“Kimi wanted to serve his country – it was in his blood. When we look back at his tenure as Auditor-General, his most outstanding achievement was the impact of his leadership at a time when the country most needed a steady hand. He provided that. He’s leaving the new Auditor-General of South Africa in a much stronger position.”
These were the words of my former colleague and CEO of Deloitte Africa, Lwazi Bam, after hearing of the passing of Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu this week.
What Bam said hit home for me because it’s thanks to Makwetu that we now have the country’s first female Auditor-General, Tsakani Maluleke.
Since qualifying as a chartered accountant at Deloitte, Makwetu personified integrity, professionalism and servant leadership in all he said and did, starting with his time at the organisation, where he was head of forensics.
He devoted much of his time to advancing the accounting profession, affording me the privilege of working with him in industry structures, including the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants of SA.
By the time he was appointed Auditor-General in December 2013, there was no doubt that the profession and this vital chapter 9 institution were in good hands.
It still isn’t clear to me exactly how we – as South Africans – can protect Makwetu’s legacy.
How do we honour this soldier who, even after being diagnosed with cancer in 2018, elected to continue serving his country and profession with such distinction and dedication?
Are we worthy of his sacrifices, considering the accounting profession is these days constantly associated with dodgy practices and acts of malfeasance, rather than making the public good its top priority?
Makwetu became synonymous with good governance during his tenure as Auditor-General.
He reminded us every year, as he did again this past July, that those charged with administration and oversight ought to look at basic systems and controls as the foundation for proper accountability to the citizens of the country.
He was as clear in his last municipal audit report as he had been in his first one, many years ago, that taxpayers’ money must be spent in a disciplined manner in line with the laws governing the proper running of municipalities to ensure citizens can derive the expected benefits of public spending.
The title of his municipal audit report this year was Not much to go around, yet not the right hands at the till.
Makwetu lamented the lack of professionals who could be relied on to halt the spending of public money “in ways that are contrary to the prescripts and recognised accounting disciplines”.
He admonished public servants, particularly accounting professionals, for failing to address administrative and governance lapses, which “make for very weak accountability and the consequent exposure to abuse of the public purse”.
To honour Makwetu’s legacy, we should live by those words. Accounting professionals are not only financial specialists, but business leaders.
The fact that the governance lapses that so disturbed him as Auditor-General took place while chartered accountants looked on – or, worse still, aided and abetted the corrupt – amounts to a desecration of the ideals he dedicated his life to upholding.
Let us remember our purpose as accountants. We produce and audit financial reports that are used by many people.
Employees, customers and suppliers read them to understand the state of the business on which they depend for jobs, services and trade.
Regulators and tax authorities can’t do their work unless they can confidently use the financial statements that form part of regular reporting by public- and private-sector organisations. Investors rely on those statements to make informed investment decisions.
These people are among the key users of financial reports. Our failure as accounting professionals to act with integrity effectively destroys not only the financial reporting function of organisations, but all of society.
The Global Accounting Network found that 51% of the CEOs at the 100 biggest UK companies have a background in finance.
A 2010 survey under the auspices of the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants also revealed that 32% of the CEOs of the JSE’s top 194 companies – as well as 75% of their chief financial officers – were chartered accountants.
The world over, chartered accountants are associated with the insights that businesses – whether for profit or nonprofit – can’t do without.
Makwetu never said or did things that would gain him popularity, but rather that were ethical, even at the risk of upsetting the powerful.
He insisted on telling South Africa what was wrong and what needed fixing.
He also campaigned strongly for the reform of legislation so that the office of the Auditor-General of South Africa would go from being a mere reporting institution to being able to push for compliance.
Makwetu recruited his successor, Maluleke, as his deputy in 2014.
The importance of that decision went far beyond the exceptional skills and qualifications she brings to the table.
It went against the grain, at a time when the representation of women in senior positions was appallingly low.
For example, in 2017, the Businesswomen’s Association of SA found that a mere 20.7% of local directors and 29.4% of executive managers were women – with only 11.8% of these in the position of chairpersons.
PwC’s findings were more startling, revealing that women made up only 3.31% of the CEO positions in JSE-listed companies. That made Makwetu an accomplished gender activist as well.
I could continue to list his many accomplishments, but I’d rather stress the need to ensure we never fall short of what he stood for all of his life. We accountants and public servants must always strive to be the “right hands at the till”.
Mtoba is a Chartered Accountant, Co-Founder of Teach SA, trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, former chairperson of Deloitte SA and past president of Business Unity SA