Breaking barriers: Chartered Accountancy for Black South Africans

The article below discusses a PhD study on the challenges faced by black Chartered Accountants (CAs) in South Africa. The study interviewed 22 recently qualified black CAs and found that while some of the challenges they faced could be attributed to apartheid’s legacy, others were a manifestation of the complex racial and class divisions in contemporary society. The study suggests practical interventions that can be applied to promote inclusive learning and training practices in higher education and the workplace. The article also highlights the difficulties faced by aspirants in gaining access to universities accredited by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants and the challenges faced in university settings such as unfamiliarity with course content and a feeling of displacement. It also delves into the role of families in supporting the aspirants and the proposal of fresh framework for charting the way forward in this field. – Carmen Mileder


Few of South Africa’s chartered accountants are black: hearing their stories suggests what to fix

By Sedzani Musundwa

Chartered accountants can be found in the upper echelons of organisations all over the world as CEOs, directors and senior managers. They are often responsible for an entity’s finances, managing and reporting how funds are sourced and used, and the tax implications. Others are auditors.

Becoming a chartered accountant (CA) is not easy. In South Africa one must complete both undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, serve a minimum of three years of articles (a supervised practical learnership) and complete two professional exams. 

There is also a big racial disparity in South Africa’s chartered accountancy realm: only 8,610 (17%) of the 51,152 registered CAsare black. That’s in stark contrast to the country’s demographics; nearly 81% of South Africans are black. 

This gap is rooted in history. For most of apartheid’s white-minority rule from 1948 to 1994, black citizens were not allowed to become chartered accountants. The first black man qualified in 1976 and the first black woman in 1987. Though the profession is now open to all, it’s clear that historical disparities persist.

Most of the scientific literature that examines the challenges faced by aspirant and qualified black CAs is presented through the lens of professional bodies, universities, training firms and scholarship funders. Very few studies directly engage the black aspirants to find out what their lived struggles are. 

I wanted to fill this gap because when people can share their own lived experiences, as the scholar Cheryl McEwan puts it, “their agency and sense of belonging is restored”. 

So, for my PhD, I interviewed 22 recently qualified black CAs. Their lived experiences brought to light the brutal nature of the challenges they were experiencing – and emphasised that while some of these could be attributed to apartheid’s legacy, others were a manifestation of the complex racial and class divisions in contemporary society. 

My findings suggest some easy and practical interventions that can be applied in the government’s initiatives to transform the profession. The same framework can be applied in higher education and workplace training to promote inclusive learning and training practices. For academics, it lays a foundation for an avenue of research that responds to the practical challenges experienced in the profession. 

No room for failure

My interviewees all qualified between 2016 and 2022 at different universities across the country. Some had taken more than the average seven years to qualify; a few had temporarily dropped out of their university studies before returning and completing their degrees. 

The aspirants spoke of how gaining access to universities accredited by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants was a logistical nightmare. Universities must be accredited for their degrees to be recognised by the institute.

Many of the students were based in townships and rural areas, while the accredited institutions are found in big cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban. Students had to leave the safety provided by their immediate families and communities. 

Because accounting qualifications have high entrance requirements and the aspirants had the necessary aptitude, they got merit scholarships which covered the cost of their relocation. But the terms and conditions of those scholarships left no room for failure, irrespective of the reasons. 

One of the interviewees described how and why she lost her funding:

In my third year, I lost my dad and {was} also not feeling well. So, I actually failed my third year. I was on Thuthuka {a bursary fund} but obviously if you do fail, they do stop your tuition.

She spent time in hospital and lost her funding. She later got a job, funded her part-time studies and eventually qualified.

An unfamiliar setting

University settings also presented some challenges.

Despite most students in a class being black, they felt displaced. Interviewees lamented the displays of cultural and language familiarity between white lecturers and white students in class. This reduced the black students to spectators of their tuition rather than active participants. One said:

So sometimes I just think the system itself was just not for us … If I can put it that way.

Another told me:

… there is a lot of difference between me and a white person … because our education system doesn’t teach you how to learn. It teaches you how to remember. It’s all good and well, but now when you’re required to apply yourself, you don’t remember how to because you’ve never done it before.

This comment was a reference to the country’s extremely unequal schooling system

The kind of knowledge they brought into the system was not fit for purpose and the interviewees found themselves constantly challenged even though they were smart. One reflected:

I think for me it was an exposure thing. That is why I would do poorly in those tests, or questions, or scenarios I had to solve. I found that for example, if a case study is based on the airline industry, you’re not exposed to that as a black person. So, it makes it difficult to then have that logic, even if something can be very straightforward because you haven’t been in that situation.

So, although the aspirants had physically gained access to the qualification, there was constant confirmation that they operated on the periphery of it. 

I was struck by how important the interviewees’ families were on these tough, sometimes lonely journeys. They consistently referenced their families as the strong pillars that helped them overcome adversity. 

Academic research about accounting doesn’t often recognise the role of community in black people’s successful academic journeys. A better understanding of the role of community could help universities to respond appropriately to their students’ learning needs and should form the basis for free mental health support.

Towards a new framework

Based on my research, I propose a new framework that aims to narrow the gap between black students’ lived realities and the accounting qualification offered by universities.

For example, universities might adjust their admission requirement in a way that accounts for the inequity in basic education. They can also teach these students the language of business and collaborate with corporate organisations to aid students’ understanding of business practices in South Africa. 

A more inclusive curriculum would also use examples that reflect the whole of society, allowing students from different backgrounds to engage with those examples.

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