Putting Accountancy Clearly Into the Black
Sindi Zilwa credits poverty for her success. The managing partner of a national firm of chartered accountants, the 31-year-old insists that anything but the most penniless home would have made her "a contented also-ran".
She was voted Businesswoman of the Year last week - the competition's youngest winner and third black woman to win since its inception in 1980.
Growing up in an Umtata township, buying a cooldrink, having electricity and flying on a plane were equally inaccessible for her.
Zilwa simply resolved "as long ago as I remember" to do all of these things, since she saw them as carrying the same price tag - money.
Having lost her father at the age of seven, Zilwa - the youngest of seven children - was supported by a mother forced to sell oranges at the roadside.
"I was pressurised by my own poverty to do well," she said. "Humble beginnings gave me an advantage over middle-class people, since I will never know concepts like limits and fear of failure.
"It was easy because everything was so clear - I had to change my situation, and learning a profession and starting my own business were the only ways I could do it."
Zilwa earned a bursary from a commercial high school to enrol with Unisa in 1985 where she was awarded a Bachelor of Accounting Science, Honours, degree four years later.
She admits that she was "instructed" to pursue accountancy by her elder brother, Mzi Nkonki, who continues to act as her mentor today.
In 1990, she became the second black woman to have qualified as a chartered accountant in South Africa, following Johannesburg accountant Nkuli Gobodo's benchmark four years earlier.
With competitiveness a close second to poverty as her primary motivation, Zilwa had mixed feelings about "coming in second".
"I knew Nkuli, and couldn't believe it when I heard she was the first," she said. "I was jealous, inspired and angry thatI was younger than her. What I should have felt, of course, was astonishment that blacks were - and are - so marginalised in the industry."
Zilwa and Gobodo decided to launch a new firm together in 1993, Filtane Nkonki & Company, which they ran from Umtata for three years.
"We realised our ambitions could never be realised with the white firms," she said. "Even now, there are only two African partners among the 722 partners of the top six companies. Where would we be?
"The Bantu education system made accountancy particularly inaccessible for Africans, and companies weren't much more receptive themselves. Again, there are fewer than 200 African CAs today of the national total of 17 000."
Zilwa was nominated for the 1998 Businesswoman of the Year award when she took over the leadership of Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba Chartered Accountants in January. Performing joint audits for corporate giants like SAA,Eskom, NAIL and Denel, the firm employs 140 people and reported a turnover of R23-million for the past year.
Charged with the company's future, Zilwa said she had targeted R100-million for the annual turnover within three years and would expand overseas within the same time.
Like her own success, she said Nkonki Sizwe - an entirely black-owned company - had succeeded because it was not limited by the entrenched policies of the "big six white firms".
"It's been a strong dream for me to run an international accounting firm, and there is literally no reason why we can't do it - and soon," she said. "We are very black and very proud of it, and recruitment and training is my first concern. "If we're talking true clichés, the only thing that's constant here is change. For example, we got a contract for a huge backlog audit for the Eastern Cape Government recently by running round-the-clock shifts - something the majors would never contemplate.
"Luckily, we're past the stage where being black gets us the crumbs from the plate. Now, clients know that we have the energy and - yes - the expertise to give them what they actually require.
"Yes, we're young, but doing the same thing for 60 years means nothing, and there's nothing fancy about big business, either. The principles are the same as running a store."
While Africans, she says, have yet to make "many more journal entries" in the industry, Zilwa's personal balance sheet is finally even.
Married "and still on honeymoon", she lives in a comfortable three-bedroom house in an upmarket Umtata suburb. Describing what she does in her "spare time", she speaks of her involvement with various black and women's empowerment organisations, including the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants in South Africa and the National Association of Women in Business.
It's only after a conscious effort that she can focus on her leisure activities.
Chief among them are cooking, tennis, golf and listening to favoured songs, she stresses - rather than artists - including Count On Me, by Whitney Houston, and Sing Me A Song, by Miriam Makeba.
Shopping, she adds, offers a particularly sweet reward, given that she once avoided malls for fear that friends might notice that she could never buy anything.
"Actually, I don't see myself as successful," she says.
"I'm just on schedule."
With acknowledgements to Rowan Philp and Sunday Times.