I want to be part of professionalising government, says National Treasury CFO, Silindile Kubheka

“You only have one chance for a first impression. I am always respectful but I never confuse respect with blindly following others,” says National Treasury CFO, Silindile Kubheka. We have tried to unpack the remarkable metamorphosis of the National Treasury CFO from a shy, quiet serial student to a leadership powerhouse with strong views on boardroom dynamics, youth development and ways to professionalise government.

“Can you please give me the opportunity to finish what I was saying?” A stunned splattering of men gasp, nod sheepishly and murmur ‘of course’. Contrary to her predecessor, the soft-spoken incoming CFO is not well known, but the very moment she asks for silence and respect from this room full of high-powered males is the making of the new Silindile Kubheka, National Treasury CFO.

This moment is the second of two events that the 38-year-old Silindile pinpoints when asked what made her change from a shy, quiet person to a proud professional, who strides through the corridors of power with a confident gaze. She now dresses to impress and speaks her mind whenever she knows what she is talking about, which – judging by her rise to the top – is often. “I used to work at the National Treasury two jobs ago, but people that I worked with then don’t recognise me when they meet me now. At the time, I was in the middle of a pregnancy and I may have been very timid. I was always making sure other people were happy and would not speak up. When I meet my colleagues from those days and I tell them my name, they cannot believe it.”

In 2015, Silindile worked at the Auditor-General and she did initially not apply for the CFO role, until she was convinced to throw her hat in the ring. “It was one of the toughest interviews of my life. I had to do a presentation on a case study, explaining how I would move an entity towards a clean audit. I was supposed to have 20 to 30 minutes, but just before the interview they told me they only had time for 15 minutes. Then they asked a lot of technical questions.”

Fears and intimidation
During her earlier stint at the National Treasury, Silindile had dealt with DG Lungisa Fuzile as acting chief risk officer – or when sitting in meetings on behalf of the previous CFO. As tough as the interview was, the omniqualified Silindile counts the experience as the first of her two life and career-changing events. “When presenting a case study like that, you really have to convince people. Whatever fears you might have, whatever intimidation you might feel, you can either make it or break it.”

The definite breakthrough came during Silindile’s first exco meeting, with the DG and all his deputies present. “I could have just sat there, listened and been submissive, but I would not have been taken seriously,” she says. “You only have one chance for a first impression. So, I spoke up. Now I always have things to say. I see these meetings as my best opportunity to influence strategy and I don’t just want to attend to occupy the space. There is a lot of pressure. I am always respectful, but I never confuse respect with blindly following others.”

These days, Silindile discusses feminist literature with her Johannesburg-based book club and dreams of travelling to African countries and beyond. The old Silindile had never left the greater Durban area until 2005, when she moved to Johannesburg as a newlywed.

Swatch watch
“I come from a township called Kwamashu in Durban. I was an average student until I realised – only when I was in the Durban University of Technology – what was at stake, and managed to get bursaries,” Silindile explains. A daughter of a taxi driver and a factory worker, she remembers being a shy girl – except when it came to her “obsession with Swatch watches”. The solution: young Silindile Bophela did chores at home, so her mom could work longer hours to afford a watch for her daughter.

“I pushed myself and I teach my kids to do the same. I always say that if you want to study and you can’t afford it, you need to convince someone else to pay through a scholarship. But then you also need to do your own part.”

Her own resolve helped Silindile become a chartered accountant and certified internal auditor (CIA) with certificates in risk management, corporate governance and project management, among others. Those qualifications did not come quickly and she only chose the finance route after she realised there was “too much blood” involved with her first choice, zoology. As her highest mark in matric was accounting, the journey was charted, first towards a diploma and then the – admittedly arduous – path towards becoming a CA(SA).

From a bookkeeper at Ngubane & Co in Durban, Silindile moved to Nkonki in Johannesburg to work with clients in the investment and telecoms space. After completing articles in 2007 and a short-term contract at the State Diamond Centre, she joined the internal audit division at KPMG.

Leaving Nkonki
“During articles you have suffocated, you have cried. I wanted to develop and there are more opportunities at a big firm like KPMG. I wanted to explore and see where my career could take me. I got involved in the internal audit of banks, the automobile industry and telecoms, among others. It was very diverse.”

Having said that, Silindile still fondly thinks back to the great learning curve at Nkonki. “Coming from Durban, which was very chilled then, with people driving 100 in the fast lane, it was a culture shock. It was steep personal development, with a telecommunications company as a highlight. At a smaller firm, you have to work relatively harder. You don’t want to be responsible for losing a client, as it would have a detrimental effect.”

Not housewife material
What looks like a dry bunch of career paragraphs on paper, was – in raw and real life – a precarious balancing act with studying, work deadlines and tiny children to juggle. After a short stint at Absa, a period back home to care for her ill father, and a second stint at Nkonki, Silindile took a break. “I decided to stay at home with my young daughter – my son was not born yet, but after seven months I realised I am not housewife material.”

