I wanted to serve, says Ramasela Ganda, Public Sector CFO of the Year 2017

Earlier this year, Ramasela Ganda won the Public Sector CFO of the Year Award for her incredible accomplishments at Ekurhuleni Municipality. She dedicated the prize to “all public servants that serve us diligently and with honesty” and referred specifically to public sector CFOs who have “lost their lives because they said no to corruption”. Long eschewing a CFO role in the private sector, she left Ekurhuleni at the end of last year and started as CFO: rental and corporate service at Barloworld, which had been courting her for quite a while.

“The risks that you take in your job as a senior public servant when you make unpopular decisions is something that shouldn’t be discounted,” says Ramasela. “At Ekurhuleni, I didn’t take up the city manager’s offer of bodyguards at one point because I don’t believe in living my life in fear. We take high risks in doing our jobs. When the city manager in Richmond was gunned down, I remember that it could be me or any other public servants.”

A dream deferred
“Everything has its time. I still love the public sector and I know I will go back one day,” says Ramasela. “My dream is just deferred. I have worked in government for almost a decade and I know when it is time to go and when it is time to stay, self-preservation is important. I know there is still a lot of work to be done in Ekurhuleni and public sector as a whole…”

Growing up in Atteridgeville and later Soshanguve, Ramasela was one of those rare young girls who immediately loved economics and accounting. “People used to think I love money... They were right,” she says with a broad smile. Her father hailed from rural Limpopo and worked as a messenger at the Department of Defence, while her mother was a cleaner at ‘Binnelandse Sake’. “My teachers always thought my parents were doctors or engineers,” says Ramasela, recounting her early academic successes. “With every new teacher I had to convince them that my parents could not even help me with my homework.”

Not a fan of “horrible” domestic chores, Ramasela struck a deal with her mother during her matric year that she still proudly recounts.

“My parents were struggling financially, so I told them I did not need to go to extra Saturday classes in the Pretoria CBD that my friends attended. In return, I wanted to be left alone to study the entire Saturday, not having to do laundry or cleaning. My mother asked if it was to save money, but I said ‘no, it’s because I don’t learn anything at the study classes’.”

Distinctions
Her mother agreed and matric results peppered with distinctions followed. The most affordable tertiary study option was Vista in Mamelodi. Ramasela had already grown into a young woman who preferred to do things her own way, so when Deloitte came knocking in the third year to offer jobs to all good students, she refused, vowing to aim higher. Deloitte and Columbus Stainless ended up paying for her further education at the University of Pretoria.

“I was never an auditor,” says Ramasela, who was involved in the Vodacom audit during articles, but also in project finance and other disciplines. Most important during that period was to seek guidance from the more experienced, she says. “I leant on a lot of people. At Deloitte, Anneke Andrews was my mentor and she still is. She is a pillar... one of those BFFs... At Deloitte she would look at my programme and say no, you won’t learn enough. From Pretoria, she would phone the Johannesburg office and organise more interesting work. People used to really envy me.”

Aged 24, Ramasela joined Vodacom as finance manager for marketing, but she soon realised the job was not pushing her enough. “We were seeing the banks about getting airtime through ATMs, which was unheard of at the time. Our team would have one meeting and then go for drinks. I remember ordering a milkshake and I became the joke of the town. In a way, it was the best life. The money was good, but career-wise it didn’t work for me.”

At Telkom, Ramasela then became a senior finance manager after the person who hired her resigned and left a vacancy. “I was told I had six months to prove myself. Talk about pressure,” Ramasela recalls. The company was in the middle of various crossroads, changing its accounting from cash to accrual, embedding new reporting standards and getting to grips with US GAAP because of Telkom’s audacious Initial Public Offering on the NYSE and JSE.

Americans
“We worked day and night, me and the executive,” says Ramasela, whose son Oreabetse – now a 17-year-old accounting student – was only one year old at the time. “During the day we worked with the auditors and advisors. After that, the Americans would wake up and would be at us. We needed to be on top of our game with the arrogant Americans. We finished work at five in the morning.”

This is the stint that landed Ramasela in hospital. “I worked Saturdays and Sundays too. I remember my ex-husband and son had been to a function at my in-laws and I came to pick them up. They showed me the dishes. I was still expected to be the ‘makhoti’. After a nice party, nobody cares that you work with billions and know all the world’s accounting standards. Everybody is relaxed. All the others have done cooking and other chores. Now it was my turn.”

“I think it was all the junk food we were eating for months that sent me to hospital,” says Ramasela, who is full of praise for her then-boss Robin Coode, still a Telkom executive today. “I remember when he came to the hospital with a big bunch of flowers and my father-in-law, who was visiting me, said he’d leave us. My boss then whipped out a file from under the flowers and back to work we were. I have no regrets about that period. It was tough, but good-tough.”

