Finance Indaba diary: Day two tackled key challenges facing South African finance professionals

Finance executive Mohamed Kajee concluded that Finance Indaba offers opportunities to connect and share learnings.

Whereas day one of the Finance Indaba was pulsing with creativity and problem-solving energy, day two delivered a more sombre mood as the programme sought to tackle some of the key challenges facing South African CFOs. Corruption, women and youth empowerment, ethics and fraud were some of the weighty topics on discussion during the day and we were all keen to get stuck in. 

Ethics specialist Athol Williams began his session around corruption and the role that finance professionals play by holding up a mirror to the audience and asking, “What can you do?” in each of our individual roles when faced with ethical dilemmas. 

He thought-provokingly explored the shift in how these situations are viewed as the cost of being ethical increases. For example, in a situation where a person witnesses a theft, the choice of whether or how to intervene becomes more complex as the risk to personal safety increases. Stepping in to assist a stranger is a much more difficult thing to do if the assailant is wielding a weapon. 

Similarly, we’ve witnessed the treatment that whistleblowers have been subjected to after coming forward, in terms of personal safety and reputational damage. “Being ethical does not come free,” warned Athol, yet the dangers of inaction and good people standing by in the face of corruption were even higher. 

He went on to elaborate about his role at the Nugent Enquiry and within Bain, where he was tasked to implement remedial actions around their involvement on the SARS “capture”. There was a palpable feeling of tension around the room as he grew more and more impassioned. However, none of the audience was prepared when he announced that he had resigned from Bain due to a difference in views on how his role was playing out.

He then closed off with a poem about civic duty and left the audience with much to chew on as they headed off to their chosen sessions. 

CFO of the Year 
The calm and gravitas of MTN’s Ralph Mupita, recipient of the 2019 CFO of the Year award, brought about a shift in mindset. The venue was packed and audience members scrambled to get a place in one of the most highly anticipated breakaways of the day. Ralph kept us enthralled with nuggets of wisdom around doing business in Africa and how the little cultural nuances can be critical. His love for Africa and passion for connecting people was visible as he explained how there was more that connects us all, than separates us. 

He also shared some intriguing insights into one of the key corporate relationships – the “marriage” between CEO and CFO. Many audience members reacted with knowing nods as he explained how he and Rob Shuter work together to pilot MTN. His key lessons were to maintain a partnership where they leveraged off each other, always ensure they are both on the same page in terms of big decisions (eg. Capital allocation) and to maintain both independence and interdependence in their roles. 

Ralph concluded by sharing some of his optimism the future of fintech, which he believes lies at the connection between mobile devices and banking. Watch this space!

Finance celebs 
Next, I headed to hear Alan Knott-Craig’s take on why he’s optimistic about South Africa. Choosing to call himself a realist instead of optimist, he shared a fascinating breakdown of what is most important to him and how he’s able to find it in abundance in our country – economic progress, social progress and having a purpose. Having access to these makes South Africa a place he can call home, even if he needs to balance them against the risks that we face, namely state capture, crime and unemployment. 

Alan shared the story behind Project Isizwe, his free-to-the-home Internet service and discussed how entrepreneurs here are presented with many potential problems to solve. He also discussed the huge potential for skilled finance professionals to assist tech startups with access to capital, structure and funding. 

Closing with laughter and a conversation on value 
The day closed off with a healthy dose of laughter served up by comedian Nik Rabinowitz.

It was after that, when a group of us were enjoying the late afternoon sun, that the conversation turned towards what our most valuable takeaway from the two days had been. After some banter around a day out of the office and a mid-week break, we began to realise that we all shared a similar view – it was the rare opportunity to make new human connections across the finance arena and share our learnings from common challenges that we face, that were the key to the success of the Finance Indaba.