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“Reimagine Africa Together” – meet Shirley Machaba – PwC South Africa CEO and PwC Southern Africa Regional Senior Partner at PwC South Africa

“Reimagine Africa Together” – meet Shirley Machaba - PwC South Africa CEO and PwC Southern Africa Regional Senior Partner at PwC South Africa

Written by Staff Writer

November 29, 2021

By Fiona Wakelin 


“Embrace every opportunity – and show up!” Powerhouse Shirley Machaba,  CEO of PwC Southern Africa and Top Empowerment speaker, shares her journey with us.


You became the first woman CEO of PwC Southern Africa after 15 years at the company.  What have been some of the major changes you have seen taking place in nearly 2 decades?

While gender equality has always been top of mind, it has gained a lot of momentum and attention. The Inclusion and Diversity strategy has been articulated clearly and communicated to all responsible for implementation. Our strategic intent is to achieve 30% female ownership by 2022. We now have a ten-point plan which is a tool that will assist us in achieving the target set and KPIs. It will also assist in building a pipeline of transformed, inclusive and diverse leadership who will be our future leaders. There are specific I&D KPIs communicated to all including succession planning. I&D is a standing agenda item for monthly EXCO meetings. The I&D leader who is a member of Exco provides an update and engages in robust discussions with the entire leadership on I&D matters. Progress on strategy is monitored by both EXCO and the Board regularly. We have made significant progress on reaching the target of 30% female partnership and other KPIs. More and more females are invited to take up leadership roles in the firm. We are currently working on stretched targets beyond 2022.


Your professional background lies in the public sector where you began your career at the office of the Auditor General of South Africa, spending nearly a decade holding a variety of roles which included Assistant Auditor, Senior Auditor, Accountant and Performance Audit Manager. How did this prepare you for the corporate world? And how different are they?

I will remain forever indebted to the Auditor General and Department of Justice for the opportunities and support I received. My attitude towards my career is raising my hand for opportunities, embracing every opportunity and showing up. I believe that the exposure I received was invaluable and contributed tremendously and propelled me to positions I had and have today in the corporate world. I have been consistent and always guided by my personal and professional values and ethics, including my work ethic, which enabled me not to see the difference between public sector and private sector.


What excites you about your role?

As the first woman CEO of PwC Southern Africa and in the profession, particularly the big four firms, I knew that there was no playbook indicating how other women did previously, and that I would be paving the way for other women both at PwC and the entire profession. I was excited that while there were high expectations from everywhere, I was also in a position to give hope to other women, and an African child in particular. I was also excited that the coaching and motivation I had been doing would now be from a position of authority; I would have the right seat at the table to be able to ask the right questions, be heard, influence, felt, and intentionally create a pipeline of potential young leaders who are confident to take over in future. Overall, I will have no excuse for not leaving an impactful legacy of a sustainable future.


What is your “why”?

My purpose and values drive me. My purpose is to make a difference in people’s lives, particularly youth and women. Fortunately, the firm’s purpose and values and mine are aligned, which makes it easy to initiate and implement programmes.


Do you think the field of auditing and accounting is still male dominated? How can we attract more young women to the sector?

Gender diversity is a global challenge in all industries including our own industry. Women have been, are and will still be underrepresented. The stats bear testimony to that. Although there is improvement, we haven’t moved the needle and we cannot claim victory yet. More work still needs to be done. The gender agenda is receiving more attention than before. We are seeing more gender reforms being implemented, however more still need to be done. We are starting to see more women leaders in the profession who will give hope and pave ways for other women and this is progressive.

More men and women in leadership positions need to clearly define and drive the gender agenda. They need to be super assertive, bold and intentional and continue to challenge the narrative. If one sees something one doesn’t like, one needs to call it out to increase awareness. We need to create seats for others, provide them with opportunities and mentorship support in the name of “lift as you rise”

We all need to be change agents as a collective so we have the critical mass. Be prepared to share and be solution orientated so we have a pipeline of more confident young leaders ready to take on leadership roles.

