City of Tshwane CFO Umar Banda: You are only as good as your team

Public servants can positively impact people's lives, says Umar Banda, City of Tshwane CFO.

By Toni Muir

2018 CFO Awards nominee Umar Banda is passionate about making a difference, which is one of the reasons he has worked so hard to introduce a CA programme at the City of Tshwane, where he has been CFO since 2014, of which the first three years were in an acting capacity. Nominated for the CFO Awards in both 2017 and 2018, Umar has been an important advocate for public sector CA careers. One of the ways he practically contributes to that is through a programme that offers opportunities to talented young graduates who want to become CAs but who didn’t make it into one of the big accounting firms. 

In 2016, Umar’s department was accredited by SAICA as a training office to train and sign off CAs. Following the accreditation, the department advertised positions for trainee accountants, receiving ten trainees fresh out of university, who have since started articles with the City of Tshwane. Umar explains: “The idea is that, within the five years I’m appointed as CFO, to sign off a handful of CAs within the first three years. That’s my goal. It’s looking promising at this stage.”

According to Umar, the project was a first within the local government space. Many local municipalities doing something similar are doing so through National Treasury, he explains, while the City of Tshwane is doing it directly through SAICA, and providing the training and administration of the programme internally. The programme comes with significant benefits, says Umar. “We’ll be able to produce a high calibre of CAs, first and foremost, with a specialisation in the public sector – municipalities in particular. Going forward, those are the kind of finance professionals we want.”

To encourage more aspirant young finance professionals to take up a career in the public sector, Umar says we need to do away with the misconceptions. “Before you even move into the public sector, do your research and find out about the annual report of the municipality, and try to get a sense of the kind of activity that goes on there. In some instances, you’ll also get a sense of any technical issues that are sitting in that space. If you’re perhaps not able to do that, many municipalities offer internships, which present a great opportunity for people to get a sense of the workings of the municipality without binding themselves to a long contract.”

Impact
Not only is a career in the public sector an incredible opportunity to learn and get extremely diverse exposure, it also allows you to make a difference, Umar argues. “I think that, as a public servant, especially a senior one, you’ve got an opportunity to be part of decisions that have an impact on people’s lives. Being involved in that decision-making is probably one of the more rewarding aspects of working in a municipality.”

“In many instances you get the sense that the public sector is a dumping ground for the private sector and those who can’t find jobs elsewhere. In reality, it’s an area with such knowledge and plentiful challenges, that if you’re working in the public sector, you come out an even better professional.”

He continues: “Back when I first applied for the CFO position here, one of my mentors from my previous work place offered me employment in a private entity. She also tried to discourage me from taking this public sector position, speaking a lot about reputation. As a professional, a lot of us are worried about reputation and how it could be impacted by what’s coming out of that space. People think that when you’re in the public sector, you slack off and don’t do much. I think we haven’t exposed a lot of people to what really happens in the public sector, especially CAs. As a CA, I enjoy a good challenge, and being able to respond to that challenge with a viable solution. When you’re on the outside, you don’t get an opportunity to understand what those challenges are and how you, as a professional, can contribute to that.”

Umar believes that public sector officials don’t do enough to promote professionalism within the space, or to make it a place of choice for finance professionals. In this regard, he says he would really like to implement a series of changes, particularly linked to professionalising finance within the municipal space, for instance, ensuring people have their minimal qualifications and competencies, and that they’re ideally linked to a professional body.

Good values
In South Africa, criticism is commonly directed at public sector entities, including those who staff them. To achieve a positive outcome from this, Umar says it’s important to focus on understanding the vision and goals of your employer, as this becomes a significant driver in ensuring a good outcome. “In the public sector, when you as a person have good values that you live by, and those values are consistent with the constitution, that makes it easier for you to take the criticism that comes because you know you’re treating people with respect and using public funds in an economical way,” he says. “Criticism will come, but as an individual, you will have the knowledge of how you are practising those values within a municipal space, and how that contributes to achieving the vision and goals. Nothing sustainable has ever been achieved over a short time. To really have an impact and make a change, you must have sight of where you want to go. If you’re steadfast, you will be able to track your progress getting there.”

For Umar, honesty and integrity are some of the more important traits that help cultivate resilience and enable one to build a successful career in the public sector. Understanding the legislation is also crucial, he says. “The public sector is so vast that you cannot survive if you don’t understand the legislation within which you are working. So, you must have a passion for learning and development, as well as mentoring and coaching. Transfer of knowledge is so important.”

Oftentimes, the environment is quite politically driven, he says, which one needs to be mindful of: “As a professional, you don’t want to be coerced into a decision that will affect your professional ethics. There’s a healthy relationship between yourself and your political principles. You, as a person, should not deviate from your values as a South African. It is possible to uphold your values and still maintain your reputation.”

Emotional stability
Umar says that, in the ten-plus years he has been working, one thing he has picked up is that the rate of change requires different leaders at different points in time. “When I started in the city, I picked up that one needs to be a very visionary leader; be able to learn, teach and accommodate changes in the environment you are working in, and respond to change with a strong business ethic, honesty and integrity within the team itself.”

Emotional stability worked in his favour, he says. “We get very frustrated, it is a very stressful environment, but that should not affect how you interact with the team. I am optimistic and enthusiastic. I have a lot of energy, which the team can feed off.”

Development of employees is also very important to him: “You are only as good as your team, so I put a lot of emphasis on teamwork. That allows me to engage. I want an adult relationship with my people, not: I direct and you execute. It is very important to have empathy and put yourself in another person’s shoes. Without trust, it is very difficult to get any effort from the guys.”

Studious
Umar is the studious type, and says he’s itching to get back to the books. “I think, as a person, you cannot ever have enough knowledge. I’ve been thinking about doing my Master’s. I want to concentrate on local government finance or development finance. I recently got involved in C40 Cities Climate, which helped me to understand the impact of cities on climate change, and how financial professionals can contribute to renewable energy or sustainability projects to turn around our contribution to the environment.”

Umar has been nominated for the CFO Awards for the second year in a row and calls the nomination “awesome”. He says: “I shared it with my team and, as a collective, we are really excited about the nomination because it identifies the quality of finance professionals in the industry. As much as they can be different across industries, finance professionals can showcase the kind of contributions we make as professionals to our country and economy. Traditionally, people expect finance professionals to be dull and boring, and lack creativity. I think these awards give us an opportunity to think outside the box.”