Pretty Makukule: Award-winning CFO who believes in co-creating solutions

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Pretty Makukule: Award-winning CFO who believes in co-creating solutions

May 27, 2024 | Interviews, Strategy & Leadership

After 23 years in the public service, Pretty Makukule felt that she would take a career break and do something less intense toward the end of 2023. Her appointment to the position of CFO of the Department of Higher Education and Training in September 2021 is one of the highlights of her career. She was the first black female CFO to hold the post and was responsible for the finance function of a department of over 30,000 employees and a budget of R135 billion.

‘Within finance, we would manage payroll and oversee financial performance of 115 institutions. There was a lot of work to do; I was involved in the ministerial task team and took part in high level policy making. I learnt a lot but also brought a lot to the table. With two young girls to raise, I felt like it was time for a break and planned to resign to go study green finance as environmental, social and governance – better known as ESG – is a topic that appeals to me,’ Pretty recalls.

Plans changed. A friend saw the job advertisement that the South African National Parks (SANParks) was looking for a new CFO and showed it to her. The position interested Pretty and she applied. She felt the job was aligned to her personal ambitions of taking part in conservation and biodiversity.

‘SANParks manages the Kruger National Park and 20 other parks across the country. Many of the parks are in rural areas and we recognise that we cannot be an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty. Poverty in surrounding communities leads to negative consequences such as snaring, poaching and protests. The communities expect employment and business opportunities which necessitate resource mobilisation and partnerships. I have an extensive network of relationships that can be leveraged as I believe in co-creating solutions,’ Pretty explains.

Upbringing

Growing up, she experienced rural life first hand. Her humble beginnings in Bushbuckridge came with fetching water from the river, walking barefoot and often powering through school without lunch. In high school, her teachers identified her as a future doctor given how well she performed in maths and in the science subjects. She received a bursary to study medicine at Wits University that required her to study mathematics for a year prior to joining the mainstream course.

‘I felt like that would be a repeat of my matric and decided to go to the University of Limpopo instead,’ Pretty remembers. ‘Unfortunately, I was too late to take up any of the science courses and a high school friend I met at the campus told me about a BCom degree which led to me studying accounting. In retrospect, I was always cut out for the discipline given that I used to help our local shopkeeper price his inventory for sale.’

Today Pretty is an award-winning chartered accountant. She was named the best public sector CFO by the African Women Chartered Accountants in 2023, earning the title for her ‘consistent performance, endurance, excellence and commitment to public sector’.

‘I call myself a self-appointed public sector ambassador,’ she says with a smile. ‘Many people think that public servants are lazy and not dedicated, but this is not true. There are many of us who get up determined to serve despite the challenging dynamics that come with the sector. We constantly have to strike a balance between compliance and service delivery.’

‘Abiding by the rules is crucial because if you get a negative audit report, no one will remember what pressures you were under on the day a control mishap occurred,’ Pretty continues. ‘To do well here, you need to remember that you are not alone and to lean on the networks that build over time. The one thing that keeps me from leaving the public sector is seeing the impact of my work on society; I cannot rob myself of that joy.’

Impostor syndrome

Looking back, Pretty wishes she overcame impostor syndrome much earlier than she did. She held herself back and even when she was promoted, she would often ‘go under the table instead of raising her hand’. She advises younger professionals to embrace their progression to top positions because ‘whether or not they are there by grace or by merit, they should affirm themselves and be self-aware’. Furthermore, she counsels professionals to seek mentors who can be valuable sounding boards in their careers.

Serving on the Audit and Risk committee of the WDB Trust has been transformative for Pretty. She recalls having a conversation with WDB founder and former First Lady Zanele Mbeki which was an eye-opener for Pretty’s own purpose in life.

‘I asked Mrs Mbeki why she is still so active at age 85 and yet many would argue that she has served South Africa well and can now rest. We would not begrudge her if she chose to simply enjoy her retirement. Her response was that all women are yet to enjoy economic freedom and we cannot rest until they do. This reaffirmed my perspective that my life is not about me but rather about how to empower others. In my job, I am here to do much more than balance the books; I need to make an impact and touch lives,’ Pretty says.

In the spirit of transforming lives, she has established the Pretty Makukule Foundation which aims to have impact in the areas of education, sports, art and culture in her home village. It pains her that there has been a degradation in these aspects of life to the detriment of the area’s youth. When she was younger, they would play all day with rudimentary home-made balls. Today, many of the youth there are stuck in houses playing on their phones or smoking on street corners. It is for this reason that she hopes to reignite healthy habits and preserve culture in Bushbuckridge.

It is unsurprising that Pretty is deeply God-fearing given how often she references her faith in our interview. What one would never guess however, is that her mental strength is bolstered by regular body-building sessions at her local gym.

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