Newsmaker – Kimi Makwetu: All in good hands

2013-12-09 08:00

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New Auditor-General’s big challenge: recover R517m in unpaid audit fees

South Africa’s new Auditor-General, Kimi Makwetu, has no plans to fill his predecessor’s shoes.

That’s because, Makwetu jokingly told a radio station last week, Terence Nombembe took his shoes along with him when he wrapped up his term as Auditor-General at the end of November.

Makwetu has had plenty of time to learn how Nombembe walks and works, having served as deputy Auditor-General since 2007.

The life-sized cardboard cut- out of Nombembe at the Auditor-General’s offices in the Pretoria east suburb of Brooklyn is probably a reminder of the man’s legacy during the seven years he spent at the helm of the 102-year-old supreme audit body.

His time is associated with the idea of a more proactive Auditor-General who tried to simplify complicated audit reports and get politicians to take a direct interest in ensuring that their departments got clean audits.

Makwetu says much of the substance of what his predecessor introduced will not change, but he will spell out his ideas about the changes he would like to introduce when he meets his executive team.

The 47-year-old chartered accountant who grew up in Gugulethu, outside Cape Town, is spending his first week in the job meeting journalists in a bid to assure the public that the audit body is still in good hands in the wake of Nombembe’s departure.

That has been his first order of business, he says.

“Because this is a change in the organisation, in essence, I think it is important to give comfort that there is stability in the organisation.

“So that’s really what one has been preoccupied with since the announcement, to give some time to our stakeholders in the media primarily so that they can transmit some very clear messages to the public. We have to indicate that the work they associate with the Auditor-General ... they should rest assured they will get in the future,” he explains.

We’re chatting in the small reception room adjacent to his new office. The couches are a dull grey and the art on the wall looks minimalist and impersonal – perhaps a reflection of the institution’s culture of spending as little public money as possible.

The father of three boys aged between 11 and 16 says his love of finance started when he was 11 and his mother entrusted to him the finances of her informal meat retail business.

In jest, he assures me that his boys are smart, but not as smart as he is.

Makwetu started his career as a book-keeper in the private sector after obtaining a social science degree at the University of Cape Town in 1990, and later studied for his accounting degree through Unisa.

He qualified as a chartered accountant in 2000 and has held management jobs at Nampak, Liberty Life and Deloitte & Touche.

It was his experience as an audit committee team member of institutions such as the Robben Island Museum and the Human Sciences Research Council that sparked his interest in public finance.

“The areas of growth and development are more in the public sector. The public sector systems are fairly new?...

“There’s lots of opportunity for one to grow and contribute. The private sector is really a specific project-driven type of environment with lots and lots of cash you can command.

“But here the value and satisfaction one gets is that you are contributing to something that benefits a range of people, whether they are aware of the contribution the audit office makes or are not remotely aware of what the audit institution does.

“The public sector had an attractive angle for me in that it was an area where I thought I could make a contribution,” he says.

He spends most of his free time relaxing with friends at his northern Johannesburg home listening to jazz – especially his favourite Miles Davis and Donny Hathaway songs – and reminiscing about “the good old days”.

He’ll need all the relaxing he can get. One of the big challenges in his new job is to recover the R517 million in unpaid audit fees that government departments and entities owe the Auditor-General.

He says they have been trying to “persuade” the debtors to fork out the fees and have now roped in Parliament’s oversight committee on the Auditor-General to help.

They’re also working to retain staff. At one point, high turnover was a big problem and the institution came up with retention policies to stop the revolving door in its tracks.

The Auditor-General’s office annual report reveals that the office loses a lot of young professionals aged between 25 and 35.

Makwetu says this is not a problem, since there is no way the office can keep all the accountants it trains over a three-year cycle. In the past, there were usually 50 trainees in one cohort – but under Nombembe, this grew to 400.

“So it’s not like they are leaving because they are unhappy. They are leaving us because they came here with the knowledge that they would leave us after three years because they are needed elsewhere.

“What make us happy, though, is that they don’t leave to become plumbers or florists. They continue in financial management, which is exactly what we want.

“We want them to go into those institutions that are struggling so that they can fix the financial management,” Makwetu said.

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