Integrity is everything for a CFO, says Rendani Sadiki, Department of Rural Development and Land Reform CFO

“You have to be mindful of operating within the law at all times as a CFO in the public sector, because it’s your career on the line,” says Rendani Sadiki, Department of Rural Development and Land Reform CFO. “Colleagues may make requests that are outside the ambit of the law, but you have to explore the prescripts before you respond. You mustn’t just say no; you must bring a solution. That person might not be intentionally trying to break the law, they might just not be acquainted with those prescripts. So I rather try to advise them of their options.” The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform is mandated to create and maintain equitable land dispensation and acts as a catalyst in rural development to ensure sustainable rural livelihoods, which it does through various programmes and initiatives. Rendani oversees strategic financial management within the Department – a mandate she says is quite broad. “As the financial strategist, I have to develop and implement financial strategies to manage limited resources at our disposal so that the department is able to deliver the services efficiently and effectively, and within budget.” She also oversees the governance of the Department.

"I have to ensure there is compliance. When working in government the governance and legislative frameworks are wide-ranging and every transaction that you process involves some sort of regulatory implications. You've got to ensure compliance with laws regulations. A key part of my role is to ensure that the compliance is not comprised."

You've been in this position for almost 18 months. What you have achieved during this time? What do you still hope to achieve?
"I've achieved so much. When I first arrived there was no permanent CFO and there hadn't been a permanent CFO for some time. So I had to first build the team and build trust in the team. I think we have achieved that in a very short space of time. I tend to ensure I don't micromanage. I give you what you ought to do and tell you when I want it, and offer help should you require help. So for my direct reports and their subordinates, I've worked hard on cohesion, something I think makes for success in any role."

"Human capital is the best investment in any institution. I can be as competent as they come but if I don't have the team I won't deliver."

"I think we've successfully identified those areas which need attention in terms of our current fiscal crisis; determining how we respond to the fiscal constraints so that we can deliver knowing the financial resources are very limited. In order to respond to the mandate of the department and be within the provided appropriation I look at my projects and assess, trying to identify areas where I can cut and get the benefits that I want. I've implemented cost-cutting measures such as the use of VIDCON to minimise the travel, cut on catering for internal meetings, implement cell phone cost split billing strictly by introducing policies and the strict application thereof. Now, if an official overspends, the cell phone is either suspended or the employee pays the bill themselves. When you introduce new things it's not easy, because change is not easy, so there's a lot of resistance."

"We've achieved an unqualified audit for the department and for the DEEDS trading entity, and a clean audit for the ALHA trading entity."

"I also introduced integrated financial reporting, enforcing alignment between the strategic plan, annual performance plan and the budget. This has ensured that the budget is informed by performance plans. So, from strategic planning to the annual performance plan to the budget - they're all linked. We also report monthly and quarterly so that we are able to track financial and non-financial performance and analyse them. That gives a whole overview of the department performance."

How do you find working in the public sector? What are some of the challenges? What do you enjoy? "I think the biggest challenge is political influence. Working in a political environment as a CFO you often find yourself having to balance political interests and the mandate of your department. You have to ensure you manage the relationships, the compliance, the risk, the expectations, the resources - all these things become overwhelming at some point. You've got to have a higher power that keeps you going, otherwise you get exhausted."

"The public sector is such an interesting environment to work in because there are so many challenges, but you're working directly with people, so you get to see the difference you are making in their lives. You have to be a CFO and also put yourself in the shoes of the communities you serve. You're not driven by profit but by service delivery."

"I think a normal CFO can act a bit on profitability and the bottom line but with us public sector CFOs, it's not about profit, it's about service delivery and the people we serve. And it's very difficult because some of the communities' needs can't always be delivered due to budgetary constraints."
"But what encourages and motivates us is the effect and change in people's lives through the services offered by the department. That element makes me want to stay in the public sector, because it's where I can make a difference; a tangible difference. That's very fulfilling for me."

Public sector CFOs sometimes have to deal with unusual requests. How do you handle requests that aren't entirely within the law?
"You have to be mindful of operating within the law at all times as a CFO in the public sector, because it's your career on the line. So it can be a very challenging environment to work in. When you are a CFO, you've got to be part of a solution. Colleagues may make requests that are outside the ambit of the law, but you have to explore the prescripts before you respond. You mustn't just say no; you must bring a solution. That person might not be intentionally trying to break the law, they might just not be acquainted with those prescripts. So I rather try to advise them of their options."

