UNSHACKLED : The Jeff van Rooyen story, from the township to the boardroom

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UNSHACKLED : The Jeff van Rooyen story, from the township to the boardroom

Mar 28, 2024 | Strategy & Leadership

Jeff Van Rooyen is a black South African chartered accountant. He is the Founding President of the Association for the Advancement of Black Accountants (Abasa). He and his black colleagues established this association with the major aim of addressing the inequalities in the accounting profession emanating from the discrimination and racial prejudice against black people in South Africa. As his autobiography documents, black people have always been disadvantaged in the accounting profession due to, among other reasons, the fact that they were required to attend school in the townships where educational standards were deliberately made inferior during apartheid. Jeff was also the first black person to be appointed as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Financial Services Board which is responsible for regulating the entire financial services sector except for banks. He is also an award winner owing to his efforts in promoting black people’s opportunities in the accounting profession.

In his private capacity, Jeff is a family man. He is the husband of Amy and the father of Althea, Cheryl  and Alvin. He and his wife have managed to bring up these children to become successful and responsible individuals. Away from work and work-related activities, he has spared time to become a serious marathoner as well as a golfer.

Township roots

Jeff traces his roots from the townships of Alexandra, Newclaire and Riverlea Extension. He was born in 1950 in Alexandra whose pet name was the “Dark City” due to lack of electricity as well as other amenities. His mother Frances Van Rooyen was a Coloured school dropout aged 17 while his father was Patrick Chimpini whose family was originally from Malawi. These two parents lived together for a few years, but the father abandoned the family before Jeff started primary school at 6 years and when his younger brother Ephraim was just a small boy. Marriage breakdown was the order of the day, leading Jeff and his cousins to be brought up by their maternal grandmother Ouma Elsie. Whereas we normally learn from positive character traits and actions of our parents, Jeff tells us that he learnt from his father’s negative attributes and actions to be a committed father and never to abandon his family.

The author portrays a rough but realistic picture of the black (and coloured) communities’ survival in the townships. It was tough and very far from being a bed of roses. Jeff’s mother had to work in the factory soon after he was born while Ouma Elsie had to take him with her where she did domestic work. Extreme poverty resulted in violence and formation of terror gangs of unemployed youths fighting for territory and women. Police raids and brutality added to insecurity as these men of the law terrorised instead of providing security. In spite of this gloomy situation, the love between and among extended family members was a source of humanity as well as warmth. Jeff has fond memories of the love and excitement he experienced when his brother Desmond was born; the fact that they were not children of the same father did not matter. Sadly, human life in the townships was “cheap” and dead bodies were a common sight. Jeff’s family was not spared from this tragic reality; the little brother Desmond was killed by a lorry when he and his friends were playing in the neighbourhood while the other brother Ephraim died in the hands of the terror gangs.

The readers of this autobiography cannot afford to ignore the author’s positive attitude which he uses to counter the negative and gloomy side of life. Jeff contends that, although the media loves to concentrate on the negative side, townships were the heartbeat of South Africa. There was incredible resilience and creativity as evidenced, for instance, by the music of Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. Families were poor, but they were the kind of poor who shared the few resources available and learnt to have each other’s back. Ouma Elsie taught Jeff that there was dignity in work and that education could open closed doors. On his part, Jeff made use of the good advice through taking the right initiatives. When he was in Grade 11 and life was very hard, he sold newspapers for a commission on Saturday nights into the small hours of Sunday mornings, braving harsh police brutality and harassment. From the age of 13, he worked extremely hard at school with the realisation that education was the key to breaking the cycle of poverty. He muses: “I pursued education as if the devil were chasing me.” 

The black colour shackle

A factor that cannot be ignored when talking about the extent to which Jeff was shackled is his black colour. The author highlights that, although he did not understand it during his childhood, his grandmother seemed to over-compensate for him by loving and nurturing him more than his brothers and cousins. She was compensating for him by making him feel special because she saw him as destined to have to work harder than the rest in order to make it in life. Unlike his brothers and cousins who were light-skinned, Jeff was of a dark complexion. Having lived in colour-conscious South Africa long enough, Ouma Elsie knew all too well that black people were the most disadvantaged among the non-whites. When Jeff was old enough to wash and groom himself, she would wash him all over again hoping his complexion would improve to become lighter. She often scolded him for staying in the sun, but his love for soccer overpowered the loving grandmother’s concerns and he would be outside playing soccer with his friends in the neighbourhood at every opportunity. Instead of developing an inferiority complex as would be expected, Jeff decided to believe in himself from very early in life. If he was told that he did not have the ability to do something for instance, his response was always, “Why not?” Hence he would challenge rather than accept the inferiority alluded to.

