From a Dropout Engineer to a CA(SA): My story from 'almost quitting studies to qualifying as a Chartered Accountant.

  • You can fail in life and still end up where you need to be because failures are pivotal moments in your success journey. 
  • Hi, I am Khaleel Essa a Chartered Accountant from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants). 
  • To be honest it was never my intention to pursue Chartered Accountancy. Both my parents are B.Com Graduates (Accountants but not CA’s) and neither of them pursued a career in accounting.
  • I almost quit studying before deciding to pursue Chartered Accountancy.
  • Here is my story from 'almost quitting studies to qualifying as a Chartered Accountant. If I managed to qualify as a Chartered Accountant, it is possible for anyone.

Humble Beginnings

I come from a somewhat humble background and prior to moving to Dubai, I traveled abroad only once. My parents strived a lot to provide my sister and me with good quality education.

Growing up I was very interested in motor cars, engines, etc, and architecture.

I did technical drawing in high school instead of the standard Biology and was greatly inspired after reading 'The Fountainhead' by Ayan Rand, a story about an architect. So after school, I applied for both Architecture and Mechanical Engineering (and not Accounting!).

Being from the small northerly city in South Africa, Pietersburg (now Polokwane) it was natural that I would have to move to a bigger city like Johannesburg for my further studies. I finally registered for mechanical engineering at the University of Johannesburg.

My time spent in Johannesburg was extremely challenging, to say the least. I did not have a driver's license or a car so I had to rely on metro buses and minibus taxis to commute to and from campus. My commute was roughly 20km and required an interchange at either Gandhi square bus terminal or Bree street taxi rank both in central Johannesburg and very daunting.

I was also very naïve and misused the newfound freedom of living away from my parents. I wasted my weekly allowance partying and within a day or two all my allowance was spent. Then I would spend the rest of the week watching TV at home.

My studies suffered greatly.

At the end of the first semester, I went home for the holidays with all of my stuff and begged my parents not to send me back. They took me to one of my elder cousins for a pep talk and I clearly remember what he told me - Khaleel, your dad has worked his backside off to send you to study engineering! So you will go back and make use of this opportunity.

I couldn’t say anything and thus returned to Johannesburg for the second semester. Within a day or two of returning to college, I was summoned to the Dean’s office to collect a letter.

The letter stated that since I had not passed any modules this semester (I had not sat for the semester tests either) my seat in the engineering faculty would be allocated to someone more deserving who would better appreciate the opportunity.

My parents came to pick me up over the weekend and took me back home.

From a Drop Out Engineer to a Chartered Accountant

Once back with my family, I approached my former employers at a supermarket (I had worked weekends and holidays during most of my high school at this supermarket). They gladly deployed me to serve as an assistant manager in one of their stores in another city.

This time moving to another city was amazing because I had the same freedom living away from my parents, with the added benefit of earning money and having access to a company vehicle. It was an 18-year-olds dream come true. So now I was working in a new city and was no longer pursuing my studies. In short, I almost quit studying engineering and was working at a supermarket! 

But as the months wore on, it became evident that this is what I was confining my future to. My parents were concerned. I again decided to pursue my studies. So I quit my job at the supermarket.

Once I was removed from the University of Johannesburg engineering college, I realized B.Com was my last shot at qualification and if I failed B.Com I would be subjected to informal employment for the rest of my life.

Also, my parents were reluctant to send me to study alone unsupervised and the options in my home city were quite limited. It was at this juncture that my family decided to relocate to Durban. Within another 6 months my family and I relocated to Durban so that I could pursue a B.Com Accounting degree, and the rest, as they say, is history.

My Journey Qualifying as a CA(SA)

My CA journey was very challenging. I faced many failures and was always scraping the barrel in terms of passing.

I registered at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and went for UNISA lectures at an institute called “Varsity College” which provides lectures for UNISA course material. To those not from South Africa, UNISA is distant learning.

When I completed my undergrad from UNISA in 2009, I failed one auditing module despite obtaining the 55% cut-off for Financial Accounting required to register for Honours (postgraduate).

As a UNISA student, there was no supplementary exam as such and I faced the prospect of wasting the entire year to complete just one module.

Luckily, I was not alone and there were about 300 of us nationally in the same situation. I wrote to the faculty of UNISA and was on the phone with them for 8 hours a day. I was very determined to write a supplementary exam and undertake my Honours that year. I vowed to only give up if my exam paper went to UNISA head office and they refused to mark it.

Eventually, I achieved 51% for the supplementary paper, much to my father’s horror, and could start with my Honours (postgraduate).

So after my graduation, I was amped for my Honours and of course another distraction, the 2010 FIFA world cup!

My Honours was much more dramatic, of the 16 tests written during the year, I managed to pass all but one. Luckily this was not a requirement for the final exam entrance.

During my Honours final exam, I was placed 23rd in South Africa for Managerial Accounting and Finance. Imagine a student who scored just 42% in Accounting and now is ranked 23 in South Africa in Accounting. That's why I say if I can do it so can You.

Two factors were instrumental in my successful study pattern:

  • Attend Lectures
  • Pay utmost attention in lectures.
  • Two weeks before final exams simulate actual exam conditions. For example, I would not study until the early hours of the morning. Two weeks prior to the exam I would sleep early each night, wake up early get ready and be at my study desk with a pen in my hand precisely the time the actual exam would start (9 am). This way the exam day was not a shock to my system – on the day of the exam I needn’t even set an alarm.