Ramasela’s next big leap came when she started as the finance wingwoman of Marna van der Walt at Gensec Properties. The company had just been shed by Sanlam and the new shareholders, among them Pam Golding, wanted to see value for money. “I came from a protected environment and now I worked for a CEO who was the former CFO! I realised quickly that technical accounting is only 20 percent of the CFO job.”

Cash is king
Five days into her third month, Ramasela started to panic as she realised she would not be able to pay salaries. “We had big debtors and I started calling them personally. I went to the debtors office and started working from there. The people that worked there all said they had been promised payment, but we needed to go after the money much more aggressively. That is when I realised that for a CFO, cash is king.”

Ramasela calls her PA Anna Boshoff ‘a godsend’, who helped her master the company secretary role. She also still raves about her CEO and fondly recalls the tears both women shared after the board approved big bonuses after a great first year. Van der Walt then initiated merger talks with JHI Isaacs, of which she eventually became the CEO.

“Those were exciting times. We were CAs. We were lawyers. We did a lot ourselves. Her and I were like entrepreneurs looking for business. I went to Marna’s house on Saturdays to discuss what we were going to present to the board. There was a team spirit that made us successful.”

But Ramasela had a nagging feeling.

“I went to my mentors, one of them former police commissioner Riah Phiyega, who is from Limpopo like my family. I had an offer from Tongaat Hulett to become CFO and an offer from government. Financially they could not compare. I slept on it for days. I wanted to serve.”

Toyi-toyi
Ramasela says her heart was at peace when she joined the National Nuclear Regulator as CFO, even though she faced her first ‘toyi-toyi’ just a month into the job. “They wanted me and the head of HR to leave as they did not like it that we were implementing policies and structure, which had been thoroughly lacking. They told me I was the seventh CFO in 18 months. They told me I would die. I stayed there for three years.”

From the regulator, Ramasela joined Broadband Infraco, before starting her famous tenure at Ekurhuleni. “Recently, I have been doing a drive of getting professionals to join the public sector,” she says, admitting it is an uphill battle in times where public servants are mostly in the news for the wrong reasons. “We have not been taught to serve the nation. Doctors serve their time in government hospitals. I believe that CAs and all other professionals should go and serve as well. The country is not going to change if we don’t do our part.”

Pictured: Ramasela with Telkom's Deon Fredericks.

At Ekurhuleni, Ramasela blossomed. “The toughest challenge was to balance the budget,” she says. “You’ve got the politicians insisting that the budget is pro-poor. For some people this means social welfare, but I believe it is about a balance with socio-economic development. The grant system is not sustainable. I put my head on the block and made the decision to change ratios and allocate money into economic development, including simple things like tarring roads to the industrial area. We also wanted to diversify, fill market gaps and harness the potential of the airport as per the City Growth Development Strategy. The nice thing is that, when you make decisions in local government, you immediately see the impact on the ground.”

 

Ramasela says she had a great political principal, MMC of Finance Moses Makwakwa, who spent countless hours with her building relationships with the political decision-makers who had to approve the budget plans. “I still considered it a pro-poor budget, but it was very tough to present it before the ruling party. We had to do a lot of lobbying all stakeholders and getting their buy-in. There was a lot of persuasion. Often, it isn’t about the numbers, but the way in which you present your position. I feel that a CFO of Ekurhuleni in 2027 should not have to pay for my decision. It was all about taking the long-term view for the good of the municipality.”

A pothole
The enormous impact a finance leader can have on people’s lives surprised even Ramasela – and at the metro her accounting mindset quickly changed into an execution mindset. “When I joined, I made strong governance my foundation and we became the first municipality in Gauteng to achieve a clean audit in 2014. Most politicians in Ekurhuleni didn’t appreciate this achievement, because the view was that it was achieved at the expense of service delivery. I was driving through the city one day and saw a pothole beneath a poster advertising our clean audit and couldn’t reconcile this in my mind. I decided to do things differently.”

That is when the Finance Black Mambas were born, a weekly roadshow of the finance team to areas, streets and corners with real issues – often places where no politician expected us to go. “Every Friday, my team and I pulled on our personal protective equipment and began going out to see the things we had budgeted for at work – the road infrastructure, construction projects, housing, etcetera. This helped us appreciate what we were trying to achieve and improved the quality of implementation, as we became project managers in a sense. This was done with the support of Khaya Ngema the then-City Manager of Ekurhuleni Municipality.

The project was a success in many ways.

