201: Nonhlanhla Mona

‘Humanitarian at heart’

Welcome to the CFO Club Africa podcast, where we interview leading CFOs from Africa and beyond. CFO Club Africa is a division of the Chartered Institute of Business Accountants, the professional body for business accountants, financial managers and chief financial officers. Go to www.cfoclub.co.za and join our community of accounting and finance executives.


My guest today is Nonhlanhla Mona, she is the Chief Financial Officer of the South African National AIDS Council Trust or SANAC, this organisation brings together government, civil society and the private sector to create a collective response to HIV, tuberculosis and sexually transmitted diseases. The Deputy President of South Africa chairs this council. Before joining SANAC, Nonhlanhla was the CFO of the Education Training and Development Practices SETA, the Acting CFO of the Office of the Public Protector South Africa and the Central Energy Fund, and an Audit Manager at the Auditor-General’s office of South Africa. She also had a stint in the private sector as a Financial Controller of Dell Southern Africa.

She is a Chartered Accountant and a CFO Club member. Nonhlanhla, thank you for joining me, you have applied your trade at many institutions but first, tell us a bit about yourself, where did you grow up and when did you decide to become an accountant?

I grew up in Nelspruit, it’s a small town in the province of Mpumalanga, there’s a township there called KaNyamazane and that’s where I spent the greater part of my upbringing. I’m a bubble of joy, a bubble of excellence and a bubble of audacity. I think the CA journey for me was planted in my head way before I could even speak properly because I always liked money, I would always ask everyone for money, I was always counting money.

When my grandfather ran a small business, I was about eleven years old at the time, he would make me do the float, count the cash takings for the day and he would always say to me, you must grow up and do big things with your life, you know things, you are a very smart girl. So I think I always thought that I could work with money and that’s when being an accountant was planted in my head and in the years that followed I would pursue accounting studies and ultimately qualify as a Chartered Accountant and then pursue this role within an organisation in finance as a finance manager and now CFO.

I can hear the passion and I can hear how bubbly you are, have you ever thought that maybe you should have gone another route, maybe the entrepreneurial route rather than the accounting route?

That’s why I say to people to be careful about what you say to a small child because when you grow up believing that you ought to work with money and it’s so firmly embedded in your belief system and in your heart, there’s almost no second option but to pursue that goal.

For me, there’s never been a second option, of course, the entrepreneurial spirit is only now forming within me because for so many years of my life I have just been focused on achieving this one goal, making the most of it and go as far as I can within this finance profession, and I think once you are in it you start seeing other opportunities and you think maybe I can pursue other interests.

It seems like you have seized opportunities throughout your career, tell us about your professional journey and the decisions you took that led you to these institutions.

I think the most interesting part of my career started in about 2012 when I decided that I no longer wanted to be an auditor because up until that point, all I had done was audit, first through my articles and then through the external Audit Manager role that I held. I decided I was going to take a leap and move into more the financial part of being a CA. That’s when I really began to find what interests me and what it is that I want to become as a CA walking into a finance role.

Funnily enough, this role at SANAC is where I have always wanted to be, I have always seen myself working within a humanitarian organisation. In fact, I would tell my mentors that I want to work for the United Nations. So it’s just by chance that I find myself right in the middle of an organisation that brings together all these humanitarian organisations and I can get a feel for where I thought I wanted to be and the people who work for such organisations and, most importantly, the work that they do. So this role for me is quite a blessing in disguise.

The government roles that I have had, I think it was all to build up to this point and I think working in government gives you a good grounding and that’s why I went to the public sector but while working in the public sector it has been a place where I have found the best teachers. I’ve had great leaders who have given me advice that no business school or any other place would have prepared me for. That’s where I got to grow up within my CFO roles and really get a firm foundation.

Tell us a bit about the South African National AIDS Council Trust or SANAC because HIV and AIDS was, or that’s my perception, a significant problem in the 2000s, under Thabo Mbeki, but subsequently government has implemented probably one of its most successful projects to distribute antiretrovirals to the public and that the situation has improved significantly. What exactly are your main priorities at the moment within SANAC?

It’s interesting that you say that because I think that’s the common theme in our society, that we’ve probably gone past the scariest period with HIV/AIDS pandemic and also TB. Over the years, I agree, there has been a lot of improvement, we’ve got a very inclusive ARV programme and we’ve got a lot of programnnes towards addressing the issues of TB in the country. However, I believe that if you look at the statistics and the reports that we have, South Africa still has the highest infection rate in the world. Within our society we currently have about seven million recorded citizens who are living with HIV.

If you look at the role of SANAC because yes, it might seem we have gone past the worst phase, which we have, but on the ground people continue to be infected. We need to continue to teach people about the disease and make sure that they understand what treatment is. We need to make sure that we are in dialogue with government, civil society and other stakeholders that are currently overseeing the country’s response to HIV, TB and STIs. One of SANAC’s biggest roles is that we advise government on HIV and AIDS, TB and STI-related policies, and also the strategies on matters affecting those pandemics.

