Accounting isn’t just about numbers and debits and credits – it’s about transparency, and holding our leaders accountable.
Just ask Kuils River resident and University of the Western Cape (UWC) senior lecturer Elton Pullen, one of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountant’s (SAICA) Top 35 under-35 chartered accountants for 2017.
Every year, the SAICA recognises the top young chartered accountants in the country for their contributions to entrepreneurship, corporate accounting and academia.
Elton grew up in Belhar, where he spent most of his life, and where his parents still live.
While attending Settlers High School, he set his sights on a career as a chartered accountant (CA), and he went on to earn his BCom and BCom Honours in Accounting from UWC and a Master’s degree in Financial Management from the University of Cape Town (UCT), where he’s currently completing his PhD.
He worked as an audit manager and financial manager before deciding to return to UWC to teach future generations the art and science of Management Accounting and Finance.
With his natural love for the subject, and for helping others understand it, he’s found it very rewarding and so have his students – he’s been nominated as EMS Teacher of the Year four times since he started lecturing.
Here’s what he has to say about the importance of accounting, and how it can make a difference in South Africa and the wider world.
What made you decide to become a chartered accountant?
In Grade 9, we had an assignment to research a profession we were interested in. I was doing well in accounting at the time, so I thought I’d research professions requiring an accounting background. And so the CA dream was born – it seemed interesting and important, and it also didn’t hurt that I was told CAs would earn a lot of money. So I’ve been very blessed that I knew what I wanted to become since I was 14.
Why teach accounting?
My father has been an educator for over 30 years, and he passed his passion for teaching down to me. When I joined UWC, I was therefore not concerned about which subject I would teach as long as I could teach and give back to my alma mater. But I’m so grateful I ended up teaching management accounting and finance; of all the accounting subjects, it’s the one which I think is most crucial for business leaders such as CAs, given that it teaches fundamental principles for decision making in any industry.
Do we really need more CAs in this country? What makes this career so important?
I think we can all agree that South Africa needs more accountability – but we can only be accountable if we’re more transparent. And that’s the heart of accounting – it’s not just about debits and credits, but about transparency. The more transparent we become as a country and worldwide, the more we can hold our leaders accountable.
Accountants and CAs provide this transparency. As the saying goes, “The numbers don’t lie.” Another important thing to note: we live in a country where youth unemployment is extremely high – and what is even more worrying is that many of our youth who do hold degrees and diplomas either cannot find employment at all or have to opt for employment in areas unrelated to their studies. However, despite this significant youth unemployment problem, there is still a significant shortage of black CAs in South Africa. This is what drives me – the more CAs we are able to produce at UWC, the more we address the unemployment problem. It’s a difficult task, of course, but it’s that simple.
What’s the best part of your job?
The best part of my job is the fact that I have been give the platform to change family legacies forever. Many of our students are first generation university students and will be first generation CAs. Once they attain their qualification their family legacies will be changed forever. I am extremely honoured and grateful to be a part of that. And I just love that moment in a lecture when you look over the class and you can see light bulb moments going off, when students suddenly grasp a difficult concept. As a teacher, you live for those moments.
What brought you back to UWC?
When I started my studies, the notion was that if you wanted to become a CA in Cape Town, you needed to go to UCT or Stellenbosch. Even when I completed honours, started my articles and passed all the CA board exams, I still felt that the perception was that CAs from UWC weren’t as great as those from the other universities.
So I wanted to return to UWC to change that perception, so that our students don’t go through their studies with that mindset. A lot has changed since I was a student, but a lot has also stayed the same.
One significant change: there are more and more young professionals entering UWC as academics, which is great for our students. And as to what has stayed the same … well, even years later you can still find a good game of “dumz” or klawerjas in the caf …
Any tips for students who want to become successful CAs someday?
The road to becoming a CA is tough – so make sure you understand why you are pursuing it. I’ve always been inspired by two great men: William Wallace (from Braveheart) and Nelson Mandela. Their roads were both tough, but they fought for freedom at all costs. You will probably never have to die (even if it feels like it at times) or be imprisoned to become a CA, but you need to make sure that your “why” will push you through when the going gets tough – because it will get tough sometimes.
Most importantly, stay humble, be a lifelong learner, and embrace the fact that you will never really arrive. And always be willing to give back – you will be known by your fruits, after all.