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Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu (80) – a tribute to trailblazing legacy of SA’s first black CA

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Bonang Mohale is chancellor of the University of the Free State, former president of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA), professor of practice at the Johannesburg Business School (JBS) in the College of Business and Economics and chairperson of The Bidvest Group, ArcelorMittal and SBV Services. He is a member of the Community of Chairpersons (CoC) of the World Economic Forum and author of two bestselling books, Lift As You Rise and Behold The Turtle. He has been included in Reputation Poll International’s (RPI) 2023 list of the “100 Most Reputable Africans”. He is the recipient of the 2023 ME-Vision Academy’s “Exclusive Recognition in Successful Leadership” award.

This is a personal tribute to the celebrated chartered accountant, Professor Lumkile Wiseman Nkuhlu, as he celebrates his 80th birthday on Monday.

As we continue to examine the fundamental recasting of our own history and begin to come to terms with the fact that the “primary affective force and paramount influence in the construction of modern-day Black life was not only the commonly cited influx of migrant workers nor tradition, but rather the spread of Christianity”, how then do we, as a people, describe, define, shape and tell our own stories? 

The making of an impactful and conscientious leader is not too difficult to trace. S/he is not always the most visionary nor more talented than her/his peers nor more aggressive in her/his pursuit of the spotlight. The shift to global recognition occurs gradually, over many years of hard work, singularity of purpose and dogged determination to pursue things that genuinely matter. What constitutes a life well lived is the embrace of one’s own mortality, the precariousness of life itself, which has been man’s fundamental inquiry since time immemorial. 

A life well lived suggests a general alignment and harmony between body, soul and mind – when what you think, say and do are one and the same – a moment of tranquillity, a sound of silence, inner peace and calm; being left to do what you want; a sense of being your true self, authentic; an innate balance that should be jealously guarded. 

I have come to know, love and respect you, Professor Lumkile Wiseman Nkuhlu as, among other things, my president at the BMF and SAICA’s U4M movement, and having worked closely with you at the vortex of State Capture and KPMG’s turbulence. As a result I share a vantage point that breeds fondness. You have always used your voice, judiciously and strongly, to serve both the work and the cause, and have expertly navigated the subtext of anything that is asked of you. 

You have always shown up as an eminent scholar, an eloquent, persuasive, forward-thinking, legacy-shaping, truly profound, amazing, good-quality human being – calm and courageous, nimble of form, sharp of mind, with an incisive intellect and energetic spirit, a silverback assembled from clashing parts and conflicting priorities, an inspiring thought leader to whom the well-being of others is paramount. A bold, conscientious and principled leader – a testament to the power of the single individual standing up for what is right. Your will, determination, dedication and courage to succeed are awe inspiring. 

As we reflect on your rich legacy today, at this moment, in this country, where so many of us dare to hope that joy and peace will prevail, it is crucial to pause and acknowledge that we, collectively, have not succeeded in eradicating the legacy of apartheid – which has entrenched the growing economic precarity, this state of persistent insecurity with regard to employment or income – and that the fight against social injustice and inequality continues. You are the foremost, highly sought after, influential leader whose impactful work is done away from the public gaze. To me and many others, you embody human kindness, connection and empathy. Your personal journey and story are guided by modesty though globally celebrated. Your humility conceals the magnitude of your truly extensive, demonstrable track record and experience and truly deepens understanding of our journey, our world and how it informs the greater world – even if it is one that we have to create for ourselves – that the most important story is the story that one tells, not to others but to oneself. 

You have been, and continue to be, a leading light in inculcating a corporate culture of accountability, ethical business leadership and the advancement and development of South Africa.