“The quality of our capital expenditure improved dramatically. We also went out to customer care centres to deal with billing ourselves, which gave us insights into the problems citizens face. I began to see myself as a social worker-CFO. That has been a pillar of my success. Investors also loved that I knew exactly what was going on in the city and this contributed to us achieving an AAA credit rating from Moody’s.”

When Ramasela joined, Ekurhuleni had just adopted a 2055 Growth Development Strategy to become a world-class sustainable city, but it was the CFO who ensured the paper promises were converted into action. “I was blessed to have a great working relationship with the City Manager and enjoyed support from him and mayor Mondli Gungubele in deflecting political pressure. He never missed an investor roadshow and was my mentor in many respects. They allowed me to do my job as a public servant. It was the best time of my life in many respects.”

Vetkoek
Real life sometimes didn’t reconcile with rules and regulations, Ramasela noticed during her Black Mamba outings. “As part of our finance open day sessions, on Friday we went to Tembisa, the best rate-paying township in the City, if not in the province. The rate-paying queues were very long. One lady said she sold vetkoek, but the municipality had switched her electricity off. She could not make a payment arrangement, because that could only be done by a homeowner, which was her estranged husband. She said: who is benefiting? I cannot make vetkoek and you are not getting any money. It just shows you that you cannot write policies in the office.”

As a CFO, it is crucial to get personally involved in these issues and inspire the team to come along, says Ramasela. “Over the years, I’ve learnt to really listen to my team and show appreciation for their input. I developed and motivated my staff to strive for excellence, giving them exposure to other units and bringing them closer to the source of business in the process. We transformed the city through willpower and hard work.”

The Finance Black Mamba idea was also a game changer for the finance team. “They loved it and this gave them a sense of identity. We also used to check in at Monday meetings to discuss all issues, including both personal and professional areas. They got to know each other and many of them became friends. This was a winning formula,” says Ramasela, who also started a mentorship programme. “I am a mentee myself as well and I regularly visit townships in the area to support young achievers.”

Some of the successes of Ekurhuleni were borne out of eagerness. “At Ekurhuleni, we would always be prepared to be the first municipality to pilot new regulations,” says Ramasela.

“In this way, we received more support. It was also a source of pride – failure wasn’t an option. We would try and try again until we got it right. In a sense, we considered ourselves as a blue-chip corporate, from our technical competence to the way we dressed. We removed the negativity around regulation and made it our business to be ahead of the game.”

Fierce backlash
Like many other municipalities, Ekurhuleni was used to giving service providers a blank cheque to fulfil their obligations over three years and the spending was not linked to the budget. Changing this culture is among Ramasela’s biggest achievements, she says. “I was horrified to find funds being moved all over the place in the budget, when in reality, payments had already been made. I introduced the concept of contract value – a contract would expire when either the time had lapsed or there was no more money.” Ramasela faced a fierce backlash, because many people - including her colleagues - accused her of compromising service delivery. “But I stuck by my guns and refused to recommend any contract that didn’t meet the basic governance standard.”

Mere mortals would take a timeout after having to leave such unfinished business, but Ramasela is not the type to take it easy. “I started at Barloworld in February and have mainly been occupied by setting up proper procurement structures for Barloworld Equipment.”

From a finance team of 1,300 people to just ten is quite a change, so Ramasela has to go on the hunt for her own challenges. “The general manager showed me the strategy for rental, but I did not find it ambitious enough. In a weekend, I developed it and his view was that it was too aggressive and would endanger our bonuses. But I work for achievements, not for bonuses. Those should be just that: bonuses. I usually forget what is in my performance contract. Your job needs to be about value creation.”

While throwing all her energy at Barloworld, Ramasela is hopeful that the current complicated political climate is changing.

“We are hearing very different language about corruption than even a year ago. I see people coming out of their shells. We really have an opportunity to correct things, as South Africa is not a terribly poor country. Where we don’t have challenges, we don’t grow. We are a resilient country.”

With a smile
Municipalities, Ramasela says, are the engines of the country. Enthusiastically she recounts how dynamic the work was. “Just after I joined I remember driving to a lekgotla in the Vaal, thinking it would be boring. Wow, it was insane. I found the team, led by the City Manager, talking about strategy. There was no profession that was not there. I could not get enough of it. The intellect in that room! They were all people wanting this city to work.”

Ramasela calls it “very fulfilling” to work for government. “You go to bed with a smile because you know you have touched lives. To my colleagues in the public sector I want to say: always know your service is not in vain. Conduct yourself with pride, dignity and integrity. Never compromise.” One day, Ramasela says, she will once again be contributing to the country from the inside. “I still really want to serve.”