Aspirant black CAs in SA feel marginalised

Every year the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica) administers the Assessment of Professional Competence (APC). This board exam is the last hurdle for an aspiring chartered accountant (CA) en route to qualifying. The latest results, released in late February, had an overall pass rate of 52%.

The pass rate for white candidates was 76% and the pass rate for black candidates was 39%.

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The Conversation Africa asked Sedzani Musundwa, a registered chartered accountant and accounting lecturer who has researched the experiences of black chartered accountants, to unpack the results.

In your research, you’ve identified a high failure rate among black chartered accounting students as a trend. Why does this matter?

Statistics provided by the Council on Higher Education show that black African students studying commerce (the university faculty under which chartered accounting falls) have disproportionately higher failure rates than their peers of other races.

That trend continues when it comes to the Assessment of Professional Competence administered by the professional body Saica (South African Institute of Chartered Accountants). But by this stage, it’s the cream of the crop getting culled: people who have made it through undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and are already working, doing accounting articles in the same way as prospective lawyers do.

During my PhD research, qualified black chartered accountants recounted their journeys through academia, articles and the board exams. They spoke overwhelmingly about experiences of “injustice” every step of the way. One participant felt like they were “not even an employee (of the firm at which they did articles) – you’re just a resource, if I can say it like that”.

Another told me:

“So retaining knowledge, studying the knowledge, getting it, wasn’t the difficult part – it was the sitting on the transformation forums and speaking your heart out, and nothing’s changing. That was the defeating part.”

Few recalled feeling “accomplishment and safety” when they passed their assessments. This raised red flags for me about how little – if any – psychological support is given to those on the journey to become chartered accountants; to those who don’t pass their boards and even to those who do pass and are beginning their careers.

Tell us about your most recent research on black chartered accountants

A colleague, Theresa Hammond, and I interviewed black chartered accountants in South Africa who qualified between 2016 and 2022.

It was around 2016 that APC pass rates among black candidates began to drop.

The candidates were grappling with a number of issues that ate away at their ability to perform at work and in their formal professional assessments.

For instance, they worried that their white peers and managers in accounting training firms (most in the private sector) thought of them as being incompetent and incapable purely because they were black. They were not allocated work or called into meetings that their white peers were attending.

Listen to this 2018 podcast with Nompu Siziba: Saica sets sights on black graduates for work readiness programme

The majority felt marginalised in the workplace. This made them feel constantly anxious and fearful about whether their articles would be signed off as successful by the end of the training years. They were left with only each other to turn to.

They also, as I have discussed in previous research, felt constantly displaced by the foreign culture, languages and socialisation strategies adopted in the workplace.

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Many of them told me that they just wanted “out”. This feeling lingered even once they’d qualified.

How can this situation be changed?

The black aspirants who make it to the APC are part of a rare cohort of trainees who have fought to get to the last hurdle. They have overcome some of the worst of life’s and educational challenges to find themselves near the finish. It seems illogical to lose them to the profession at this late stage.

In both this study and a forthcoming book chapter, I point out that commerce faculties still think students from previously – and currently – disadvantaged backgrounds need “interventions” like literacy and numeracy classes and English writing classes. Instead, they need empathy and care from those around them; if these can be formalised, even better.

The majority of students at South African universities are from such backgrounds, so “interventions” should be mainstreamed. For example, everybody should attend English comprehension classes because students in business really struggle with this. All students should also be directed to cultural consciousness classes and encouraged to see psychologists.

This, coupled with mentorship and coaching, can make a huge difference. That’s been proven by organisations like Endunamoo. It provides tuition to all CA candidates who have failed the APC and want to repeat it. Its approach yields pass rates far better than the national average.

I am especially concerned about mental health, here. The injustice that dominates the system doesn’t suddenly rectify itself because a person has passed the boards. Those who have qualified must go into the same offices and broader profession and perform like their white peers, no matter the trauma they experienced to reach this point.

For those who have failed, the heaviness of failure and the associated shame is what they carry back into the professional environment.

And, at the same time, there are new cohorts entering the space, whom they are expected to mentor and coach.

Chartered accounting needs professionals who have gone through some healing from their experiences. Pragmatically, that’s not just for the individual good: chartered accountants have rare but critical skills that can boost South Africa in the right economic direction.

Sedzani Musundwa is Senior Lecturer in Financial Accounting, University of South Africa.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

Harry Byrne

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