Bongi Ngoma’s pursuit of excellence

Bongi achieved excellence when she became the first public sector CFO to win the CFO of the Year Award in 2022.

Growing up, Sibongiseni Ngoma came from a humble home and had to study through an Ubuntu Education Fund. And, while she was very grateful for the opportunity to go to school, she explains that the way they taught English lacked inspiration. “You become deprived of a language that is very important in the environments you will one day work in.”

Because of this, Bongi invested in reading in order to improve her command of the English language. “My mom would bring me novels and magazines and I would teach myself through reading.”

It was during her extra reading time that she came across the story of Nonkululeko Gobodo, the first black female CA, in one of the magazines. Bongi couldn’t have imagined that she would one day be reaching similar heights. “I wanted to be among this group of black women who were trailblazers in the field of accounting, to analyse the numbers and help tell a story. Nonkululeko’s story became my mainstay; and it served me in my darkest and most difficult days.”

Fast forward to 17 November 2021, Bongi was awarded the CFO of the Year 2021 Award at CFO South Africa’s annual CFO Awards ceremony, for her role as the CFO of the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA). That night, she became the first public sector CFO to win the title. She also walked away with two other coveted awards; the Public Sector CFO of the Year and the Transformation & Empowerment Award.

“I am deeply honoured to be recognised as the first public sector CFO to receive this award,” Bongi says. “Such recognition of excellence in the public sector is significant as our organisation focuses on driving accountability across the span of our responsibilities, to ensure that the lived experiences of South African citizens improve and that those charged with the public purse exercise good governance. If this ambition can come to pass – it would be a double dose of fulfilment for me.”

The fact that excellence can be recognised in the public sector is a cherry on top, she says, adding that it restores dignity to all the people who have chosen to be of service to the country. “It also affirms that good governance in the public sector is achievable, and demonstrates that an environment characterised by preventative controls and good risk management can exist. It is possible to provide excellent service to stakeholders, uphold the highest ethical standards and respect for public funds and the greater good.”

Bongi adds that while it is gratifying to be the “first”, it is also concerning that this may point to the slow progress of transformation in the public sector. “Perhaps it is a challenge to each and every one of us to improve our sector and minimise not only the barriers to entry, but demystify the successes of the role itself.

“I therefore invite other CFOs in the public sector to continue to aim for excellence in service of the people in building our nation, and to fuel a cohort characterised by ethical conduct and self-leadership.”

She adds that while she has received this award as Bongi Ngoma, this is equally an acknowledgment of team AGSA and the commitment each member of the organisation has to upholding the principles of good governance and accountability. “Furthermore, this award is an affirmation for every woman and for each black person that transformation of this traditionally male, white dominated space is possible. It is within reach and it is for each of us to stay the course with courage, determination and unwavering commitment.”

A calling for the public sector
Bongi has been in the public sector for 20 years. She joined the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa (IDC) after completing her articles at EY, and stayed with the company for 13 years. “What attracted me to the IDC then, was its mandate, which was centered around the creation of industries, financial support to startups, incubating funding through venture capital, and financial injection to those who want to contribute to employment in the country,” she says.

Bongi was recruited by the Auditor-General to join the institution as the CFO in 2012. “I was motivated by the vision of the organisation and its unrelenting pursuit of strengthening democracy, accounting for how public funds are used and helping in holding accounting officers and executives to account.” This, she explains, is one of the highest callings in her life.

Over the years, she has had various opportunities to join the private sector, but Bongi has stayed true to her purpose, which is “to the people, for the people, and to serve the country and the nation so that it can prosper”.

She explains that the work that is done in the public sector should translate into sustainable value and impact for ordinary people. “I’m a compassionate leader who doesn’t just see the suffering, but wants to act on it. And that’s why the public sector resonates with me. If we can contribute to getting governance mechanisms correct, we can change the lives of people incrementally and sustainably.

“For instance, if we can influence the way in which the South African Social Security Agency (SASSA) disburses funds, or the way in which Home Affairs processes their transactions following our audit reports, people will see an impact on their lives.”

However, in order to have an impact on people’s lives, Bongi first has to navigate the challenging environment that comes with the public sector.

“The environment we operate in, is unique, and has a lot of constraints and requires a different level of adrenaline,” she says. “You are always on your toes as you have to navigate the ever-changing economic environment.”

She explains that one of the biggest challenges (which can also be seen as an opportunity) is to be part of the cohort of public officials who are committed to professionalising the public sector while upholding the principles of public service. She adds that standardising governance and service delivery mechanisms across the breadth of the public service requires consistency, commitment, determination, perseverance and resilience, and where there is lack of adherence to the requisite standards of performance, consequences must be enforced.