By watching, listening to and being inspired by you, we have been given the gifts of strength and imagination. I and many others have, individually and collectively, learnt so much. We will forever remain grateful for this singular honour because gratitude lifts our eyes from the things we lack, so we might see, feel, touch and experience the blessings we already have. Bryant McGill reminds us that “you will be blessed the moment you realise you already are”. Thank you for demonstrating in deeds, not just words, that when one attends well to one’s character, then one’s reputation will look out for itself. That, like Edwin Elliot, by “being yourself you put something wonderful in the world that was not there before”. 

You stormed and broke through the gates of this industry much earlier and introduced most of us to a world we had no knowledge of. Your amazingly successful career, meteoric rise and rise to higher office gave most of us a glimpse into a world emblematic of the vast social divides that still persist. But once you demonstrated your well-earned recognition and thereby seized the opportunity to forge your own rhythm, you refused to feel like you did not belong nor had a say in anything – just there like a recipient. In a sea of lickspittles too shy to speak up, docile – conforming creatures that can’t say boo to a goose, born colonised and remained colonised – you always had a viewpoint, a strong perspective and a mission to both elevate and transform the fantasy space of the industry’s image, which is quite separate from the daily realities and lived experiences of most. Demonstrating beyond any doubt that opinions and taste are often shaped by social and political conditions. 

It is as though, in refusing to play by the industry’s rule book, you changed the industry. Much of what is said to be needed to make the industry legitimate and relevant, and transform it, has always been part of your story. Even though you have cooperated and collaborated with everyone, you have remained fiercely independent, with an uncompromising longing for freedom that seems to have guided much of your trajectory – left to do what you want. 

You celebrate African heritage, challenging narratives that are reducing and portraying those without opportunities as victims with no agency and therefore no ambition.

Freedom has always been your North Star. I know for sure that your embodiment as an African has made many other Africans feel represented in an industry that did not see us and largely still does not. Growing up, you looked, spoke, walked and behaved in a manner that is very familiar to us. You are the men around us – our fathers and uncles – an unspoken sense of kinship. It meant a lot to our younger selves. You were amazing, always have and always will be. 

You celebrate African heritage, challenging narratives that portray those without opportunities as victims with no agency and therefore no ambition. You gave us and many more the confidence it would later take to pursue a career in management because we are much more than what we have become. I know that, because I am surrounded by colleagues and I see many more in business who you have personally touched and helped to be prouder of themselves for the way they look and talk and the way they value their work. Because we all have a choice when we walk into spaces in which we haven’t been before, to either be assimilated into and paraded as the first, made to feel different, rare and noteworthy, or literally kick down the door and open it up to people who look like us, helping to create, nurture and build more golden people – driven by something much deeper. Precisely because, when you do well, I also do well, and when you succeed, I look good. Because we are no more human than when we help others. It is our collective that works well, driven to explore the limits of what we can achieve together and a reminder that, “at its purest, helping others is a meeting of the eyes, hearts and minds rather than the most naked form of mutual back scratching”. Because “those that are helping others are completing Jehovah’s work”.

Words to live by

I take with me rich learnings from your truly exemplary trailblazing. Adages such as: You will never learn to command if you have not learnt how to obey; if you are ever more fortunate than others, then you must build a longer table, not a taller fence; and, often the things you wait and hope for tend to arrive at the most unexpected moments. Thank you for imbuing us with the courage to follow our dreams, the persistence to try again, the passion for doing what we love, the ambition to aim higher, the resilience in overcoming obstacles, the humility to learn from others and kindness for both self and others. I just love the way your mind works, am loyal to your integrity and the validity of your work, and eternally grateful for being there for me, from the start.

You are among a generation of chartered accountants who not only witnessed but challenged and therefore ushered in a new identity amid radical political transformation. There has always been a big racial disparity in South Africa’s chartered accountancy realm, with only 8,610 (17%) of the 51,152 registered chartered accountants being black. That is in stark contrast to the demographics – nearly 81% of South Africans are black. This gap is rooted in our extremely traumatic history. For most of apartheid’s white-minority rule from 1948 to 1994, black citizens were not allowed to become chartered accountants. It took 11 years for Sis’ Nonkululeko Gobodo, the first black woman chartered accountant in South Africa, to qualify in 1987. Though the profession is now open to all, historical disparities clearly still persist. 

