Wiseman Nkuhlu: A wise leader

2014-02-16 14:00

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As the country’s first qualified black chartered accountant, Wiseman Nkuhlu is held in high esteem by many. Mamello Masote details his influence on her life as he turns 70

My mother loves Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, and she used his amazing story of becoming South Africa’s first black chartered accountant as a source of encouragement to pursue a career in accountancy.

But her enthusiasm for this career put a damper on my dreams to become a journalist. “If he can do it under apartheid conditions,” my mother would say, “then you really have no excuse.” Knowing his story, I didn’t really have an excuse not to follow in his footsteps.

Nkuhlu’s determination allowed him to shatter the glass ceiling for black people in the profession, despite the fact that he was expelled from school, leaving him unable to complete his matric, and spent time in prison.

As Nkuhlu celebrates his 70th birthday this month, even those of us who abandoned the accountancy profession are grateful to him for paving the way and setting the example.

Nkuhlu says he began thinking hard about his future while he was imprisoned on Robben Island in the early 1960s due to his political association with the Pan Africanist Congress, which was freshly banned. His initial dream was to become an economist. In 1966, he went to work in the mines and he completed his matric as well as courses in economics and book-keeping through correspondence.

Nkuhlu decided to enrol for a degree at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape to study economics and politics, which is when the accounting bug bit him. After receiving his degree with a major in accounting, he had to decide between becoming an economist or an accountant.

He started his articles at an Afrikaans firm, and soon caught the eye of the University of Cape Town.

“I was invited to a lecture at the University of Cape Town and the lecturer was interested in my story. He invited me to do my Certificate in the Theory of Accounting at the University of Cape Town,” says Nkuhlu.

After receiving his Certificate in the Theory of Accounting, he was able to complete both board exams while lecturing at Fort Hare University. He finally qualified as a chartered accountant in 1976, the same year that students in Soweto led an uprising against the apartheid government and its Bantu education system.

Nkuhlu says when young, black, talented students ask for his assistance to become a chartered accountant, he feels extremely rewarded and satisfied.

But Nkuhlu admits that although he is proud of the transformation in the profession, there is still a long way to go. “The next black chartered accountant [after me] came in about 1980 and [even] by 1994, you could still count the number of black chartered accountants on one hand. Even today, we’re still very few,” he says.

By 2012, according to the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants, there were 6?136 registered in the country.

One of the criticisms often levelled at the profession is its focus on the private sector. But Nkuhlu says government departments need to be more proactive in attracting young people to the profession.

“To try and address the fact that chartered accountants are taken by the big firms and to encourage chartered accountants to consider the public sector, more training needs to be offered by the public sector. Programmes such as the one run by Treasury – we need more of that so that chartered accountants can contribute meaningfully to the public sector.”

Government departments also need to give people more opportunities for training and support in the sector.

Although he opened the first black accounting firm in 1978, Nkuhlu has always been involved in teaching at Fort Hare, and was instrumental in the university’s accounting programme receiving accreditation from the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants.

Morakile Shuenyane, a friend and co-director on two boards with Nkuhlu, says: “Prof is legendary for speaking his truth quietly and clearly, all the while making time to listen to the story of those regarded as dull and ignorant.

“He believes everybody is a child of the universe, not less than the trees and the stars. They have a right to be here, whether they know it or not.”

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