“Over the years, we have had to unfortunately accept that it is not going to be an easy task to turn things around, to get public officials to internalise the principles of good governance and accountability, but we are already seeing some positive signs.”

Bongi says that, on the back of a challenging environment, the enormous pressure in the economy and the constraints of resources, CFOs in the public sector are required to be resourceful. “The public sector is in a crisis; but this itself is also an opportunity. Once you make the choice to join the public sector, you can’t help but be both current and futuristic, because you are here to serve the day-to-day lives of citizens while protecting the future of generations to come.”

Reaching new heights
While she was heading up the internal audit department at the IDC, Bongi’s department was awarded for providing the highest quality of service to the corporation and its stakeholders. The award was a recognition of the successful implementation of a game-changing solution that led to the establishment of a unit to track funds as soon as they were disbursed, in order to safeguard the organisation’s investments.

In 2016, Bongi received an award from the late Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu, recognising her as the best corporate executive at the AGSA. “It was mainly for demonstrating excellence in creating and articulating a compelling vision, establishing a clear direction, guiding the teams in the implementation of this value proposition and therefore safeguarding the financial viability of the organisation,” she says.

When Covid-19 hit South African shores in March 2020, Bongi was appointed by new Auditor-General Tsakani Maluleke (then deputy Auditor General) as the Covid-19 Compliance Officer of the AGSA. In this capacity, she led the executive decision-making body on Covid-19 matters affecting the institution, called the Crisis Nerve Centre (CNC). “There is a saying that ‘the true test of a leader is how well they function in a crisis’,” Bongi laughs, adding that, for her, this was certainly a test, “although the pandemic is by no means something of the past.”

Resilience as a craft
When Bongi joined the AGSA in 2012, she reported directly to Kimi Makwetu, who was the deputy Auditor-General at the time. “He taught me soft skills, like how to be bold and courageous, how to stand my ground and how to push back,” she says. He was a master in the game of resilience.”

Over the years, Bongi has had to learn her own lessons as well. “When I joined the AGSA, I was tasked with bringing new tactics into the organisation to ensure its sustainability. And I had all these big ideas to do just that, but at first, and inherently so, the leadership didn't easily buy into new things.”

She explains that she had to learn how to engage and collaborate with stakeholders effectively before she could deploy any new idea, and spent countless hours in extensive consultations so that the stakeholders could buy into these ideas. “I learnt then that you have to fight outside the ring. When you have ideas, socialise them with others and get inputs before you bring it to the table. By the time you are done with consultation, the idea will be enhanced.”

After Kimi passed away in 2020, Tsakani was appointed as the new Auditor-General and Bongi learned a whole new range of things – including an unrelenting focus on excellence. “Tsakani strives for excellence and is a transformative leader. She pushes us to be the best versions of ourselves,” Bongi explains. “She has been instrumental in my development since she took over as deputy auditor general in 2014. She is skilled at nurturing while still assigning tough responsibilities. Under her leadership I’ve become a fast learner with exposure to assignments that have enlarged my territory and increased my expertise.

Taking on a new opportunity
Having made her mark as the CFO of AGSA, Bongi was appointed as the national head of audit in June 2021.

She explains that she will miss the people in the finance portfolio in particular, as well as the unique challenge of managing and navigating finances in a complex public sector space. “It’s not always easy to be the CFO. The environment is uncertain, complex and forever changing. As the CFO, you must always be agile and on your toes. I will miss this adrenaline rush.”

She adds that she walks away with lifelong lessons, and is excited about this new venture. “I am looking forward to adding value in a number of areas. Operationally, to integrate technology in improving our ways of work and resultant outputs. Externally, I am looking forward to sharing deep insights that add value to our stakeholders.”

The new role entails greater strategic depth, including direction setting for the organisation. It encompasses the leadership and steering of the audit portfolio and its executives while ensuring that the objectives of the organisation are realised.

Bongi explains that she is looking forward to playing her part in crafting and delivering messages that connect with the citizens and stakeholders. “Most importantly, I am eager to ensure that the lives of our citizens and their lived experiences improve as a result of the work we do. We can be a South Africa that lives up to its promises as premised in the constitution.”

No vision, no future
Bongi hopes to inspire disadvantaged youngsters with her story, just as Nonkululeko’s story did for her. “In the corporate world there is a saying: ‘no vision, no future’. And what is a dream if not a vision?” she says, encouraging youngsters to dream big. “There are no limits to dreams. Your circumstances and environment can never stop you from dreaming. And then work towards achieving that dream. There are going to be challenges along the way, but you must marshal your thoughts and be resilient.”

You can read the full Special Feature in the first 2022 edition of the CFO Magazine.