"As the CFO, people tend to trust you if you are able to display your competency in doing your work. So if you say no, this is the way we can do it, they tend to listen."

When it comes to the CFO role what do you think is most important?
"Honesty, trustworthiness and integrity. You don't compromise when it comes to that. Once you compromise on that you can never go back, and you can never be a CFO in the public sector. You cannot trade that. This has taken me from one level to the other, and I've maintained it throughout. Also, a solid understanding of laws and regulations regulating the institution's operations. This sets you apart from others. Having an understanding of the business operations gives you the ability to offer strategic support across the business. A CFO must be a generalist.

"For a huge organisation like Rural Development, analytical ability is important; the ability to analyse both financial and non-financial performance as it assists one in decision-making on allocation of resources."

What was the toughest decision you've had to make as a CFO?
"Saying no to a superior when they had extended a contract for a further five years with financial implications of over a billion rand without following the prescripts, in other words, s217 of the constitution of the republic, the PFMA and the Treasury Regulations, which was a contravention of the law. That decision caused a lot of suffering for me. For two years I fought that contract in court, through all the levels, to be declared invalid. I think I appeared more than six times in various courts. They finally upheld me at the Supreme Court of Appeal, acknowledging that I was right. It's good to stand in your integrity, no matter what you're going through."

"Standing up for something like that is really tough, though. First you lose trust with your peers and subordinates and then in your superiors. Your peers think you're crazy and your family thinks you're risking your life for something that's not worth it. But it's your integrity at stake."

"Going through that process for more than two years was difficult but the respect I earned was immense. I can't compare it to anything. At some points I wanted to give up, I think prayer pushed me through, and there were a few women in the office who were strong who encouraged me when I was feeling weak. But it wasn't easy. Standing on the ground of integrity and saying I will not do it because it's wrong. I firmly believe that if it's wrong, it's wrong. It's about being resilient and not wavering when the situation gets tough. Through this experience I grew more than I thought possible."

If you had any do-overs, what would you do differently?
"I have no regrets. For as long as the reasons are right I would do all of that again."

How difficult is it to ensure proper governance and compliance; both with internal and external requirements?
"First, you must ensure everybody knows. Internally that's easy. Every time there's a new piece of legislation, I ensure people know about it. We've got a unit, we call it PPRM and internal control, which deals with policies. They ensure that changes are circulated and workshopped regularly to officials."

"Governance for me is not easy because even when people want to try and behave, they just don't know. So training and constant communication is the number-one principle. And when people do not comply you must take them to task as a measure to enforce compliance. We have a financial compliance committee; cases of non-compliance are referred to this committee to deal with them and meet the necessary discipline. We are very strict on governance. If you've got the internal sorted out, the external is sorted too. Because you have more control over external. You say look, these are my laws, stay within these and you'll be fine."

What do you consider your most successful professional achievement?
"Qualifying as a CA at the age of 39! That was wonderful! I chose to go back and study out of anger - in one of my positions they contracted out the CFO role that I was acting on, paying R150,000 a month to the contractor when I was doing excellent work at less than R30,000. I decided to go back to school and become a CA because I was so angry about this. Positive anger can push you beyond your limits. To study, I left a job not knowing how I was going to pay my bills. That was difficult. But I couldn't act as a CFO because I wasn't a CA, so I thought I will become a CA and then I'll show them. It is not the title but competence that makes one successful."

In your opinion, what is the single best thing that we have going for us as a country?
"The resilience and the diversity of our economy. If you look at the current economic condition of our country, which is not different from what the whole world is going through, those economies not so diverse are struggling. Also, the fact that our people are still young, our population is young. If we look at the positives versus the negatives, we can build on them and overcome this. We'll make it through these current challenges."

When you look to the future, what makes you hopeful? What scares you?
"Political instability scares me. The political instability that we are facing as a country and the mushrooming of political leadership that is not so well groomed and mature. These power struggles that are happening, that people can just wake up and burn government infrastructure such as schools and universities, that scares me. It says you've got people who do not value education. And without education we as a country are doomed, we are finished. We've got a whole lot of positives as a country, but our people who don't place value on what is valuable scares me."
"What makes me hopeful is that I'm alive and can bring in the change. In my small corner, I can make a difference. The fact that I'm still here and have an opportunity to make a difference, that makes me hopeful."