University of Johannesburg's Nolwazi Mamorare: The power of purpose

During the 2015 #feesmustfall student campaign, the University of Johannesburg (UJ) lost only one academic day to the protest. This was because UJ was ahead of the game in financially supporting its students, owing, in large part, to the efforts of the team lead by Nolwazi Mamorare, who is today the university's CFO. She spoke to Georgina Guedes about the kind of difference that can be made if you have the will to do so.

Nolwazi is a calm and thoughtful presence, but as soon as you start speaking to her, it becomes clear that she’ll do anything to achieve what she believes is right. It was this clarity of thought and dogged determination that saw her raising R700 million for student fees from 2015 to 2019.

“When I joined in 2014, part of my portfolio was student finance. At the time, we weren’t actively going out to seek funding to address the needs of the students. We were solely reliant on NSFAS, which wasn’t sufficiently funded at the time. I started a campaign for the missing middle – those that weren’t poor enough or rich enough to receive funding. I am proud of the R700 million we’ve managed to raise since that time.”

This was achieved by knocking on the doors of partners and colleagues from Nolwazi’s previous life at the Auditor General, and by turning to public sector entities with a mandate to ensure skills development. “We got a great deal from the SETAs, by taking the admin off of their hands and providing them with prequalified students with good academic results that were needy.”

Nolwazi and her team also secured additional NSFAS funding by helping students to process their applications. When she joined, 10,000 students were NSFAS funded. After the first year of providing support to applicants, that number grew by an additional 5,000.

“I am proud to have led a team that has raised all this funding without seeking additional resources. It was a project carried out with what we had, that had never been a function in the finance portfolio, and it contributed to the financial sustainability of the university,” she says.
 
Entering accounting
Nolwazi never imaged she would end up being an accountant. When she was in high school, she and her classmates were taken to a career exhibition in Mthatha.

“That was the closest one could get to any kind of career guidance. I come from a family of teachers and nurses, and didn’t have much of a scope in terms of knowledge as to what I could do. I thought a career in librarianship sounded nice, so when the time came, I went to register at Vista University in PE, and the people at the registration desk said to me that with my marks, I should get into a B.Com degree – so that’s how I ended up in the accounting line.”

She started exploring what to do next, and realised that she could follow a CA path, which she couldn’t do at Vista, so she transferred to Rhodes.

“The rest is history. I haven’t looked at doing anything else. I can’t say it was an easy journey to get through my studies, but I haven’t wanted to do anything differently.”

She completed her articles at Fisher Hoffman Sithole, now PKF, in Port Elizabeth. She stayed on for one year after completing her articles, then moved on to KMMT, which after two years, merged with KPMG.

“Then, I’d had enough of auditing. I didn’t hate it, but didn’t want to be boxed into that role for the rest of my life. I wanted to see what was out there. So I joined an entity of Transnet called Protekon, which is now Transnet Rail Solutions, which works on the rail infrastructure. I joined as an accountant and got great hands-on accounting exposure. The scope was big in an interesting industry, with exposure to financial accounting and management accounting. I quite enjoyed it, but only stayed on for two years – I felt that was long enough for me.”

She moved on to the Land Bank at a time when they were introducing IFRS standards, which she describes as exciting. “It wasn’t a routine financial manager, particularly the project introducing the standards, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was also a different sector, which had its challenges and was a steep learning curve for me.”

She stayed there for three years, and says she would have loved to have stayed for longer, but towards the end of her tenure there, a number of irregularities emerged. “I didn’t like the manner in which they were handled or responded to, so I started looking for different opportunities.”

She moved on to Nedbank, which seemed like a natural transition in the finance space, but she soon realised something important about herself. “I quickly realised that I wasn’t excited about the idea of chasing profit. That on its own for me just didn’t excite me. I could have stayed on longer, but in three months, I decided that it just wasn’t for me, and I haven’t regretted the decision. I moved on to the Auditor General.”

There she stayed for seven years, and she says what really kept her going there, over and above the impact that she had on influencing the governance across a vast number of entities, was having a wide portfolio that included labour, agriculture and rural development, and higher education.

“There was never a dull moment. There were challenges all the time, particularly in my role. Over and above just having the audits that I signed off on, I was responsible for all the technical training for that particular portfolio. I had to do a deep analysis and interpretation of standards, which excited the geeky part of me.”

Moving into education
She was also the training officer for trainees in her portfolio – and in any given year there were about 60 trainees. “One of the most fulfilling things to see is people that have gone through your hands making a huge impact in society. A number of those trainees have gone on to make a difference in their various fields. They are still young, but it’s good to see black chartered accountants making it.”

