1 June 2022

Making a meaningful difference

Studying for a chartered accountant qualification is demanding, but the rewards are certainly worth it. That’s what piqued Bulelani Makunga’s interest in the profession in 2002. He was in Grade 10 and attended a science expo in East London where a SAICA representative spoke about the benefits of becoming a CA(SA). They said it was a career that would give graduates the ability to earn well and afford almost anything they wanted.

For Bulelani, who grew up in a less-developed village in the Eastern Cape – a province where large numbers of people live below the poverty line – it sounded like an attractive option.

‘My focus was on choosing a career that help me make a decent living so that I would be able to support my family at some point in the future,’ he says.

Today, he is the CFO at the Office of the Pension Funds Adjudicator (OPFA) and a board member/trustee of the Financial Sector Conduct Authority Pension Fund.

Strong-willed and driven, even from a young age, Bulelani did well in Grade 12 and was admitted to the University of Cape Town. After graduating in 2008, he joined the Office of the Auditor-General of South Africa as a trainee auditor. He also completed his CTA part-time with the University of KwaZulu-Natal. In 2013, he qualified as a CA(SA). It’s the vast experience he has gained while in the public sector that has kept him there.

‘When I started at the AG, I did not know what to expect. ‘At university, the focus tends to be on the commercial sector and its financial accounting and reporting requirements, with the exception of a few lectures, but my goal was to gain real-world experience and become familiar with all the entities that play an important role in the country’s service delivery. The public sector exists to create a conducive environment in which both business and individuals can thrive. That’s what got my attention and made me stay,’ Bulelani explains.

‘The work is also aligned with my personal values of being other-oriented. I believe to learn about who you are, it is important to look beyond your self-interests and seek to make a positive contribution to the lives of others. For these reasons, I am proud to have built a career in the public service where I have been given an opportunity to serve people and make a difference in the lives of citizens.’

The value of servant leadership

Many believe that when leaders shift their focus from the organisation to the people, they are more likely to produce skilled, talented, knowledgeable and motivated employees which, in turn, will help to improve the overall operations and management of the organisation.

Globally, this leadership style has gained immense popularity and has been adopted by top-ranking companies. As an aspiring servant leader himself, one of Bulelani’s main goals is to provide service to the people he works with. He seeks to ensure that his team is empowered and continues to grow in all areas — their profession, knowledge and understanding of their environment, autonomy and even their personal lives.

‘Servant leadership is consistent with the values of ubuntu,’ he says. ‘My parents raised us in this way. They were always contributing to the community and the education of my cousins and other family members, even though they did not have much. I’m not yet a servant leader as it is a journey, not a destination, but it is something I believe in and am committed to.’

Bulelani has been in his current position for just over four years. He continues to drive financial sustainability, efficient resource allocation and utilisation, clean public administration, transparency and accountability. Demonstrating his commitment to fulfilling the mandate of his office, he and his team have achieved four consecutive clean audits since he joined in 2018, a remarkable achievement in a public sector that is often better known for inefficiencies, poor management of finances and corruption. In the 2020/21 financial year, the Auditor-General reported that of the 425 audited institutions, only 114 (27%) had received clean audits.

‘A number of factors including luck (right place and the right time), and support from leadership, assurance providers and other stakeholders has been vital,’ Bulelani says. ‘You also need to understand that you are there to create value as a CFO, and you need to be both a good leader and a good manager. A clean audit outcome is the result of internal controls, carried out on a day-to-day basis, as well as clear, specific policies and repeatable processes that are communicated regularly and are up to date so that they comply with the latest applicable legislation.’

‘You also need the right people, which can be difficult as we have a skills shortage generally as a country’ he adds. But when I arrived at the OPFA I found a team that had the right attitude and just needed some guidance. In the first two years I had to roll up my sleeves and do some of the work myself to show the team that it could be done. By year three, the processes were in place, and we had built the team’s capabilities, which is why we have been able to repeat our success. The roles and responsibilities are clear, there is constant communication, robust performance management is in place, and people are rewarded for good work.’

Bulelani is committed to ongoing learning and is currently completing an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He is the 2021 Association for Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa (ABASA) CFO of the Year award winner. He has a certificate in Pension Funds Law from the University of South Africa (Unisa), a certificate in Public Finance Management from the International Monetary Fund, and an Advanced Programme certificate in Risk Management from Unisa. As a leader who strives to motivate his team, he encourages his people to develop their own skills too.

Along with his wife, he is a co-founder and managing director of a not-for-profit organisation, SWM Foundation, that provides financial assistance and mentorship to high school children from his former school in the Eastern Cape.

‘I aim to remain in the public sector and to continue to find ways to make a meaningful difference in the lives of citizens,’ he says. ‘To succeed in the public sector requires you to be selfless, passionate about people, and willing to drive change. It is not always the easiest environment to work in, so you need to be very clear about your “why”. For me, it is about contributing to building the kind of society I want to be part of.’

Bulelani believes the public sector has given him an opportunity to drive meaningful change, add value and improve citizens’ trust and confidence in public service. Most importantly, he adds, ‘ordinary people deserve well-run and efficient public institutions to provide them with basic services and create conducive environments required to set them up for success’.