Partner at a Big 4 Firm in South Africa shares why she took a year-long sabbatical and how she made a successful comeback

  • Meet Zimkita Mabindla, a Chartered Accountant of South Africa [CA (SA)], thought leader, seasoned finance professional, and currently a Partner of a Big 4 firm.
  • Before her current role, Zimkita was a Partner at another Big Firm, after spending much of her time in the company since her articles in 1998.
  • In this Q&A, Zimkita shares why women need to make bold career moves, take career breaks and continuously upskill themselves to stay relevant.

Throughout your illustrious career, you have continuously made bold moves. How did you even end up here? Why did you choose to become a CA and how was the journey?

I grew up in a modest town called Butterworth (former Transkei), but our subsection of the township was more poverty-stricken than the middle class.

At home, I lived with my five siblings, mom and dad. Additionally, my parents struggled financially, this is why we were sent to a boarding school that was situated in a small village.

Here the conditions there were horrible compared to our township. 

It was during these challenging times that I started to read a lot as it provided me with an insight into a world that I was not exposed to.

Moreover, it was an easy escape from my challenging reality.

I actually used to contrast the world that I was reading about with the world that I was actually living in.

And then I realised that between the books that I was reading and my reality, the most common denominator was money.

Before starting high school, I approached my dad and sought advice on which profession to pursue if I wanted to understand how money works. “That would be accounting,” he said.

As soon as I started high school, I took Accounting as a subject and never looked back.

After 12 long years, against all odds, I qualified as a CA(SA) in 2006…a dream come true.

People take career breaks for many reasons and at different times of their lives. Having taken several sabbaticals yourself, what were your reasons, and were your decisions worth it?

For me, taking breaks is a response to whatever is happening to me at that point in time.

As you know now, I studied part-time while working a full-time job as my financial situation needed me to earn a living for myself and my family.

So, after two unsuccessful attempts, while studying part-time, I decided to take a  break to focus on my exams full-time. So, yes the first career break I took was to write my board exams.

Thereafter, I found out I was pregnant and that I passed my first board exam. This meant that I had to write the last board exam, so I took another break.

Fortunately, I passed the last board exam, qualified as a CA, and gave birth to my beautiful daughter (Ramorata) two weeks after.

Afterward, striving to be a hands-on single mother to my daughter informed all the breaks I have taken.

My daughter started falling ill in 2017 and that experience was angst-inducing because we did not know what was wrong.

On the career front, in August 2018, my vision of becoming a Partner at the Big 4 became a reality! 

However, in 2020 my daughter got quite sick as she is living with scoliosis, a condition that has triggered chronic pain. 

I felt that I was not paying attention to the situation. I was reactive and I was burning out. She was burning out too.

More importantly, she was struggling emotionally because she felt like she had lost everything as she was a Straight-A Student and an A-team netball player. She needed my support and undivided attention.

I decided to take a year-long sabbatical. 

Zimkita Mabindla, a Chartered Accountant of South Africa [CA (SA)] with her daughter

Does the world also push back saying that you have taken a sabbatical, you do not fit in? And how do you fight that?

It does happen. Because when you go to interviews, that is the first thing they ask – “Why the career gap?”

Not only have I taken sabbaticals, but I have also moved around a lot.

So that is why for me, it is very important to be able to articulate what I have learned during those sabbaticals and how those learnings will add value to the organisation.

During my sabbatical, I remembered that I had always wanted to write about the CA profession and speak to young people about leadership in the South African context. So I became a Thought Leader and wrote several articles.

In fact, 2020 was one of my most successful years as I was able to make an impact as well as a brand for myself.

My goal going into 2021 was to return to the Audit Profession as a Partner and Thought Leader, which is what I did on 1st April.

To all women Financial Leaders, even when you take a sabbatical and you are facing life's difficulties, if you can work it out practically, you will find opportunities.

Do not be scared.

Also Read

This Chartered Secretary took a 3-year Sabbatical and tells us how a career break does not mean the end of the world

Taking a break might lead to a salary cut or loss of income for some people. How can women still sustain themselves financially while still taking well-deserved breaks?

Life is full of challenges. You will have a child and realise that your work environment does not support the parent you want to be.

You might go through a divorce and might find yourself navigating life as a sole providing parent. So all of these things are part of life.

I was able to navigate the tough knock I faced since taking my first career break but I wish that I had been more intentional in saving for those events.

To all young people, be intentional with saving money for a rainy day. Immediately after qualifying as a CA, save a certain percentage of your income.

Furthermore, saving money will not only help you on a rainy day, but it might also help you have the life you deserve.

It is no secret that COVID-19 changed our world... Why do you think it is even crucial to be kind to and patient with people during these unprecedented times?

During the 2021 July unrest, I asked various young people about the personal effect of those riots and I learnt that the unrest affected none of them.

I further asked them if they had thought about the possibility that, some of their colleagues still reside in hotspots like Umlazi in KwaZulu-Natal, and what the impact could have been on them and their work. Many were speechless.

The whole point of this exercise was being kind, caring, and a little more understanding to their colleagues since we are not from similar backgrounds.

Some people cannot be productive and participatory in meetings/classes because they all live together with family members where there is no designated area for work.

During work-from-home or study-from-home, some young people cannot focus because a parent might see them sitting in front of a computer and think of sending them to do house chores, or run family errands, or they might be facing other deep family challenges. Some young people live with parents/relatives, who have never worked in corporate spaces.

Never invalidate someone else’s life experiences. Our lives are not the same.

If we aim to address leadership issues within our spaces, we are to speak about these issues thoroughly and make sure we solve them.

Do you see the Great Resignation happening? Do you see CAs taking career breaks or year-long sabbaticals?

I think the corporate blanket approach is not working very well because it does not take into account individual life experiences.

And just from my own life experience, I have seen that people tend to invalidate a lot of other people’s lived experiences. 

So when my daughter, for example, was sick, a number of people would approach me and say, “Oh, we hear that you have challenges.”

 And I am like, I do not have challenges. My child is sick and I am a mother. This is my reality. 

At times, I sleep at 12:00 am and I have to wake up at 5:00 am. If I do this for five days, which I do, at some point, I cannot function.

 A number of young moms with special needs kids, would hear me say and say how happy it is to hear, someone who is in leadership, say this. They go through the same thing. 

We usually show sympathy but, not empathy.

Saying that I have got policies in place that address motherhood is not going to cut it anymore, alright? 

From my personal experience,  policies could not address my motherhood needs, leading me to change environments and take self-funded career breaks. 

Imagine a young person is starting out her career in your organisation, if the abovementioned issues are not solved there is a chance they are going to leave that work environment.

So, corporates will have to get leaders who have empathy, know how to talk to young people, understand individual stories and react to individual stories. 

They need to put processes in place, transparent processes of how do I escalate my particular individual situation when it has gone against the norm? Who do I need to speak to? Otherwise, we are going to lose a lot of talent.


Also Read

How as a South African black woman this CA raised the bar & went from a village school to Partner at EY

What is your message to women reading this?

I want to be very specific on this because when young women, especially black and Indian women get married, we have a tendency to define them by physical labor.

Can they Cook? Can they clean?

I am always telling young minds - You have to be very careful of getting trapped in these tags of proving yourself with manual labor. Because when you go back to the working world, we want to know whether you know how to assess estimates and judgments. We want you to know about IFRS, Strategy and ESG. So you exerting yourself and proving yourself through manual labor is not going to help you in the corporate environment.”

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