With one of her portfolios being universities, Nolwazi was involved with a project to address the fact that universities, which are excluded from the Public Finance Management Act to guarantee their academic freedom, still needed to have some level of accountability. “From the AG side, I led the team that worked on the new reporting regulations, in collaboration with the external auditors of all 26 South African universities and 50 TVET [then FETs] to ensure that they would audit the institutions in line with the requirements of the Auditor General.”

She said that this was a large project with a lot of resistance from the universities, “but we got there. The universities still appoint their own auditors, but they have to do so in consultation with the Auditor General. The universities’ auditors have to make sure that they don’t express an opinion limited to financial statements, they also have to express opinions on compliance of the organisation with legislation and service delivery. Are the universities meeting their mandate, and spending their money in terms of what it is allocated for?”

Nolwazi didn’t want to leave the AG, but found the higher education sector fascinating, so when she was approached by UJ, she gave the idea due consideration. “I thought maybe it’s time. I’d been for seven years in one organisation and while I wasn’t itching to leave, it seemed like a natural progression for me.”
 

The UJ journey
Nolwazi joined the University of Johannesburg in 2015 as an executive director in charge of financial governance and revenue. 

“Has it been a smooth ride? Definitely not, but it’s been a very interesting and exciting journey. What makes universities special is that you are not going to find this kind of experience in the public sector or the private sector. It’s a combination of the two and more. It’s the kind of environment that really builds your resilience and stretches your outlook, because you have to ensure that the institution is financially sustainable. You do that by continuously pushing to generate revenue, but at the same time, ensuring that you fulfil the social imperative. We were sitting with a huge component of our student body who couldn’t afford to pay their fees. We had to find ways to address that.”

When #feesmustfall took off, UJ was largely unaffected. “Outside of the one day that the students took off to demonstrate at the Union Buildings, we didn’t lose one day of our academic calendar. A huge contributor to that was that we had started demonstrating early on to the students that we were committed to assisting them with funding. And not just by lip service, but by actively going out there to raise funding for bursaries and the meal assistance programme. If students have bursaries and accommodation, but can’t afford to eat, it’s all pointless.”

In 2017, she was appointed as acting CFO, and the position was made permanent in May 2018. She is extremely grateful for her experience in financial governance and revenue. “It allowed me to see the bigger picture, which is quite important for any CFO of any institution. If you walk in blindly from outside the sector, it’s easy to miss the important issues.”

She says that fundraising remains a part of her portfolio in the CFO role “for her sins”. “As much as we’ve captured a big chunk of the market in terms of the funds available in South Africa, we are highly dependent on the public sector to assist us with funding. So we’re going on a huge drive ot the private sector, but the timing couldn’t be worse. No one has funds to give away, and our activities in the international space haven’t been successful in generating donor funding yet.” 

She says that the resources in the sector are stretched to breaking point. “We have no more  capacity to increase tuition fees, because we can’t continue to increase fees at a rate that’s higher than the salary increase of the general community. The fiscus as we all know has huge constraints, so we have to look at different ways of ensuring sustainability, and that means we have to manage down our costs.”

This, she says, is tough, because a large part of a university’s expenditure is on international equipment or books, which means that they are at the mercy of the rand’s performance, utility costs, which makes them subject to Eskom’s increases, and salary costs, which are highly competitive in academia. “So keeping costs down is just one of the things that keeps me awake at night,” she says.

To remain relevant in her space, Nolwazi also participates actively in sector forums, and sits on the Finance Executives’ Forum which is a committee of Universities South Africa, which exists to lobby the interests of universities. She also sits on a number of boards outside of the university as well – purposefully selected for their activity in the higher education sector.

At the conclusion of the interview, Nolwazi added that she is enormously grateful for her CFO Awards nomination (she was nominated for the 2018 awards), which she says cast a spotlight on the work being done in a university’s finance department. “I understand it was the first time that a university CFO has been nominated for the awards. So much more happens at universities than teaching, and we need finance skills. We need newly qualified accountants to think that they can come and work at universities.” 

She explains that her own portfolio is a R7 billion annual budget entity. There is a combination of 8,000 staff – permanent and temporary – and 50,000 students, but on her team, there are only two chartered accountants. “Finance graduates don’t find it attractive to work in a university unless it’s in a teaching capacity. When people hear I work at UJ, they ask if I teach, and when I say I run finance, they are surprised – but there’s such a need for that. And there’s a real risk that some universities could end up in a bad shape when it comes to governance without those accountancy skills.”
 
Finding time for family
Nolwazi says that amidst all of this, she has to find the time for her two children – a ten-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl. “But I am lucky to have a very hands-on husband, who is also an accountant but works closer to home and has less demanding hours than I do. Our domestic helper also plays a huge role.”

To relax, she reads anything that doesn’t have anything to do with work and politics. And she enjoys spending time with her family in the Eastern Cape. “I am from a huge clan there in PE, and I would love to be closer to their love and support – but I could never live there because of the wind.”