From being a political prisoner on Robben Island at the age of 19 to being the economic adviser to President Thabo Mbeki, you have been, and continue to be, a leading light in inculcating a corporate culture of accountability, ethical business leadership and the advancement and development of South Africa. As a pioneer of 48 years in the profession, you continue to play key roles in academia, philanthropy, development, business and politics. 

It was only in 1976 (admitted by SAICA in 1977) that you became the first African chartered accountant in South Africa. In later years you were elected president of SAICA, serving two terms from April 1998 to April 2000, being passionately involved with the development of black accountants and going on to become a distinguished role model. During this illustrious career you were chancellor of the University of Pretoria for 15 years, until June 2022; served as chairperson of Pan-African Capital Holdings (co-founded with Dr Iraj Abedian); Metropolitan Limited; Rothschild (SA); the Development Bank of Southern Africa and Biden Africa; non-executive director of Standard Bank; Old Mutual; Tongaat Hulett; BMW; AngloGold Ashanti; Datatec and JCI; the first chairperson of the Council on Higher Education 1998-2002 where you played a major role in restructuring universities and technikons; served as principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Transkei from 1987 to 1991; chief executive of the Independent Development Trust for three years and chief executive of the secretariat of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) from 2000 to 2005 – where you were honoured with the Ordre National de la Légion D’Honneur, Republique Française in May 2005 and where you played a major role in the elaboration of the Nepad policy framework and in promoting the programme in Africa and internationally. 

You received the Grand Counsellor of the Baobab award from the President for your excellent contributions to the African Renaissance through your role in the New Nepad in April 2008, and in May of that year were appointed president of the International Organisation of Employers.

You have always demonstrated immense pride in the auditing profession. That is why it came as a great disappointment when the profession was plunged into unprecedented crises when KPMG South Africa came under the corruption spotlight and was regarded as having aided and abetted some of the State Capture activities of the Gupta family. This would explain why you took on the role of chairperson of KPMG South Africa to help rectify what had unfolded for this 100-year-old, once-prestigious firm to become embroiled in State Capture, bribery and corruption. We are all still engaged in the revolution, since being a good professional and a “clever black” means being against State Capture. 

Even as you now enjoy well-earned leisure time you have not abandoned your profession. We are eternally grateful to Sis’ Nondima Hazel (nee Mahlulo) and your children Aqalisile Zola, Unathi Pindiwe, Njongonkulu Manda and Bandile Lwazi Sabelo for allowing us to share you with loved ones and the world, and for continuing to stand firmly by your side as you continue to serve, holding various positions, including chancellor of the University of Pretoria, a member of the advisory board of SAICA and patron of the Nkuhlu School of Accounting at the University of Fort Hare.

Awards

In recognition of your contribution to education, business and development, you have received several awards, including honorary doctorates from the universities of the Free State, Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Pretoria, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan, Witwatersrand and Fort Hare; merit awards from the National African Federated Chamber of Commerce, the Association for Advancement of Black Accountants of Southern Africa and the Black Management Forum; the President of Convocation Medal by the University of Cape Town in June 2004 “for outstanding community service”; and the SAICA Legacy Award for those who have “built a legacy that will live on for many generations. Whose legacy inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more. Your stories will be remembered for decades, etched into the minds and hearts of others.”

In 2014, Dr Luvuyo Wotshela wrote the book, Wiseman Nkuhlu – a Life of Purpose, a rich testimonial, and in 2020 you authored Enabler Or Victim? KPMG SA and State Capture, a Memoir.

Born on 5 February 1944 in Upper Mnxe, which is part of the Xhalanga magisterial district in the town of Cala, Eastern Cape, to this day you still speak at international conferences on African development and corporate governance issues. DM

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