Achieving gender equality is about challenging the status quo and not negotiating it.


How would you define PwC Africa’s societal purpose?

At PwC, our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems. Yes, we are a business, but we are also in the business of contributing to society by helping others thrive, particularly in these challenging times in which we find ourselves, on the African continent and indeed across the globe. For us it’s about being a responsible citizen, supporting and growing our firm, our people, our clients and our communities. 

In response to technological disruption, climate change, fractured geopolitics, and the continuing effects of Covd-19 pandemic amongst other challenges we are building trust and delivering sustained outcomes that create value.

As a community of solvers, PwC Africa has strengthened its greater societal purpose strategy called “Reimagine Africa Together” in response to unprecedented change. It all adds up to The New Equation. 


How did COVID impact PwC?

COVID-19 impacted all of us including businesses, big and small, society and government globally. Unfortunately, there is no playbook to deal with it. It is new to all of us, including the medical fraternity. We are learning every day. COVID-19 has afforded us the opportunity to reimagine where, how and when we work. It’s changed workspaces and workplaces, as well as how we interact with each other. In addition to mastering these physical challenges, women also display empathy and caring, bringing a different perspective. Organisations are actually in good hands when women are leading. For me it is not about leading from the front, but leading from behind. Empower your teams by giving direction and the rest will follow. My focus in response will be on the following:


Communicating with our people

  • What is critical about the tone from the top is that it is not just the verbal and written communication but the actions we take and the behaviour we display. It is important that we lead by example especially in these pandemic times.
  • When the pandemic hit, it tested our personal and collective ability to respond to real uncertainty that impacted everyone on a personal and professional level and we had the responsibility to not only navigate this ourselves as individuals but to direct and confidently lead our people.  
  • We did not bombard people with volumes of information but rather selected crucial messages at appropriate times, clear and concise.
  • We found it critical that we were open to hearing what our people were concerned about and addressing what their needs were in this environment. It was absolutely essential to listen to our people.
  • Communications our people wanted centred around working from home, wellbeing, updates when government guidelines changed. Video became a popular resource, with people centred messaging delivered in an authentic and compassionate manner. 
  • Human-centred communications, demonstrating an understanding and acceptance of people’s circumstances at all levels has been well received – in addition to their work responsibilities, we understand that many of our people are parents that need to carry out homeschooling; many have responsibilities towards family members; and internet connectivity is an issue for some. At all times our offices are accessible to those who need to access our networks or Wi-Fi, and we developed a remote working charter of ten promises which is about valuing and supporting one another, saying thank you and reimagining our future together.  


Culture (purpose and values)

  • At PwC we’re guided by our purpose, to build trust in society and solve important problems which underpins our strategy. 
  • This, along with our values of example act with integrity, reimagining the possible, it aligns the focus of our people and directs the decisions we make and actions we take. It’s reflected in our leadership and governance structures, and embraced throughout the firm (and the PwC global network). 


Investment in technology

  • Because of the nature of our work, flexibility is already part of our culture and our way of doing business.
  • The vast majority of PwC workforce is mobile, with a small number being permanently office bound. 
  • In recent years, digitizing our business has been a key focus for us, to modernise and mobilise our global workforce.
  • This investment served us well when COVID-19 struck – in Southern Africa, this resulted in the entire firm transitioning seamlessly to working from home, within short notice.
  • This has accelerated the conversation about the future of the workplace and what that will look like. A lot of our clients, as are we, are having conversations around hybrid models of working. Currently, a hybrid model is being exercised to manage the different waves and lockdown levels.


Digital transformation

  • In addition to investments in technology, we’ve also invested in the digital transformation and agility of our people. Aligning with the objectives of our New world. New skills initiative, our staff all have access to our Digital Fitness app, which provides them with access to digital learning resources aimed at building their knowledge and skills, in their own time. Realising that social distancing and lockdown mandates have left people isolated and in need of reliable information, we also launch a free version of the app to the public, with curated resources and content aimed at empowering people to stay relevant, boost their digital acumen and access resources to navigate COVID-19’s impacts during this difficult time. Building on the DFA, our digital transformation journey, called Our Tomorrow, has seen our people having access to powerful new digital tools aimed at taking them and PwC into the future.


