“We need to tell the good stories!” says AWCA President

Buhle Hanise says the accounting profession has good news stories worth sharing.

Buhle Hanise, president of the African Women Chartered Accountants (AWCA) and CFO of Beijing Automotive Group Company (BAIC) South Africa, believes that good progress has been made in transforming the accounting and audit profession in South Africa, and that it’s important to highlight success stories to continue this important work.

While transformation of the accounting profession has been historically slow (Buhle points out that it was only in 1987 that South Africa’s first black female CA qualified, Nonkululeko Gobodo), the past two decades have seen major improvements. Since AWCA’s launch 20 years ago, the rates of African, Indian and Coloured (AIC) female CAs qualifying per year increased from just 2 percent to 15 percent in 2019.

This, Buhle says, is due to concerted efforts from industry stakeholders. AWCA’s mandate is to support “accelerate the advancement of black female chartered accountants” through a three-pronged approach that starts at school level (encouraging girls to consider accounting as a career option) and incorporates supporting women who are completing their articles or embarking on the early stages of their accounting careers, and extends to providing a sisterhood and leadership development support for women later in their careers.

AWCA also works to develop relationships with accounting and audit firms, and Buhle believes solidifying these will be part of her personal legacy at the organisation. “They recognise the value we bring in, and they enjoy being associated with us. In turn we commend them for where they are excelling in the audit transformation space and we celebrate their progress,” she says.

Aside from large corporate firms, where it’s now far more commonplace to see women in leadership roles, Buhle says that the role of small audit firms must also be appreciated, as they provide article clerks with the opportunity to get diverse experience in a short space of time.

It’s important, she believes, to acknowledge the good, especially as audit tends to only see the limelight in the wake of a corporate failure. This is one of the reasons that AWCA works to identify and acknowledge women through its Woman of Substance and AWCA Recognition Awards, including awards such as Audit Partner of the Year and Tax Specialist of the Year.

The Woman of Substance award celebrates women (in any sphere) who have achieved remarkable accomplishments, while the AWCA Recognition Awards are specifically for women in the accountancy profession. “There are so many black women doing wonderful work, but they are sitting in their corners, focused on that work, and not getting the spotlight,” says Buhle. “But receiving a nomination or an award doesn’t just affirm the work that they do and motivate them to continue with it: it also encourages others. It gives young women role models and the confidence to also make their mark.”

The awards also help AWCA to raise funds for the bursaries it offers to young black women who wish to study accounting – something that has always been core to what AWCA does. And Buhle says that as the organisation celebrates the milestone of 20 years since its founding, there is a drive to “get back to basics” on the back of poor exam results over the past few years (the SAICA Initial Test of Competence qualifying examinations) and the challenges that Covid-19 wrought. AWCA is therefore refocusing on building a support system of sisterhood for women at every level of their careers.

“We understand that many companies have been through the hardest two years of their existence,” says Buhle, who joined BAIC – a Chinese-based multinational – in January 2020, shortly before the pandemic saw the country locked down. “But one thing I have going for me is that I’m Miss Positivity,” she says, laughing. “I will look for the good. And something I have learnt from working for a Chinese company is how they focus on what they can do, rather than dwelling on the bad.”

Her positivity drives her to turn challenges into opportunities, and to find fresh ways of partnering with organisations to ensure the future of AWCA, whether it’s making the most of in-kind sponsorships when financial sponsorship is not an option for a partner firm, or using the organisation’s platform to highlight successes and opportunities for change.

“We live in a rapidly changing world and I realise that the things that I used to do in 2005 that worked when I first joined AWCA are not going to work anymore,” she says. “We need to embrace change. In fact, in 2021, I was invited to a women’s conference at KPMG and something an article clerk said to me then has stayed with me since. She asked, ‘Aren’t we allowed to change our minds?’ And that’s something I am now carrying with me, both at work and in my personal life – asking myself when it’s time to change my mind about something.

“As I’ve worked with a Chinese company that has a totally different culture, it’s something I have had to learn: there is not just one way to approach things. We need to learn to embrace the ever-changing world, and that includes embracing new technologies, which is something I hope will be part of my legacy at AWCA.”

One aspect of change that Buhle is particularly passionate about is introducing South Africa’s school-aged learners to the idea of entrepreneurship and having an entrepreneurial mindset. This, she believes, will change the expectation of finding a job after school to one of helping to create a job for oneself, and potentially others. While not everyone will end up becoming a successful entrepreneur, she believes that teaching entrepreneurship skills is one practical way that South Africa can start to address its unemployment challenges.

“We are also looking at ways to recognise and support entrepreneurs through AWCA,” she says. “Traditionally, we’ve focused on people building careers within the accounting profession at established firms, but we also want to recognise and support those who choose to strike out on their own, because you can do anything when you’re a CA!”