Challenges of becoming a black chartered accountant

During the apartheid era (and to some extent today),  education for non-whites, particularly black and coloured communities was deliberately low. In addition the monster of poverty was an insurmountable hurdle, since wealth has always been in the hands of the whites at the expense of the non-whites. University education was not readily accessible and the racist discrimination coupled with stereotyping worked to lower black and coloured people’s aspirations for their future careers. Consequently Jeff and his age-mates had no role models to look up to. The author informs us that after his Matric examination he stayed for two whole years outside any educational institution.

It was through the assistance of his ex high school commerce teacher and mentor Brian Theron that Jeff registered for a Bachelor of Commerce degree at Unisa. The 6 years part-time distance learning course was a milestone for him. He recounts that it was transformative and it paved way for him to pursue a career as a chartered accountant. Apart from creating strong friendships with like minded people, he had the opportunity to see apartheid wearing different lenses after reading James Baldwin’s THE FIRE NEXT TIME, other essays as well as speeches. Baldwin’s words with regard to the plight of African Americans in America inspired Jeff’s optimistic attitude that apartheid was doomed to fail and it was a matter of time before individuals like him changed the status quo with regard to opportunities for black people in South Africa.

Experience with racism taught the author not to take anything for granted. He was grossly aware that the accounting profession in South Africa in the mid-1970s was the preserve of the whites but his determination, hard work and thirst for knowledge about the profession spurred him on. Subsequently, he subscribed to and became an avid reader of The Accountancy Journal published by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA). When it was time for him to apply to various firms in order to serve his articles, it is interesting how he decided to declare upfront in his application that he was black; instead of letting his Afrikaner name Jeff Van Rooyen speak for him, as most people in his position would have been tempted to do. His honesty about his colour paid off into making the two Schwartz Fine partners “transparent and candid” in outlining the challenges he would have to face and the conditions he would have to accept if they offered him the position, since “they had never employed a black person as an articled clerk before and they didn’t know if I would be able to fit into what was a white-dominant culture.” Jeff was therefore able to successfully serve his articles at Schwartz Fine, not only adhering to the conditions set, but also understanding the firm’s dilemma in view of the apartheid climate.

Going forward after becoming a chartered accountant in 1979, Jeff’s vision was to continue removing the shackles that apartheid had put around him and his fellow black people. This was why in 1981 he wanted to join the state-owned Industrial Development Corporation in order to gain commercial experience. After being rebuffed with the response that the Corporation did not employ black professionals, his aim was not deterred; he simply joined Alex Aiken and Carter (which later became KPMG) as an audit manager to further his vision. The author informs us that he really enjoyed working at KPMG and he was trusted as well as respected by his colleagues. He worked extremely hard and gave his best, looking forward to the day he would become a partner. He did not see it coming. When he was ready to apply for one of the vacant senior positions (two levels below partnership), he was informed that very influencial partners were uncomfortable with a man of colour being a candidate. He was advised to consider moving to one of the firm’s branches in the then ‘bantustan’ homelands where he would stand a better chance of promotion. He interpreted this to be an indication that mainstream firms were not ready to employ black professionals; therefore it was time for him to move on.

The way Jeff got the opportunity to be a partner in Deloitte in 1990 was somewhat ironical. It was certainly in default. In 1988 he attended a SAICA seminar on how to facilitate black people’s entry into the chartered accountant profession. Tim Store, a partner at Deloitte and a supporter of Abasa gave a very positive presentation. Among his arguments, he advocated for bridging programmes at university to compensate for the poor quality of education in black schools. In contrast to Tim, a professor from one of the white universities gave a most negative and racist presentation in which he outlined what he thought were the reasons behind black people’s absence in the profession. He argued that black people were not cut out for the profession; among other deficiencies, they lacked business culture and conceptual thinking which are prerequisites for entry into the chartered accountant profession. His punch line was that mounting bridging programmes would be way too expensive, if they were to be successful at all. In other words, bridging programmes would be a waste of money. Naturally Jeff was not one to let such racism and bigotry go unchallenged. He told the professor that he was black, had no business background but was a qualified chartered accountant, having studied by correspondence with Unisa and without going through a bridging programme. After regaining his balance from the shocking reality, the professor could only lean on the usual stereotyping Jeff had received many a time that his was an exceptional case.

