Thuthuka initiative gets rave reviews at the World Congress of Accountants in Rome

It is ironic that, while South Africa’s auditing and financial reporting standards have been judged the best in the world by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for five years in succession, the country’s pass rate in mathematics at basic education level is ranked an abysmal 144th out of 144 countries. Although this anomaly emphasises the high standards set and maintained within the South African accounting profession, it also underlines the major work that still needs to be done in upgrading the quality of our basic education.

The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) – the body charged with upholding those standards in the country – has long been closely involved with the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), where SAICA has been influential in terms of helping to establish, codify and monitor the high standards that the international body demands of all its members worldwide, both in educational requirements and professional practice.

In November 2014, SAICA was invited by the IFAC to deliver a presentation at the World Congress of Accountants in Rome. The presentation focused on SAICA’ s Thuthuka programme, which has impressed IFAC as a pipeline to deliver the Chartered Accountants (South Africa) [CAs(SA)] that South African business urgently needs, and to transform the profession at the same time. IFAC believes this model can be used to develop accounting professionals in other developing countries.

Building pipeline

The deficiencies of the Apartheid years’ education system, and its long-term effects on South African skills and employment, should never be underestimated. The country’s first African CA(SA) – Professor Wiseman Nkulu – only qualified in 1976. In 1994, white people made up only 14% of the population, but by 2002, 92% of our CAs(SA) were still white, 5% were Indian, 2% were African and 1% coloured.

This discrepancy convinced SAICA of the need to create the Thuthuka initiative. The knowledge that it takes seven to ten years to produce a fully-qualified CA(SA) after matric, meant that the programme had to be long-term, sustainable and high-volume.
We are well on our way to achieve the goals of Thuthuka. By 2014 the make-up of the profession had changed. Although we had added just over 50% to the number of white CAs(SA) since 2002, they represented only 77% of CAs(SA), with the number of black CAs(SA) having grown by a multiple of over 5 to total 23% of CAs(SA). While there is still a way to go, and given the lead time to produce the final product of a fully-qualified CA(SA), the profession has certainly created both capacity and transformation.

“The pivotal factor is creating a proper strategic, holistic plan,” says Chantyl Mulder, who heads up nation building transformation & growth professional development at SAICA. “You can’t start developing more accountants if you don’t have a pipeline plan – and that goes for any profession. It starts at school level; you have to make youngsters aware of the profession and make it attractive to them. Then, after they decide on the profession, what do you do with them – especially the many who have no money?”

Mulder answers her own question: the Thuthuka programmes identify learners at no-fee schools who have a talent and an interest in maths and science, and mentors and encourages them through the Maths and Accounting olympiads, school-holiday maths camps, youth seminars and career drives. Successful matriculants who earn a Thuthuka bursary to study a BCom (Accounting) have all their university expenses paid, including tuition, accommodation, meals and books and a small stipend.

Since its inception in 2002, the Thuthuka programme has produced 442 African and coloured graduates for final training as CAs(SA) by the private and public sector, with thousands more moving continuously along the pipeline.

“The second fundamental principle is bringing public-private partnerships together,” says Mulder. “Neither government nor the private sector can do it on their own; the job is too big.” This also applies to academics institutions – SAICA is closely involved with South African universities to set a high standard of accountancy teaching and acceptable throughput pass rates. “The private sponsors and the universities have to work together to enforce all aspects of the programme – not just what they learn, but the environment in which they learn, including study discipline. Then you also have to work on their soft skills, and line up the employers for when they graduate,” continues Mulder. Mentorship and support for soft skills – especially considering that many students from poor rural environments experience major cultural dislocation at urban universities – are an essential part of the Thuthuka strategy.

“Again, it works holistically,” says Mulder. “The donors who fund their studies later become their employers, and they see to the further training and qualifications. It’s a model that can work for any profession, because all professions have their technical core and their academic core; their practical experience requirements, etc. Programmes with proper responsibility and accountability can change the whole nature of the academic results.”

Mulder is proud to report that, “at the Rome congress, ours was one of the best received presentations – they loved it… One of the big European donors is interested in using the Thuthuka model in South America, and Malaysia has also shown interest.”

She also adds that the South African engineering profession has set up its own bursary fund based on the Thuthuka model, as has the actuarial profession. “As a model to grow a pipeline, it can work in any other profession.”

Gauteng Premier David Makhura has also expressed interest in SAICA’s strategy, and has now instructed his MECs to meet with professional bodies with regard to rapid skills development. Provincial government will also be funding Gauteng learners from no-fee schools in the Thuthuka programme. “He understands pipeline, so he’s very progressive in the development of professions – and he gets things done,” says Mulder. “And he understands the need for public-private partnerships. We need to get all the programmes from various government departments and their private-sector partners aligned and following the same strategy to grow pipeline. There are many such programmes costing vast amounts of money, but they are seldom co-ordinated.”

Since 1994, the number of South Africans living in rural poverty has shrunk from 20 million to 5.8 million. Unemployment has gone down from 40% to less than 26%, and where formerly 60% of African women were unemployed, we are now ranked 17th of 136 countries by the WEF in terms of gender equality. There is no denying enormous progress has been made in this country, but we are still suffering a skills shortage of more than 800 000 in the professions. Co-operation between government’s various departments concerned with education and training, education NGOs and the private sector – in programmes that replicate SAICA’s Thuthuka model ­– appears to be the fastest, most efficient way to address that shortage.

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