Accounting for sustainability: A South African case study

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Business is changing. Traditionally companies have only been interested in the bottom line, but with the global rise in focus towards sustainability, business leaders have turned their focus away from their sole fixation on financial performance to one that encompasses progress on environmental, social and governance fronts.

This is a direct result of the influence of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the global “north star”. At their heart, these goals commit all of us, as citizens of the world, to leave no one behind as we move into an era in which even the poorest and most vulnerable members of our society are looked after. By pledging to uphold this vision, the world’s leaders have committed to addressing the full range of social and economic development issues facing people globally so as to adequately, and collaboratively respond to the complex social, economic and environmental issues that confront us.

It is up to each of us to play our part

Despite a 26-year young democracy that remains hampered by the ghosts of our marginalised past, South Africa has leapt at the opportunities presented by the SDGs.

Indeed, as an active participant in the drafting of and the first signatory in the adoption, by the General Assembly (GA) of the SDGs, our country committed to working together to establish and implement the world’s most comprehensive social security policy regime, so as to deepen the advances of the impressive gains that we as a country have already made in grappling with the stubborn challenges of unemployment, inequality and poverty.


It was a move so prolific that studies show that nine out of 10 South African business leaders have begun to shift the purpose of their business beyond the pursuit of profits and wealth to that of creating a positive impact on society.

As a profession that prides itself on being a critical player in creating value, the accountancy profession in South Africa is no different. The profession has always contributed its time and other resources to projects focused on making South Africa and the world better.

This very notion is entrenched in not only country’s Constitution but also in that of our profession. Indeed, our stated purpose of “responsible leadership” acts as a continuous challenge for us as practitioners to understand that our work has an impact that extends beyond business.

Even before the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the accountancy profession in this country recognised that collective action is required to maximise our efforts. Through work that begun in the late 90s and early 2000s, our profession has been recognised and seen its models replicated as viable and successful models for a variety of projects that contribute towards the SDGs. These projects include, but are not limited to:

  • The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants’ (SAICA) Thuthuka Bursary Fund, which government is using as a model for its solution for South Africa’s tertiary education funding crisis.
  • SAICA’s school governing body programme, which is used by the public sector as part of a solution for South Africa’s youth unemployment crisis.
  • SAICA Enterprise Development’s unique financial excellence model, which drives economic growth, innovation and job creation through SMME development.

Yet it is not just these major projects that are making an impact. Our members, whether in their professional or personal capacity, are also playing a crucial role in delivering solutions that relate to all 17 SDGs.

The SDGs represent a massive cultural shift in role accountants play

In its 2019 SDG snapshot report, SAICA has illustrated the very clear and positive impact of our profession’s SDG story with the aim of enabling further learning, implementation and the creation of new partnerships.

The report illustrates not just the unique challenges posed by the SDGs on both a global and local front, but also celebrates the unique contributions of individuals and companies as they pertain to the global goals.

Indeed, the stories contained in the report are examples of how South Africa’s accounting profession is living its purpose every day through projects run by SAICA, corporate firms and individual members. They are a testament of how, little by little, the profession is helping bring the SDGs to fruition through the collective response of our members to the very real national and global challenges of poverty, inequality and societal degradation.

Yet our report goes beyond even this.

Through the voluntary contributions of our members, we have also been able to extract key learnings that will help us to build the momentum required across the sector.

It is notable, for example, that quality education, as well as the eradication of poverty and inequality were cited as the top three concerns among both our individual member and company responses. This is no surprise when you consider that these areas are the key priorities that South Africa needs to focus on if we are to move our country forward to greatness.

This is significant as it illustrates clearly how our profession is accelerating the achievement of our country’s specific SDG challenges by collaboratively honing efforts into concrete action.

As SAICA, we are encouraged by our profession’s commitment to the SDGs. However, the commitment and actions of individuals alone is not enough to see us deliver on the SDGs.

More needs to be done

Despite tremendous progress that many countries have made in a number of key areas over the past four years, global progress is slow.

Our most vulnerable people and countries continue to suffer. Indeed, the UN reveals that the global response to the SDGs has not been ambitious enough and, as a result at the current pace, we are still not on track to meet all 17 goals by 2030.

The South African situation is even more dire.

According to the UN’s latest Sustainable Development Goals Report, South Africa currently ranks 113 out of 162 countries measured on the global SDG index. While our country index score of 61.5% is 14.3% higher than regional average, there are a multitude of roadblocks standing in the way of being on track to achieve the specific goals in our country by 2030.

Yet, as Goal 17 outlines, it is the partnerships-based approach underpinned by collective actions that will truly see us reach the targets set in the 2030 Agenda.

We should not see it as a discrete set of issues that need to be “managed”. Rather, we need to use the SDGs as a lens through which to identify the risks and opportunities that affect our ability to continue to add value to our planet and to our fellow man.

SAICA hopes that its latest report will continue to unite the profession on both a local and global front to deepen the understanding of the challenges, opportunities and dynamics that our profession can contribute and leverage in order to accelerate and prioritise the delivery of the SDGs.

After all, it is up to all of us to get involved in creating a more inclusive, more sustainable planet. — Chantyl Mulder, CA(SA) and SAICA Executive Director

Download SAICA’s full 2019 Report on South Africa’s Accounting Profession & The UN SDGs here.

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