inducted properly and get adequate training with the help of the Public Sector Education and Training Authority (PSETA), which should roll out more courses in different parts of government.

To help us create more general and accounting technicians, our development programmes must be done in a collaborative way. There are many people who will not become CAs(SA) but would make great general accountants and accounting technicians. The efforts of SAICA, government, accounting firms and the likes of the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants in Southern Africa (ABASA) and African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) in making these designations known and disbursing bursaries, as well as improving university training, will ultimately change society significantly.

AUTHOR | Chantyl Mulder CA(SA), Executive Director: Nation Building