Subsequently through Tim Curtis, the managing partner of Deloitte who was greatly impressed by Jeff’s intervention at the seminar, Jeff was able to enter into a joint venture with Deloitte in 1988 and eventually to become a partner (by a unanimous vote) in the newly formed Deloitte Pim Goldby firm in February 1990. We read from the autobiography that when Jeff was appointed partner, Deloitte had only 4 black partners and 2 female partners (out of 200 partners) representing 2 and 1 percent, respectively. The author informs us that during the time he worked for Deloitte and later in his career, he realised just how crucial it is for auditors to be scrupulously honest and to conduct themselves with utmost integrity, owing to the significant role auditors play in business and in the society in general.

Jeff left Deloitte in 2000 (after almost 10 years) to head the Financial Services Board, which regulates the entire financial services sector except for banks. He was the first black person to be appointed as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of this powerful organisation. At the time, all top management was white. He immediately embarked on one of his priority objectives: transformation of the institution, starting from the top and cascading throughout the whole organisation. Given the scope as well as the complexity of insurance and pensions which were combined at the time, he split them into two promoting the longserving employee Dube Tsidi to head the pensions division. He then encouraged his chartered accountant friend Mashudu Munyai to apply for the position of head of insurance when the position became vacant. Mashudu applied, but Jeff had to intervene for his CV to resurface; it had mysteriously disappeared due to the machinations of those who were irritated by his transformation initiative. Mashudu excelled at the interview and was appointed. Jeff also encouraged chartered accountant Jurgen Boyd to apply for a top position in financial markets division after he left the organisation and Jurgen was duly promoted to head the division. It was Dube Tsidi who took over and did an excellent job as chief executive of the Financial Services Board after Jeff left.

Non-executive directorships

A principled man of great integrity, Jeff has held various non-directorships for knowledge sharing. It is important to mention here that for all these directorships, he was headhunted and taken through rigorous interviews. The directorships have also involved a great deal of intricate work, requiring commitment and integrity. He has served as a non-executive director of listed companies for 12 to 15 years and he informs us that his attendance has been 100%. The companies he has served in this capacity include Pick n Pay, Exxaro Resources and MTN which is a huge telecommunications network serving South Africa, the rest of Africa and the Middle East. When he was first approached by MTN in 2004 to consider non-executive directorship, he turned them down in order to avoid being in a position of conflict of interest. At the time he was still the Chief Executive Officer of the Financial Services Board and MTN is a JSE-listed company while JSE falls within the remit of the Financial Services Board. In 2005 when he left the Financial Services Board he accepted the non-executive directorship at this giant telecommunications network, starting a new chapter in his professional life. His tenure at MTN was loaded. He served in various committees beginning with the Audit Committee due to his qualification as a chartered accountant. He was then appointed Chairman of the Risk and Compliance Committee, resigning from the position after 7 years to join the Human Resources and Remuneration Committee. Later, he became a member of the Finance Committee and the Social and Ethics Committee. The author informs us that he resigned from MTN at the end of 2019 after 13 years of service.

Constructive engagement politics

Living in a country like South Africa which has a history of gruesome oppression against the black community, Jeff could not afford to ignore the challenges his people had to face under apartheid. However, his involvement has been what he terms constructive engagement rather than adversarial approach. During the black school students’ protests and demonstrations of 1976 against being forced to learn in Afrikaans which was viewed as the language of apartheid, Jeff had to explain to some of his white colleagues at Schwartz Fine the basis of the uprising. His explanations demonstrated his ability to empathize with the protesters, given that his mother tongue and language of instruction at school level had been Afrikaans; having opted for English only at university level from the realisation that English was an international language used in commerce and industry.

From the autobiography we read that ANC’s slogan, “Better life for all” used during the campaigns leading to the first free elections of 1994, “resonated very well” with the author. No doubt the slogan expressed what Jeff had always hoped should be the vision of the new post-apartheid South African government. This is why he did not hesitate when Stella Sigcau, Minister of Public Enterprises in Mandela’s cabinet, approached him to be her special advisor. Jeff saw this as an opportunity to work with the new government and contribute towards building meaningful change in the lives of black people who had endured so much oppression during apartheid. He was happy to discuss with President Mandela directly in his office at Union Buildings about the restructuring of state-owned enterprises. Jeff was able to brief the President on the governance protocol they planned to put in place in order to enhance the efficiency of these state-owned enterprises.