What is your assessment of the role of leadership during these difficult times?

The role of leadership during these difficult times is defined by the following attributes: selfless, agile, adaptable, inclusive, emotional intelligence, decisive, courageous, fearless, innovative, humble, visionary, resilient, caring, collaborative, transparent, authentic, trustworthy, truthful, creativity, passion and critical thinking.

It takes leaders with a combination of all of the above to be able to lead successfully and thrive during difficult times. While it’s practically impossible for one individual to have all these attributes, it’s important to have a leadership team with all the attributes as a collective and team work becomes critical.


What have been some of your most memorable milestones – personally and in business?

From a personal perspective the following are my most memorable milestones:

The best decision was to re-join PwC as an associate director in 2004, and in 2005 I was admitted to the partnership. In my 16 years as a partner, I had the opportunity to serve in numerous leadership positions within the firm before taking on my current position as CEO – exposing me to a deeper understanding of the firm locally, regionally and globally. To name a few – Southern Africa Governance, Risk and Internal Audit Leader; Southern Africa Risk Assurance Leader; Africa Governance, Risk and Internal Audit Leader; Southern Africa Government and Public Sector Leader; Partner in charge of our Menlyn and Waterfall offices; and Africa Diversity and Inclusion Leader. 

I was elected to PwC’s Governance Board in 2006, and in 2012 I was appointed Chair of the SA Board and member of the Africa Board. In 2015, I was elected to the global Board and had the opportunity to chair the subcommittee on Transformation, Operations and People. Volunteerism has also contributed a lot towards moulding as a professional. I served on several leadership roles within the IIA including IIA SA President. All these roles empowered me to establish quality relationships locally, regionally and globally and kept up to date on latest developments, either in the profession or the country, which enabled me to engage at a strategic level.

PwC is a purpose-led and values-driven organisation and together with my leadership team I have been able to visibly implement our Africa strategy, ensuring that quality is at the heart of everything we do. My vision has always been building a no 1 firm with quality clients and people who are digitally fit, and as a team we have achieved that.

Through my proactive participation in structures such as BLSA, AMCHAM, BUSA and B4SA I have been able to elevate the profile of PwC and taken every opportunity to actualise our purpose of building trust in society and solving important problems. As corporates, we have a responsibility to implement programmes that contribute to the upliftment of our country. We have developed a societal purpose strategy called Reimagine Africa, together, which is guided by UN SDGs focusing on seven areas, being gender equality, good health, quality education, good health and wellbeing, affordable and clean energy, decent work and economic growth, reducing inequalities and climate action.


The following are a few examples where we are promoting transformation, I&D and contributing towards addressing the seven areas: 

  • We continue to maintain a level 1 BBBEE certificate.
  • We have a transformation and gender equality strategy with specific KPIs for partners, monitored by leadership and the board regularly.
  • We have a gender neutral succession plan.
  • We have a gender neutral procurement policy.
  • We have merit-based recruitment, promotion and retention criteria and practices.
  • We have gender responsive enterprise development and corporate responsibility programmes.
  • We support a number of SMME programmes, such as the BSSA Foundation, PwC’s Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative and Yes4Youth programmes to name a few.


  • Through the BSSA Foundation we provide business skills to previously disadvantaged communities, the majority being female. To date, we have successfully trained over 67,000 SMMEs who are running profitable businesses and creating sustainable jobs.
  • The Faranani Rural Women Training Initiative aims to unlock the business potential of women living in rural areas and empowers them to generate their own income The project has been rolled out across the country, with BSSA providing training as well as three months of mentorship and after-care support. By mid-2021, over 4,000 women had been through the Faranani training and 68% of attendees have been able to increase profitability in their businesses.
  • We support the government’s yes4youth programme. In November 2020 we held our first Skills for Society corporate responsibility day, in partnership with the Yes initiative.
  • Wellbeing is another of our focus areas. We recognise the impact COVID has had on our mental and overall wellbeing and we have had regular surveys to see how our people are managing with this. The responses we got helped shaped our talks and communications over the course of the year. It was important for us to let our people know that we truly do care about their wellbeing and that of their families. 


