Being able to serve people through numbers is Bongi’s passion and her calling. The once young girl from Tsolo realised her dreams of bettering her society through hard work.
In November 2021, Bongi Ngoma, National Head of Audit (previously CFO) of the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA), was named South Africa’s CFO of the Year at the 2021 CFO Awards – the first time ever that a public sector CFO has won this award. She also walked away with Public Sector CFO of the Year and the Transformation & Empowerment Award, claiming three of the highest accolades in the financial sector.
Those who know or know of Bongi won’t be surprised that she’s the one breaking ground. Her many achievements and accolades culminate a lifetime of determination and overcoming the odds stacked against her, such as her humble background, race and gender. If there are barriers to break, Bongi will be there to smash right through them.
Beyond immediate circumstances lies a boundless world of imagination
Bongi hails from Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, one of the most impoverished towns and provinces in South Africa. She and her two siblings were raised by her single mother, who worked relentlessly with limited resources to make sure that her children’s basic needs were met.
Bongi explains how her mother’s resilience inspired her to rise above her own circumstances: “My mother was my greatest inspiration. During those unprecedented times of apartheid, she had the foresight to dream, the courage to persevere, and the self-belief to challenge the proverbial glass ceilings. While raising myself and my two siblings single-handedly, she obtained two degrees.
“She ultimately rose from the ranks of a teacher to become an inspector of schools, joining a handful of black women who held these positions at the time. This played a huge role in modelling excellence. She taught me that one has to always challenge the status quo, and that the world of reality may have limits; but, the world of imagination is boundless.”
Seeing her mother’s zealous pursuit of her family’s welfare was not only a driving force for Bongi’s commitment and dedication to hard work; it also inspired her to be compassionate to those left behind. This led to her passion for the public service, where the main purpose is to improve the lives of the citizens.
Using numbers to tell a story
After working hard to achieve academic excellence, receiving university bursaries on academic merit, the little girl who dared to dream left university as a young graduate with an accounting degree. After completing her articles, Bongi was employed by the Industrial Development Co-operation (IDC) for 13 years before joining the Auditor-General South Africa in November 2012 as an executive responsible for Internal Operations (later restructured into a CFO). She held this position until June 2021, when she was appointed as the National Head of Audit.
Bongi has always been interested in numbers and how they work. Numbers always tell a story, indeed, various stories, such as: how were funds used, were they used wisely, were public funds used in line with the approved plans and to benefit the citizens?
Being able to serve people through numbers is Bongi’s passion and her calling. It makes her remember the young girl in Tsolo, who only had a dream to be able to better her society. Through hard work, these dreams have now become a reality. Bongi may not have set out to become a CFO; she didn’t set out to win awards or be recognised – this has all come true because one little girl set out to make a difference to her community in the only way she knew how.
Today, as a National Head of Audit, Bongi is fulfilling her promise to positively influence the lives of citizens as we continue to strengthen our democracy. She says: “As the growth catalyst that I am, I am focused on developing people in the office and on influencing the stakeholders to shift the culture in the public sector to be more accountable and to truly deliver on the dreams and aspirations of our people for a better life for themselves, and for those that will follow.”
Why are we still talking about glass ceilings?
While Bongi herself has broken many barriers and achieved many “firsts”, she points out that one cannot neglect how this also points to the slow progress of transformation in the public sector.
As a woman in her position at the AGSA, Bongi is unequivocal that women should be represented in senior roles: “In my view, bringing women to senior roles should have normalised, and should be business as usual. It begs many questions about why this is still an interesting topic, and I believe an urgent dialogue is necessary to unpack this.”
It’s been proven that gender representation is good for diversity, for leadership, for corporate culture, business sustainability and productivity, but Bongi cautions that we should not appoint women to senior positions just to meet targets.
Rather, we should be deliberate in how we groom and support women as they enter an organisation and enable them to reach the heights they choose. This is as paramount in building the next cohort of leaders as it will be in setting and meeting equity targets.
Building the next generation of leaders
Describing her purpose as a “growth catalyst”, Bongi embraces the opportunity to develop leaders and future leaders committed to their work and their cause. She says: “My greater purpose is to inspire others to fulfill their true life’s journey. I am more fulfilled as a person when others become the best versions of themselves. It goes without saying that, in line with my purpose, my preoccupation and passion is about building the next generation of leaders.”
Future leaders can be grateful to have an inspiration like Bongi: a woman who has used her perseverance, resilience and commitment to overcome, drive accountability, and pursue excellence for the greater good.
She’s not doing it for her own glory, and she’s not only doing it for the present generation, but for all the young people dreaming big dreams like she once did: “I have learnt that you do not work and succeed for yourself – you work for those who came before you, who invested in your dreams and vision. You work for those who will follow so that it will be slightly easier for the next generation. For me, this is the spirit of ubuntu and an expression of inspirational leadership.”
Words: Brendah Nyakudya-Dandala