In 1986 he was aware that he and his colleagues in Abasa were under surveillance by security police. He knew that his movements were monitored and also that  his telephone at home as well as in the office was tapped. However, this did not deter him and his colleagues in Abasa from joining black business associations and professional bodies in the campaign for the release of Mandela.

Ploughing back to the community

Jeff’s philosophy is that the best way to celebrate success is not to focus on one’s comfort but to give a helping hand. To begin with, some people might forget those who contributed to their success in one way or another, but not Jeff. We read that when he was made a partner at Deloitte, one of his special guests was Brian Theron, his high school commerce teacher and mentor way back in Grade 10. Brian had assisted him in getting a bursary from the City of Johannesburg at a time when he was threatened with dropping out of school for lack of school fees. Later, as mentioned above, Brian helped Jeff register at Unisa for a Bachelor of Commerce degree course. There is also a tendency for some professionals to build themselves an ivory tower and feel threatened by other qualified people coming close to what they begin to consider as their territory of success; but not Jeff. His encouragement to the three fellow chartered accountants mentionedabove (Dube, Mashudu, and Jurgen) is a case in point. And when they got the specific positions in the Financial Services Board, Jeff did not pat himself on the back; his conclusion was that they were all qualified as well as experienced and what they required was the opportunity.

The major reason behind establishing his own company, Uranus Investment Holdings in 2005 was in recognition of the contribution businesses make to the economy. No doubt Jeff hoped that, as the economy improved, it would impact positively to the plight of the disadvantaged. He has hitherto used Uranus to support worthwhile endeavours to make a difference in the lives of the disadvantaged. These include, the Reggie Feldman Educational Trust which provides bursaries to needy students and 10 Ticks Mathematics, an online mathematics learning tool for Grades 1 to 10.

For a long time, Uranus has been a sponsor of golf fundraising events, especially for the Queen Butterfly Foundation which takes care of severely handicapped children. Most golf players all over the world are enthusiasts of the game as an avenue for recreation and meeting business associates as well as friends. However, Jeff’s heart of gold has led him into putting the plight of caddies under his wing. He has taken it as his responsibility to engage management of various golf clubs to improve the working conditions of caddies by trying to sensitise them into viewing male and female caddies as human beings on whose labour spouses and children depend for their welfare. Jeff partnered with Rob Shermbrucker to film a documentary entitled FINDING THE FAIR WAY in 2021 to create awareness of the plight of caddies. Jeff went as far as engaging with the director-general in the Department of Labour to identify loopholes in the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995 and close them. Subsequently, it was established that caddies are employees and are protected under the National Minimum Wage Act. At the time of writing this autobiography, the process of way forward was going on.

Jeff has not exhausted his efforts in promoting the welfare of caddies. Uranus has facilitated the establishment of the Finding the Fair Way Foundation whose objectives include; educational support for the children of caddies and alleviation of hardship when caddies are unable to work due to illness. Secondly, he has made a submission on behalf of Uranus to the Minister of Justice in support of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Amendment Bill. In his submission, he pointed out that, in spite of the provisions of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Amendment Act 2000, unfair and discriminatory behaviour and practices are still prevalent in both public and private sectors.

At the grassroots level, Jeff has not turned a blind eye to the vulnerability of the poor. When he bought his first car, he often used it to transport sick people to hospital due to the laxity of ambulance service in neighbourhoods of the poor. With regard to the issue of encouraging disadvantaged young people, his journey has sharpened his empathy towards them and made him seek ways of contributing towards uplifting them. He has spared time to tutor poor students in mathematics and science. In addition, he has given career talks in schools, with a view to unshackling disadvantaged young people early enough to prevent them from passing through the arduous and rough road had to walk through in order to arrive at the apex from which he can look back and say, “I did it!”

The last word

So what is Jeff Van Rooyen telling us about the kind of society he envisions South Africa should strive to build? In a nut shell the author says categorically that South Africans should work towards building a non-racial society. In his own words:

I will cling, with all my might, to the belief that there is a better way, that it is possible for all of us to rise above our narrow racial identities and to build a society that is truly non-racial, a society where we respect people for who they are rather than for how they look on the surface.

Written by Ciarunji Chesaina, Professor of Literature and second Kenyan ambassador to South Africa

 

 

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