Stand Up! Summit urges CFOs to be the change South Africa needs

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The first CFO South Africa Summit of the year looked at the role finance executives play in helping to address the challenges the country is facing.

South Africa is facing myriad challenges, from loadshedding, transport and governance to a greylisted economy, and much more. The government’s inability to successfully address these issues has meant that businesses have become the most trusted institutions in the country.

Eager to play a role in changing the country’s future, South Africa’s leading finance executives convened at 39 Melrose Boulevard for the first CFO South Africa Summit of the new year on 22 February.

According to keynote speaker Cathy Duff, a director at Trialogue, recent research indicated that 62 percent of South Africans have turned their trust to business, and only 22 percent still trust the government.

“As a result, stakeholders are placing increasing pressures on businesses to become more responsible,” she explained. “Investors are only putting their money towards businesses that have a good ESG impact, customers and employees are prioritising to work with and for responsible businesses, and there has been a groundswell of regulatory guidance and frameworks put in place to govern responsible business practices.”

She added that, in response to this, organisations have increased their corporate social initiatives (CSI) spending significantly over the last three years, because it's the most powerful lever for social impact outside of the value chain of a business. “In 2023, the total CSI expenditure in South Africa was R11.8 billion. Almost half of that spend went towards education. The second biggest spend area was around community and social development, and in third place was improving food security and agriculture.”

But social impact isn’t just about CSI anymore. It also includes wellbeing, skills development, and supporting small businesses, among others. “In order to maximise the impact of your organisation, CFOs have to embrace this expanding mandate and need to find a way to integrate its social investments into its business strategy.”


Embracing change

But social impact isn’t just about CSI anymore. Cathy explained that it also includes wellbeing, skills development, and supporting small businesses, among others.

“In order to maximise the impact of your organisation, CFOs have to embrace this expanding mandate and need to find a way to integrate its social investments into its business strategy.”

As custodians of the balance sheet and resources of an organisation, CFOs have to account for how funds are being spent and the return it generates. “The finance department sits on all the data of the organisation and its people, and so holds unique insights into the business that enables them to make resources available to realise value,” Lethabo Mokone, CEO of Makwa IT, told CFO South Africa MD Joël Roerig during a brief Q&A session. “Similarly, the finance industry holds a lot of knowledge about South Africa and its people, and we need their insights to help make sustainable decisions for the future of the country.”

Sibanye Stillwater Gold head of finance Martin van der Walt echoed this later in a panel discussion, saying: “Every decision we make as leaders has a ripple effect, whether it’s on the operations of the business or on the lives of people. Leaders have to hold each other accountable for making responsible decisions.”

IDC CFO and 2023 Public Sector CFO of the Year winner Isaac Malevu voiced what every attendee was thinking: that it’s hard to be a leader in a country like South Africa. “You have to commit to integrity and inspire confidence during often uncertain and scary times.”

He added that, “Everyone is looking toward the CFO to ensure a strong commitment towards governance, transparency and financial sustainability.”


Jobs and taxes

Wits University CFO Maureen Manyama said the best way to do this is by creating a platform where leaders can have honest conversations about the challenges they are facing, and where they can collaborate to find solutions.

Attendees agreed that a prosperous South Africa is one that continues to grow. However, Afgri CFO Johan Geel emphasised that this growth needs to be sustainable, allowing for job creation and tax contribution.

The only way to achieve sustainable growth is through strategic partnerships, he added. “The public sector can’t work on its own anymore. Private sector needs to be able to partner with the government to help find solutions that will benefit all South Africans.

As the afternoon transitioned to evening and the city’s night lights gleamed against the glass dome towering over attendees heads, In2Food CFO Steven Kilfoil and Cargo Carriers CFO Nerissa Jalim shared stories of how they have personally gotten involved in helping the country. They revealed how easy it actually can be.

“CFOs have to rise to the challenge,” Nerissa said. “We sometimes underestimate our ability to be resilient and to come up with innovative solutions as South Africans. But if we look at the power crisis we are facing in the country, it has given birth to a new industry entirely: the solar industry. That’s a perfect example of how we have managed to turn one of our challenges into an opportunity for everyone in South Africa.”

“We have to see challenges as opportunities,” Steven added. “If we can embrace any challenge that comes our way and see it as an opportunity to power our people instead, that’s when we’ll see a difference.”


Driving change

The final part of the night saw attendees break away into three groups. CFOs shared examples of how they have been going beyond the call of business to help society and how their organisations are making a difference in South Africa.

Some of the examples that came up included transforming procurement functions to be more than just B-BBEE checkbox activities, as well as setting and adhering to better internal standards so that the government doesn’t have to spend so much resources enforcing compliance.

Everyone agreed that the role of the CFO has changed significantly over the years, resulting in finance leaders being more involved in the strategic development of their organisations. “We’ve become enablers for growth, change and value in our businesses, and can ensure the money we spend goes to the right places,” one attendee said.

“As CFOs, we need to identify the cracks in the foundation that are causing all of these challenges. We need to be clear about the risks and what needs to be done to address them,” another attendee added.

The finance executives gathered in the atrium-style lounge one final time for the conclusion of the evening: All eyes are on business to help solve South Africa’s challenges – and CFOs are driving the change.

This CFO South Africa Summit was made possible by principal partner Makwa IT, executive partners BDO South Africa and Workday, and associate partners AICPA & CIMA, Allan Gray, Circit and Solugrowth.

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