The audit profession’s capacity to deal with corruption and the looming threat of artificial intelligence are just a few of its multiplying hurdles in South Africa. The moment has arrived when firms, regulators, and academia need to take a more people-oriented and strategic approach when walking the career path of an auditor.
The auditing landscape in South Africa is undergoing significant changes, with the emergence of new technologies and the increasing demand for transparency and accountability. As a result, the future of audit in South Africa is being reshaped, and companies and auditors alike must adapt to these changes in order to remain competitive.
While digital tools, like AI, have a role in performing highly technical calculations and procedures in the blink on an eye, the valuable experience earned by a single good auditor shines brightest when working with others, including clients, colleagues, and regulators or authorities.
Indeed, they should be the source of light, unveiling irregular transactions, while offering useful and practical information that could take business into new growth.
South Africa’s audit sector
The mass adoption of smart digital tools is accelerating across a wider breadth of functions at an exponential rate. Manual processes are being dropped, as business systems are automated, and AI is our present reality and no longer the future.
To meet these challenges and opportunities, auditors in South Africa must be equipped with the right skills and knowledge. This includes a deep understanding of emerging technologies and the ability to apply them in an audit context.
“Audit teams’ approach to digital transformation and software adoption needs to be prioritised. They must now also become experts in technology,” says Kim Williams, Head of Talent at SAPRO. “Knowledge is no longer power—it is available everywhere and the ability of auditors to be forward thinking and provide insight and solutions is what will keep the profession relevant.”
The work is no longer limited to just the numbers. The non-financial, or qualitative elements, are becoming increasingly relevant, and stakeholders need to know more about the business than just its financial history.
The source of the problem
Williams expresses concern that, as seasoned CAs go overseas to seek non-audit related work that offers diversity and long-term growth, the audit field will be left strained for capacity, limiting the country’s ability to detect fiscal malfeasance.
There are multiple factors driving migration, including South Africa’s current economic landscape, tied in with a tense political climate, service delivery failures, and corruption. These, combined with the financial strain of inflation and exchange rates, can make moving and earning abroad attractive.
“CAs want diverse exposure to, and a wider scope, of projects as their careers progress and audit firms in South Africa offer very little, in my opinion,” Williams says. “Employees need to see the long-term view, along with the benefit of staying in the audit field. This is where regulatory bodies and institutions can get involved by assisting in promoting and unpacking relevant topics in the correct forums.”
However, as digital tools take over certain repetitive tasks, audit firms can start to include a more diverse range of services. These may include, but are not limited to, business consultancy and risk management where analysts look at the data, study the sector and offer detailed strategies that their clients can implement to not only grow, but keep staff engaged and fulfilled.
SA audit’s greatest hurdles
By its nature, the audit profession demands integrity and nowadays, the relationships between auditors and clients have become a grey area, with a lot being swept under the rug that can result in financial collapse.
With South Africa grappling a multifaceted economic crisis driven by inflation and a persistently high unemployment rate, firms must exercise wisdom in each hiring decision.
“Acquiring talent under any circumstances takes time, more so in the challenging audit sector. A position may lay vacant for a while before an individual with the right qualifications emerges. This may leave audit teams only able to enjoy limited work-life balance and self-care due to strained resources,” Williams says.
“Newly qualified auditors entering the workforce who trained during the pandemic may not have experienced the typical path of a pre-covid chartered accountant. To meet the resource demand, they may need to be brought up to speed on some legacy systems and team dynamics. Still, tackling the tough conditions of working in isolation gives them a unique perspective they can share,” she says.
Williams does not see automation and AI as a threat, but an emerging technology taking over the mundane, repetitive work with great precision. This allows auditors to streamline their processes, so they are more efficient and productive, supporting them as they are freed to more creative, strategic work that adds value to clients.
“This would free up valuable time for the profession to truly develop its value-adding services, especially that of helping businesses look forward, analyse and project results, advising on how to improve,” she says. “Embracing this technology with a growth mindset has the potential to unlock some incredible value adds from our multi-talented experts.”
Those who embrace change and invest in their skills and knowledge will be well-positioned to succeed. Auditors can continue to play a vital role in promoting transparency and accountability in financial reporting, and help to build a stronger, more sustainable business environment for all South Africans.