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2020 was the year of the accountant

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2020 may be remembered as year the accounting profession was summoned to perform miracles – and in many cases it did.

When the hard lockdowns were first imposed in March, accounting practitioners had to guide their clients through the initially clunky Unemployment Insurance Fund relief process. Thousands of businesses survived because of this. Many Saiba members became masters at it and shared their experiences via the regional WhatsApp groups set up to assist fellow practitioners.

The same accountants were called on to assist their panicked clients to apply for small business loans, or loan repayment holidays in what became a desperate effort to make it through the month. At the same time they had to e-file their tax returns and wade through the usual compliance issues. Many accountants continued to service their clients knowing they couldn’t pay. We know this because many Saiba members have shared their experiences with Accounting Weekly.

It’s quite clear the government’s lockdown measures were a massive overkill. Why cigarettes, alcohol, exercise and hot chicken were banned is something that beggars belief. To see the evidence of this overkill, you only have to walk through your local shopping mall and see the shuttered shops – gone forever. A little more reason entered the picture as the lockdown was eased, and you could again buy cigarettes and hot chicken.

The damage to the economy was far in excess of the threat posed by the Covid virus, and all of this at the hands of politicians who continued to draw their monthly salaries while the rest of the country suffered. Not to be too unkind to our local politicians, they were following the dictates of medical experts elsewhere in the world.  

But our economy contract by half – yes half – in the second quarter, and will take years to recover from this. Some 2.2 million jobs were lost and only about 400,000 of these have been recovered.

In what universe is this a proportionate response to a virus that has claimed the lives of 22,000 South Africans as at the time of writing, a figure way, way less than what was originally projected?

Accountants and Saiba members in particular can feel proud for the role they played in salvaging the economy from an even worse outcome. In a matter of months they have learned the intricate skills of the turnaround artist. It is no longer sufficient to merely prepare the financial statements and file compliance notices. Those days are gone and accountants who believe this is all that is required of them are in for a rude awakening. Clients need accountants to be their trusted advisors, to give them the uncomfortable truth, to isolate the engines of profitability within companies and develop a strategic plan for survival – and ultimately, prosperity.

Saiba as a professional body performed astonishingly well in 2020 and adapted with lightning speed to the changed work environment. Staff were kitted up for remote working, and personal portfolio consultants were fired up to make sure members were equipped to deal with the challenges that lay ahead. Conferences and briefings that were normally held in spacious rooms were now delivered online.

The role of the accountant has changed forever. Now is the time to gain new skills such as a licence as a business rescue practitioner or one of the many other specialised licences available through Saiba.

There is no doubt that the pain will continue into 2021 and accountants will have to continue the herculean task of steering client companies to the safety which will inevitably come.

This is not a time to say all is well and the year ended on a positive note. That, sadly, is a lie. Yes, the economy is on the rebound and that is a good thing.  The truth is this was a miserable year for millions of South Africans. Let’s not sugar-coat this beast. There’s hard work ahead and our jobs are not yet done. It’s time to upskill ourselves, use the technologies that are available to improve our lives and professional performance and get real sharp at what we do.

When we come through the other side, then there will be time for cheer.

But for 2020, many of us will look forward to a brief and well deserved break. To our readers and Saiba members, we wish you a blessed and safe Christmas and New Year and we look forward to checking in with you early in 2021.