1 February 2022

From SA public sector to the world

People generally move abroad to improve their lifestyle, take on a new challenge, gain new experiences, or progress up the career ladder. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like for those who went overseas just before the outbreak of COVID-19. That is what happened to two young South African CAs(SA). Shortly after Thobeka Ngcobo and Muhammad Ismaeel Buckus arrived in the UK to start their new careers, lockdown was announced on 23 March 2020 and the British public were ordered to stay at home.

Thobeka Ngcobo

Thobeka, originally from Amanzimtoti in KwaZulu-Natal, studied at Wits and completed her articles at the Auditor-General South Africa (AGSA) in Johannesburg. As an executive for the Trainee Auditor Forum, she got to hone her leadership skills and take ownership of many new initiatives. During her time at AGSA, she was part of various committees such as risk and ethics and strategic economic development.

Ismaeel graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal with a BCom Accounting degree in 2007 and immediately started working as an accounting clerk for a small accounting business in Durban. In 2011, he registered with the University of South Africa to complete his CTA and joined the AGSA as a trainee auditor. By the end of 2013 he had qualified as a CA(SA) and Registered Auditor (RA). He spent the next six years as an audit manager at the AGSA.

Both of them were drawn to the mandate of the AGSA, to strengthen democracy by building public confidence. Only a capable public sector can better the lives of South Africans, and CAs(SA) bring integrity, objectivity, and professional behaviour to the table. CAs(SA) are also adaptable, resilient, technical and have a broad mindset. Their ability to communicate means they can become advisors in a public sector environment and work as true business partners when it comes to accountability, guidance and decision-making.

‘CAs(SA) are driven by ethics and that is what the public sector sorely needs,’ says Thobeka, who spent three years at the AGSA. ‘My role was an important part of my career journey, even though I was scared at first. I learned an enormous amount in the time that I was there, and it was an excellent training ground for me.’

When she received a call from a recruiter asking whether she was interested in working overseas, it was something she had not thought about. ‘I was directionless at the time, and I said “OK, let’s do it.” I had always wanted to travel so that was part of the appeal. Of course, I had no idea that I would end up spending 12 months alone in my flat. But the exposure has been incredible, and I have learned so much about how others approach audit, especially in a big corporate. There is no question the AGSA prepped me for my work at EY.’

Thobeka says she has found her niche in diversity and inclusiveness (D&I), which are business imperatives at EY. ‘Beyond my responsibilities as an auditor, I am a D&I champion for the assurance team, and I lead a sub-group on maximising learning and development for the regional office. I am deeply committed to creating awareness of inclusion and belonging training and achieving the firm’s D&I strategy. I have also been involved in the firm’s anti-racism campaign.’

She has always found it impossible to limit her focus and generally has several projects on the go at any one time. She mentored a young accountant in Malawi through a virtual mentoring programme called Travel for Change Adventures. Thobeka is an ambitious, proactive leader who takes initiative and believes that leadership is about influence and impact. She is also in the Traversing Liminality programme, where she is coached by business leader Dr Lulu Gwagwa, who created the programme as a platform for ambitious and driven young black women. As an advocate for the inclusion of women in a largely male-dominated industry, Thobeka aims to be an inspiration to young women herself.

On his part, Ismaeel recalls reading about the service delivery challenges in South Africa all the time, and this forced him to think about what positive contribution he could make to improving the sector. ‘I knew that if I joined the Auditor-General, I could make a difference to accountability in local and provincial government. As an auditor, it was my responsibility to evaluate whether a local or provincial government has adhered to applicable laws, regulations and its own policies and procedures. You could say that I was representing the citizens of South Africa, ensuring that public funds were accounted for, and controls were in place to protect public resources from misappropriation and misuse. All of this results in better accountability and ultimately improved service delivery.’

Ismaeel too moved to London in March last year to join EY. Professionally, he wanted to step outside of his comfort zone. ‘I knew that living and working abroad would open up opportunities to develop new skills and have new experiences. I chose London because it is the world’s most international and connected financial centre, and EY because I wanted to be exposed to a global prestigious Big Four accounting firm.’

He adds that the UK was an attractive prospect for him because of the proximity to multiple live sporting events. ‘I’m an ardent sports lover, I’m passionate about playing and watching sports and I’m a massive Liverpool FC fan. I also love travelling and living in different cities and countries. I find that this allows me to learn about cultures, ideas, and values practised by people around the world. It adds to my personal development and broadens my worldview.’

He is keen on gaining experience in as many different industries and service lines as possible. One of the reasons that he chose to become a CA(SA) was because of the flexibility that the profession offers. With EY’s range of different service lines, he fully intends to take advantage of every opportunity he gets to expand his skills set.

‘I love working in such a large multi-cultural team with people from all over the world and different backgrounds,’ Ismaeel says. ‘It has been an eye-opening and enjoyable experience. My role is also hugely varied with no two days the same, which is one of the things I enjoy most about my job.’

Although he and Thobeka took longer to settle in than they would have without a global pandemic in the way, they are both grateful for the public sector training they had at the AGSA and for their UK colleagues who gave them an enormous amount of support during lockdown, ensuring that they were able to settle in and thrive.

‘The job market fluctuates all the time depending on the economic situation,’ Ismaeel says. ‘But because the CA(SA) qualification is held in high regard worldwide, it opens up many opportunities locally and internationally.’

Monique Verduyn