  • We are being deliberate about taking up membership with organisations that embrace the principles of gender equality.
  • Our commitment to net zero, for instance, has been well articulated in line with our global firm’s commitment to this priority. We’re making a worldwide science-based commitment to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and our SA firm is committed to helping make this happen. 
  • We partner with skills development organisations to impart essential business skills and support. We’ve entered into a local collaboration with UNICEF to help prepare young people with relevant skills to enter the workforce. 
  • Through our partnership with the UN Women’s HeForShe initiative, we’re working towards achieving global gender equality in the workplace and beyond. 
  • We are providing pro bono services to the Solidarity Fund and Gender Based Violence & Femicide Response Fund.
  • We have also implemented an internal GBV policy, aimed at providing support to victims.


What have been some of your major obstacles and how did you overcome them?

Bias is still a threat to our society. And it has also become very clear that access to jobs and the benefits that come with them can ‘make or break’ individuals, families, and communities. In order to ensure that access to these jobs and benefits is open equally to women, and to create a culture of female empowerment, we first need to address unconscious bias. At PwC we deem this to be the number one barrier preventing us from achieving a truly inclusive environment. We therefore have mandatory unconscious bias training for all of our people to understand exactly where their unconscious biases are, and how to overcome them. Policies should also be revisited to ensure they are gender neutral. At PwC our adoption, parental and paternity policies are gender neutral – this helps break the stereotype that parenting is a woman’s issue and assists all of our people as we work remotely and take on the additional responsibility of looking after children whilst they are at home. A focus on minimising the gender pay gap is also crucial. We need to report on any gaps and urgently implement policies, practices and processes to minimise these. 


How would you describe your leadership style?

My view is that I am unique and need not copy anybody’s leadership style and I don’t apply a “one size fit all” type – adaptability is my approach. I believe in lifting as I rise. No one should be left behind. Operating in silos dilutes power; my leadership style is collaboration with a focus on passing on wisdom. As part of continuously inspiring others, I use any opportunity to share my story – which includes successes and failures. A quality culture is something that as a firm we have been consistently driving and I take every opportunity to communicate this to our people to ensure it is part of our DNA. I believe in consultation through engaging a diverse team for fresh and innovative ideas. Visible leadership is also critical for me to remain impactful. Overall, I apply a democratic leadership style however I still take necessary decisions even if they make me unpopular.


How do you relax?

I always find time in my busy schedule to spend with my family. I have a consistent routine. I do yoga for 20 minutes almost every day during the week early mornings before my schedule starts. I take regular breaks in between meetings, even if it’s 5 min just to breathe. Saturday is my “me time”. Early in the morning, I put on my sneakers and go for a jog for at least 10kms. That helps me clear my head and get energised, come Monday I am ready for the new week. If I’m not doing errands at different places I find time to watch interesting movies and listen to great music.


Do you have any tips/advice for aspiring accountants?

I believe that the future is bright, therefore there are many opportunities for young people aspiring to leadership roles. We all have aspirations; however, you cannot be in a leadership role without depth – people won’t take you seriously. You need to accumulate experience in order to be confident. Don’t accept mediocre appointments – they will affect your wellbeing.

Exercise ethical leadership to manage your reputation, show up and have confidence in yourself. And a final word of advice – don’t forget to have mentors; they are invaluable at any level.  

The road to success is not easy. It’s full of obstacles and you will fail at times. Don’t apologise for failure. Learn from it. Tell yourself it’s okay to be vulnerable. Make time for yourself and your dreams, and then go out and pursue them. If you fall, roll, stand up, dust yourself off and keep walking until you reach where you are going. 



*For more, check out our bumper 16th edition of the Standard Bank Top Women Leaders publication on Issuu – Digital Publishing Platform – here

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