Our other key role is we aim to strengthen the governance, the leadership and management of the response to the HIV, TB and STI at national, provincial, district and local levels. SANAC is also responsible to strengthen the multisectoral response to HIV, TB and STI as a contribution to the overall socioeconomic development of South Africa. I think the one that interests me the most is our responsibility to mobilise resources domestically and also internationally to finance the response to HIV/AIDS, TB and STIs.

The Global Fund, for example, has extended for the next three years, R8 billion to South Africa in relation to the response to HIV, TB and STIs.

SANAC is at the core of the coordination between government, civil society and all other stakeholders to ensure that our country has an enhanced and integrated response to this public health challenge of HIV/AIDS, TB and STIs.

You earlier said that you only spend around 20% of your time to ensure the books are in order at SANAC. The other 80%, what are your core functions there and what do you believe are your core challenges in your role at SANAC at the moment?

I think our core challenge is just funding because we’re constantly seeking funding and it doesn’t come at the time when you need it. You’ll find that a funding application can take a couple of months to be concluded. That’s one of our biggest challenges but other than that, I believe we employ a great team, we’ve got people with different specialities within public health and they come with a wealth of experience.

A lot of my time, the 80%, because we have so many different stakeholders, we also support so many different offices that are not able to have a CFO appointed, so I actually play an advisory role to the civil society coordinating committee and I also play an advisory role to the Global Fund secretariat, which is based here at SANAC. I also play a huge advisory role to the technical support unit, which is based within SANAC, and it’s the technical arm of the Global Fund secretariat, which is looking at the different core projects that we have to carry out.

In a typical day you find that I have to have meetings with so many different stakeholders and that has nothing to do with the trial balance and the general ledger of SANAC. So I am a bit stretched but looking at the time I have been with SANAC, it really helps me to also grow fast within the role and also understand the environment, what we do, but most importantly, the stakeholders that we interact with and that need our assistance and guidance based on the technical skills that we have.

You’ve been trained as a Chartered Accountant and 99% of the knowledge you gain when you study accountancy is focused on the trial balance and the income statement and the balance sheet, as you alluded to earlier, but you need more skills to become a very efficient and modern CFO and you’re not taught those skills at a university level. How did you acquire those skills?

That’s an interesting question because I think when you progress into a CA role, you must have already thought of where you see yourself being happiest the most.

From early on I knew I was not an Excel guru and I’ll never really thrive in a technical accounting role.

Hence, I jumped straight into more managerial and leadership because I know that I am a born leader, I can lead the pack. To answer the question, where did I get those skills, I have always volunteered to learn more, and I would take a new task and run with it. For modern CFOs, I think you would have learnt the technical skills in university and I think you are always going to know a debit and a credit but to operate into my role or for any modern CFO, you need to develop your soft skills rather than technical skills.

You need to teach yourself the business, like the business of SANAC, I’m always at events and community outreach programmes because I want to understand what we are doing. Understanding the operations helps me to perform better in my role.

You need to hone in on your people skills, I have attended a couple of courses in that respect to learn how to work with people, how to mentor the team, how to interact with other executives, how to become a better CFO. I think those are the skills that make you thrive in the role.

I’ve also had to learn how to present the finances in a way that’s not just counting numbers and, therefore, telling the story of numbers. I had to go for presentation skills, public speaking skills, how to enhance my voice and so on.

A modern CFO needs to learn how to trust their gut, a lot of the things we do is about how you believe in your own self, rather than the numbers that you’re seeing.

You are a CFO Club member, what value do you receive through your membership?

There is literally so much value in joining the CFO Club, I was very excited even when I signed up at the launch.

For me, it’s the networking possibilities, just the educational part of it, there are so many courses and programmes by great leaders with different specialities and industries that are being offered. I think what excites me the most, even when you look at the investment, it’s not very expensive, it’s quite affordable to keep up to date via the CFO Club.

Just networking with your peers and hearing what they’re doing in their different fields. I’m hoping to build new friendships, new networks, to learn, grow and thrive. I believe it’s still fresh and new, and we haven’t walked a long journey with the CFO Club yet but there are so many exciting opportunities that it brings and so many exciting possibilities. There’s also a great app that we use to keep in touch with other members and it’s got amazing features.

It’s really a progressive club in the way it was launched and the way it’s managed and run. I think if there’s a CFO out there who wants to mingle with other CFOs, this is definitely the club to be a part of. The intentions, the strategy, the goals and the vision that it was formed upon, it’s really going to takeoff and become something quite big for the CFOs in the country.

CFO Club Africa is affiliated with associations of finance executives in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia and Namibia, and annually hosts an international CFO summit. You have done the work and achieved the CFO title, now join the CFO Club Africa as a finance executive.

Ryk van Niekerk is an award-winning financial journalist with over 20 years' experience. He is Moneyweb’s editor and hosts the Market Commentator podcast and RSG Geldsake, covering the markets, and financial and investment content, joined by CEOs, entrepreneurs, policymakers and others.

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