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April 28, 2009

Sehoole Interview: The future is bright

After 10 years at the helm, Ignatius Sehoole is leaving the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. He speaks with Arvind Hickman about his highlights, regrets and the battle to improve the racial balance of qualified chartered accountants.

Ignatius SehooleIt is a fitting tribute that Ignatius Sehoole passes on the leadership baton of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) the month that the first batch of Thuthuka graduates outperform the national average score in the final chartered accountancy exam.

Just as impressive is that the majority of candidates sitting these exams were of black African descent – South Africa’s largest ethnic majority – for the first time.

Sehoole, who qualified as a CA at Deloitte, faced an uphill battle to try and redress the balance of black African accountants in a country that is desperately short of qualified talent. He can now leave the executive presidential role with the knowledge that the profession is in a much better state than when he arrived 10 years ago.

Sehoole tells The Accountant that a major challenge when he started was building relationships between the profession and government officials, business leaders, regulators and key interest groups.

“I don’t think there was any magic, rather just being tenacious about it and just keeping on pushing until people take notice and people make time. Once you’ve gone through that initial pushing to establish the relationship then it tends to be downhill from there,” he says.

Developing equality

Under his stewardship, SAICA has professionalised and now plays a much larger role in the wider community. One of the body’s most important aims is to bring the balance of black CAs more into line with the nation’s population.

Statistics South Africa, an independent government body, estimates that of the nation’s 48 million people, about 38 million are black Africans. At last count, SAICA has 1,247 black African members – 4 percent of its total membership.

The major initiative to achieve this balance is called Thuthuka, a Zulu term that means ‘to develop’. Thuthuka launched in 2002 and is comprised of several programmes that reach out to poor communities and offer assistance and incentives to become a CA.

The Thuthuka Education Upliftment Project has helped educate more than 15,000 high school students in South Africa in the past year. It is a multi-level programme that targets students at school and university level. The scheme provides technical assistance to schools in core subjects such as maths, science and English.

SAICA provides scholarships to university students through its Thuthuka Bursary Fund, which places African and mixed race students into selected accredited universities on special undergraduate accounting programmes.

“We go to really impoverished areas and it’s quite amazing because we pick up some gems of kids, they just need a bit of polishing,” Sehoole explains. “In these poor communities, and I see it with my own eyes, if you can try to get a few CAs qualified and they can then make a future for themselves it will impact their families… you begin to reverse the poverty cycle.”

The importance of programmes like Thuthuka cannot be underestimated as South Africa is in the midst of a chronic shortage of qualified accountants. In February this year, the hard work finally paid off.

“I think the highlight of my time [at SAICA] is having seen the first cohort of Thuthuka students get a 71 percent pass rate when the national rate was 60-something,” Sehoole explains. “For me that was fantastic to see that the students we put through were far above the national average. You put your effort in something that you only know the outcome of seven years down the line. That’s very risky and to see that the outcome was more than what we expected. I was so thrilled.”

There are promising signs for the future of South Africa’s profession as a greater number of black African students are now coming through the ranks.

“The shortage is still there but the increase of people, in particular black CAs, entering the profession is quite remarkable. If you look at the pipeline of things to come you see that we really are on the right track,” he says.

One ambition Sehoole never quite achieved was leading the institute to play a greater developmental role in the southern Africa region.

“I believe the type of institute we have with its infrastructure in South Africa should benefit the rest of the continent,” he says. “Obviously the natural thing to do is to start with the immediate neighbours but I believe that we should’ve started much earlier to make a push to ensure that the institute benefits the rest of the continent. For me that’s my regret.”

Outside of SAICA, Sehoole has played an important role in raising the profile of South Africa’s profession and contributing to the development of accounting globally. He served two full terms on the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) board and is the current Developing Nations Committee chair.

“When I joined the IFAC board there was no limit as to how long you can be on the board and I was part of the team that drafted the constitution so that you can only have two terms,” he explained. “I was also involved in the process of changing and professionalising IFAC.

“I’d like to think that the profession is now much more recognised and that SAICA is much more acknowledged locally and internationally because of my time here.”

Sehoole is still weighing up his options for his next career move.

SAICA’s new executive president, Matsobane Matlwa, began his term in February.

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