What followed was a job at National Treasury, one at the Auditor-General doing strategic projects and since April 2016 the CFO role, where she counts exco and parliament appearances among her most exciting working days. “I dream about the day that I can spend most of my time with the team – doing coaching. We have coaching sessions, but a full day would be the ultimate. I want to provide opportunities to people that are coming through the ranks. For me, coaching is not about telling them what to do, but sharing experiences and transferring knowledge. My wish is that talent development and succession planning in the public sector becomes a planned, transparent process.”

According to Silindile, the National Treasury has a massive role to play in making things better. “We are a training ground. We are appointing young people, they learn and then they leave and use their experiences, which is great. I am not apologetic about the fact that I want to contribute to black women progressing. There are not a lot of women in senior roles. For me, the DG and DDG are just a phone call away, but support for women is lacking in the lower levels. We need to break the barriers. There should be no limits based on colour or gender or age.”

As much as Silindile beams passion about nurturing young talent, she feels the youth should be teachers too. “As a manager, you learn from your team. What worked five years ago, doesn’t work now. You need to be flexible and be open to new solutions. At the same time, you need to strike a balance, as you also work with older people."

"Being a mother, I relate much easier to people, I think. When chatting, I try to remove the position from the person. They can’t confide in you if they see you as the CFO.”

Serial student
With the National Treasury being the ‘bank’ of the country, Silindile’s position is an interesting one. As the sole CA(SA) within the finance team, she is responsible for a finance team of 68, joins the minister and the DG in parliament on some occasions, but is mostly a background-operator. “Every financial decision that Treasury makes, I have to endorse. Who we hire, what we buy, which projects we embark on.”

Silindile’s career is characterised by multiple studies and short stints at jobs, but that is about to change, she says with a smile. “I am a serial student and I have registered for a three-year MBA. I am a self-aware person. I love developing as a person,.” says Silindile, who usually works for long hours in the evening after putting her children to bed. Her current role is perfect for that, says Silindile, who sounds ready to grab the bull by its horns – and shake it.

“The position provides this power. That is a major realisation to have. I had never been a CFO before as much as I have worked in various finance related positions, so I jumped onto the treadmill and had to learn so much. I had to be in control of my time.”

Silindile says she joined the department during the era of cost-cutting and shoestring budgets, but she doesn’t see her – or the Treasury’s – role as having a narrow focus on numbers. “We need to explore how we can contribute to the rest of the public sector. I want to change the perception that Treasury is very arrogant. Just as a CFO can’t be a five-star performer as a manager when my team scores three-stars, the National Treasury cannot be seen as excellent if the rest of the public sector is lagging.”

Baggage and stigma
Battling corruption is also high on the CFO’s list of priorities. “When I tell people that I work in the public sector, people often assume I am part of the corrupt ones. In my role, I am shielded from politics, but there is the baggage and stigma of people being lazy, incompetent and corrupt."

"I want to change that and showcase that there are ethical professionals and people of integrity working in high positions within the public sector. What I do should not benefit myself, but the country. If you look back at my era, I want to be part of professionalising government.”

Young accountants should also realise the massive opportunities to make a difference in the public sector, says Silindile. “For a CA, there is no opportunity to bring IFRS knowledge into practice, but when you are in a position like mine you can work with a R599 billion budget. If you had such a responsibility in the corporate world, a CFO would rank very high on the scale.”

Talking to the new Silindile Kubheka, it sounds like a story of a cautious talent who surprised all and sundry by being a good swimmer when thrown in the deep end.

Swim. Skate. Climb.
“I have literally been taking swimming classes,” Silindile reveals, explaining she joined her two children during lessons. Swimming is not something kids growing up in Kwamashu would learn, but as a mother she did not want to be powerless in an environment where her kids thrived. “I started in June last year and got my certificate in December. When I was in the water I realised: I cannot give up now, because I will drown. The teacher doesn’t get into the pool. She just tells you to do dolphin kicks and butterfly strokes. She is in jeans, so I think by the time she jumps in to rescue me I will have drowned. It was hard, but I have realised I can do anything.”

Recently, Silindile took up ice skating lessons too. “When I went to the skating rink with my daughter, I was falling all the time even though I was trying to hold on to the railing. Afterwards my muscles were so sore, I could not walk. I hated that feeling of being afraid and helpless. When we got home, my daughter told my son: mom can’t skate. That is why I have secretly signed up for lessons and I will only tell my kids when I have mastered it.”

It doesn’t take a literature scholar to see the parallels between Silindile’s personal and professional development:

“Ultimately,” she says, “I want to summit Kilimanjaro. As black South African we tend to be very insular. I also lived a secluded life, but now I want to go out there and explore other countries.”

Ever since she has left her KZN-roots, Silindile yearns for travel. With her husband-of-12-years and kids that goes as far as Jozini Dam and the Drakensberg, but Silindile wants more. Her curiosity has been ignited and stimulated by the friends in her book club, which she warmly mentions more than once during the interview.

Back in Johannesburg, the new Silindile’s is drawing comparisons between patriarchal systems of her own Zulu-upbringing and Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s Islamic childhood in Somalia in the bestseller Infidel. “I have become much more empowered. I want to know why Rwanda is the cleanest country in Africa, I am curious about the situation in Gambia. My book club consists of well-educated and well-travelled people. Not long ago I would have said: oh my word, would they listen to what I have to say about these books? They used to say words I had never heard of. Now I can talk for hours.”