Starting with my Articles

Coming back to my journey, during this time, I was approached by Grant Thornton Durban who offered me a training contract as an articled assistant. Our relocation to Durban and my subsequent traineeship with Grant Thornton were really a positive turning point in my life.

I would like to use this opportunity to thank Grant Thornton in Durban, especially the partners for their mentoring and support. During my second year of the traineeship, I successfully passed the board one exam and got married to the love of my life.

Serving traineeship whilst attempting to sustain a household had its own bouquet of challenges but my beautiful new bride was extremely supportive and understanding.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the LAJPAAL FOUNDATION, an NPO focused on community upliftment through education and creating awareness. I cannot stress enough to others the importance of being part of some humanitarian initiative. It is a really fulfilling experience and provides me with stability and purpose.

In my third and final year of articles, we were blessed with the arrival of our daughter.

During this year I also successfully completed the second board exam and became eligible to register as a CA (SA) – one of the proudest moments in my life.

In addition, I was awarded the traineeship award by Grant Thornton to acknowledge my initiative and dedication. I was now a qualified Chartered Accountant CA(SA).

Moving to the UAE as an Expat

Since my second year of articles at Grant Thornton in Durban, I always wanted to go on an overseas secondment. However, this got delayed when I got married and had kids.

Upon completing my articles, I accepted the first job offer that was presented to me at Massmart, a subsidiary of Walmart. It was a terrible experience, I hated it as I really missed the audit.

I approached the partners at Grant Thornton Durban and fortunately, they had an opening for an assistant manager and allowed me to rejoin the firm.

I was still eager to work abroad and after 18 months of re-joining the firm was promoted to manager.

A year later, Grant Thornton presented me with an opportunity to work at their Dubai office.

In 2012 just after getting married, we had visited Dubai. Actually, I visited Dubai once in 2012 just after getting married. I didn’t particularly enjoy the experience as it entailed mostly shopping and running around shopping centres. I vowed to never return.

So when the Dubai work opportunity was presented to me, I said to myself - I have nothing to lose and considered it as interview practice for roles in other (western) destinations.

Once I commenced the interview process my perception changed rapidly and the thoroughness of the interview process (4 rounds in total) really inspired me.

I started to understand the dynamic nature of the Dubai Audit market.

Grant Thornton UAE was very supportive and once they expressed their intention to hire me, they spent a lot of time and effort addressing my relocation concerns.

In summary, I am very happy with the decision made to move to Dubai and very thankful to Grant Thornton UAE for the opportunity.

"What is the Scope of CA(SA) in the Middle East?"

The CA(SA) qualification is highly regarded in the Middle East. Because of the challenges faced in the South African audit environment like client competence and stringent regulation, the training process prepares CA(SA) quite well.

The skills garnered through this process are highly aligned and thus sort after in the UAE, a developing market.

Semi-qualified CA(SA) also has a great scope in Dubai however you would need a minimum of 4 – 5 years of experience.

As auditing is a pretty universal industry I would suggest prospective candidates explore opportunities with the same firm network with which they served their articles.

I would suggest securing a role from South Africa, as your employer would take care of the VISA process etc.

Dubai is a very easy country to relocate to. All the systems are in place making the transition very easy. The lifestyle is very similar to South Africa and relatively affordable.

From a family perspective, it was really easy to get approval from my parents and in-laws as Dubai is probably the closest international destination from South Africa out of Africa.

Traffic is not as bad as it seems and it is really a renters market at the moment.

As an auditor, it would be better to acquire a car and drive as opposed to relying on public transport. Anywhere within 20km of the office should not be an issue to commute daily.

"Which profile is in great demand for CA(SA) in the UAE or the Middle East?"

Audit senior associate is most in-demand and typically Accounting firms look for candidates with 1 or 2 years post qualification experience.

Supervisor, Assistant Manager, and Manager roles are also sought after depending on your experience.

You can also apply for Accounting and Finance roles, depending on your area of interest.

In Conclusion...

CA is an excellent qualification. Becoming a Chartered Accountant is your gateway to a challenging and exciting career, global mobility, flexibility, and good earning.

Qualifying as a CA does not automatically make you the CEO of a listed company, but it provides you with opportunities within which to prove your excellence and reach your goals through hard work and determination.

Articles/Traineeship can give bring you great learning and opportunities. It is really what YOU make of it as an individual.

You need solid motivation to pursue CA or for that matter anything in life.

My dad once told me a story of a doctor from his generation who qualified by studying with the interior light of his car because his shared living space was not conducive enough, this was my motivation – if he could do it so could I.

This always helped me stay motivated during tough times. So find your inspiration and strength.

Work hard, do your best effort and trust God Almighty – your destiny will follow.

I never had any intention of becoming a CA or moving to Dubai and here I am having the time of my life and absolutely thriving at every moment.

Now It's Your Turn...

Do you find my journey motivating?

Do you have a similar story?

Would you like to know anything about the UAE market or CA in general?

Whatever is your question or story kindly comment below and let me know. 

You can connect to Khaleel on LinkedIn at - Khaleel Essa CA (SA).

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