Written by Milpark Communications

The first African woman to qualify as a chartered accountant (CA (SA)) in South Africa was Nonkuleleko Gobodo. When she graduated in 1987, she paved the way for women in the industry as well as for transformation in the private sector.

But more than 30 years later and African women chartered accountants remain a minority. According to the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), black women CAs make up just over 3% of industry professionals.

Even the stats that seem to validate industry transformation can be misleading. Almost 63% of those who passed the most recent APC exam, which is the final theoretical examination prospective CAs encounter, were black – but the category encompasses African, Coloured and Indian candidates. The number of African candidates who failed the exam was worrying, the SAICA noted.

“There are many reasons why especially female African CA candidates are not qualifying with the professional designation,” says Lesedi Diseko, Head of Bursary at the African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) association. AWCA is a non-profit founded in 2002 created as a forum to help African women chartered accountants support each other and to channel donations to fund the studies of aspiring African women CA(SA)s. Over the past 20 years, it has financed 135 bursary students and recently partnered with Milpark Education and CA Connect for a bursary collaboration to award five bursaries to deserving candidates. These bursaries were for postgraduate studies, a vital step in the CA(SA) journey towards the ITC board exam.

The collaboration is not only about financial support but invests significantly in mentorship and guidance as well. AWCA research has shown that postgraduate study is the area where the majority of prospective CAs encounter the most setbacks. Often lacking funding for further studies, students are compelled to work and study at the same time.

The online education model provides greater flexibility for working students but poses other challenges. Gareth Olivier, founder of Milpark Education’s CA Connect, part of its School of Professional Accounting, thinks it’s imperative that institutions acknowledge the environment in which most South Africans are trying to pursue higher education – a combination of financial hardship, poor socio-economic conditions and being the first in their families to earn a degree. “No matter how capable a student, often higher education is an intensely precarious and lonely journey,” he says. “Enabling broader access isn’t just about flexibility – it means various layers of support and a sense of community that help motivate, inspire and drive students.”

In South Africa, the repercussions of a single successful academic journey can be profound. “Becoming a CA saves lives,” says Diseko. “You see people breaking the cycle of poverty, saving family members too.” She mentions one bursary winner who was supporting her family on a salary of R5000 a month.

There is ample research that reveals how educating women both empowers them and increases the incomes and living standards of entire households. Meanwhile, uplifting female chartered accountants in South Africa also means strengthening both governance and national economic development by introducing a financial skill into the marketplace.

And yet getting black females CAs to the table is a challenge. A recent study by university postdoctoral researcher Sedzani Musundwa investigated the difficulties women face when attempting to qualify as CAs. For her PhD study, she spoke to 22 newly qualified CAs about their lived experience, which highlighted complex racial and class divisions. Many had taken longer than usual to complete their training, having dropped out of studies and returned at later dates. Those from lower socio-economic areas described dealing with family tragedies and health problems, of losing bursaries when failing courses during periods of exceptional challenging life circumstances. Musundwa calls for more initiatives to support female and especially black CA candidates as they attempt to study chartered accountancy.

As South Africa battles poverty and social inequality, the call for more robust support for the education of girls and women cannot be ignored. Supporting the training of female chartered accountants takes it one step further, as they are also likely to contribute to the greater good and general societal and economic upliftment.

As we push for more successful outcomes in education, the need for targeted partnerships that focus on student needs becomes more imperative. There is no point talking about successful educational outcomes, when students are hungry, cold and lack computer access and internet connectivity. “The academic journey towards becoming a chartered accountant is long and arduous,” says Diseko. “But by supporting more especially black women on this path, we not only help individuals out of poverty and improve living conditions for them and family members, but also bring much-needed financial experts into the South African private and public sector.”