From Failure to Success: My 16 Year Long Journey to Becoming a CA

Ask just about anybody who has become successful if they have ever failed at any aspect of their journey. Chances are you will get quite a few.  

In fact: In today's article, we have Kateki Melvin Mdabula from Johannesburg sharing with us his journey from success to failure to success.

He shares with us the exact strategy he used to overcome failure and achieve success in his journey to becoming a CA.

Why Did I Decide to Become a Chartered Accountant

I grew up in a village in rural Limpopo where I studied from grade 1-7 in a government school.

Life of a village kid is not very complicated.

At the age of 5, when I started school, I failed in grade one.

I repeated grade one and stood first in class. This kick-started a lot of 1st positions all the way to grade 7.

At some point, the school principal wanted to advance me to the next grade which would have compensated for failing grade one but my dad said no to the offer.

When it was time to go to high school, my parents being teachers were not satisfied with the quality of schools in our village. So they decided to send me to a boarding school in Polokwane which was 250 km away from home.

Staying away from home and only seeing my parents once a month was a struggle.

The first term in Grade 8 was very difficult as I had to adjust to my new life. However, once I adjusted I was in the Top 5 students again.

I have a very good memory and always excelled in tests.

I achieved all these marks through short term memory.

So I used to never write anything down when studying, not even for Mathematics.

Instead, I would study 90% of the work the night before the exam. I would sleep for only 3-4 hours and study whole night memorizing stuff.

I never saw anything wrong with it because I would get good marks and sometimes be top of my class in some subjects.

So from grade 9 -10 I thrived, achieving top 3 positions all the time while developing what I didn’t know was a bad habit.

We had to start considering subject choices at the end of Grade 9, so I consulted my older brother who was in his 2nd year of engineering.

I only had one question for him at that point - Which was, which were the highest paying jobs in the country according to his knowledge. He said to me that Chartered Accountancy was one of the most prominent and well-paying jobs.

And that was the first time I heard of the profession – Chartered Accountant.

And here started my dream to become a Qualified Chartered Accountant. 

My Journey Becoming a CA(SA)

My journey has been full of thorns and hard rocks and life lesson on the race track to CA(SA).

I’m now on the last hurdle (APC).

It’s been 16 years since I started this journey, 9 years was just Honours (CTA). Yes, a record 9 attempts at CTA.

To become a Chartered Accountant from SAICA one needs:
  • To have a Bachelors degree in Accounting or equivalent
  • Honours Post Graduation qualification (CTA 1, CTA2)
  • 3 years articleship (this depends whether it is a part-time study or full time so it can vary from 3-5 years)
  • Give two written board exams (ITC and APC)

Graduated/Obtained Bachelors Degree 2004-2007

All of you from South Africa would know how important is grade 12.

During grade 11-12, I burned out terribly and was no longer in the Top 10 students in the class. 

I could no longer sustain studying the night before and I struggled to even study a week before because it felt like I would forget. That is the downside of just memorizing before the exams.

Since I burned out in class 12 (this was in 2002), I had a conditional exemption.

In short, I could not enroll for a B.Com degree provided I clear the foundation programmme.

In 2003, I enrolled in the foundation programme. It is like a bridging course to your degree. Had I failed this, I would not have been allowed to register for

Long story short, since I strive well under pressure, I cleared this exam but again by studying 90% of the time the night before the exam.

After passing the foundation programme, in 2004 I enrolled in Accounting at the University of Johannesburg.

So my study method during my B.Com was still the same:
  • I wouldn’t attend class
  • If I attended class since my attention span was less than 10 mins, I would walk out of class and go to play pool
  • I still continued with my bad habit of only studying the night before
  • Sleep only 2-3 hours before the exam
  • And still, get a few distinctions.

In this manner I graduated from college effortlessly, never having set foot in many classes and exceeding the entrance requirements for Honours (CTA).

Post Graduation qualification Honours (CTA) 2008-18

The next step on the path to becoming a Chartered Accountant in South Africa is doing your post-graduation or Honours.

It took me 9 years to pass my Honours 2008-18.

I have explained it in a timeline below:

CTA 2008-11: Studied full-time and failed attempts 

I studied full time from 2008-11 from the University of Johannesburg and still did not clear.

I was still trying to study the night before and there is just too much volume and complexities at CTA level to try and study everything the night before and write all 4 subjects integrated with only 2 hours of sleep.

I kept doing the same thing hoping for a different result (insanity).

It doesn’t matter how smart you are, by failing to prepare in time thoroughly I had in fact prepared myself to fail.

I had already failed 4 times. I was starting to get demoralized and losing faith in myself.

CTA 2012-14: Studied part-time and failed 

After the 4th failed attempt, I knew I couldn’t continue studying full-time as the study loan balance was increasing.

I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream. So I decided to start articles and study part-time with the University of South Africa (UNISA, this is like distant learning).

I started with my articles at BDO Johannesburg.

My first attempt at UNISA was my best-failed attempt and the most painful one.

My study approach never really changed but I think I wanted it more because studying and working was stressful enough, I needed to put my CTA nightmares to rest.

I again kept failing.

Took a study break 2015-2016

When I finished off articles in 2014, I did a self-introspection and decided to take a 2-year break from studies.

My premise was simple, I had burned out.

I was 29 years old and I have always been in school since age 5. It was 24 years of school non-stop.

I thought to myself that sometimes I get so busy that I refuse to take a break not realizing I am busy being ineffective.

I realized I was trying to chop down the CTA exam tree with a blunt axe. It was time to take time out to sharpen the axe.

CTA 2017-2018: Resumed studies and Studied part-time 

Everything I ever sat out to do in my life I have accomplished except for CTA.

It was the only dream left unticked and it ate me alive every day, I felt incomplete.

When I decided to go back and study CTA again after taking a break, I had just finished paying off my study loan and now I was about to go back to the bank and start another loan from scratch.

For me, it was a matter of, what’s the price tag on achieving my dreams?

If I walked away, all my previous 8 attempts would be a waste of time and money and I would have nothing to show for it.

I found study loans had better interest rates. When you are still a student, you need to only pay off the interest until you start working then you can begin paying the capital.

This was one of the reason’s why I stopped studying full-time because I needed a job in order to get a study loan.

So I gave it one more shot, but I was very strategic this time.

I started my CTA again in 2017 through Monash University part-time.

I also got married in the same year. I told my wife that if I didn’t see this through she would be married to an incomplete man.

When I tried to study I found my attention span lacking, it was almost as if I had ADHD.

Once again I only passed Tax and Auditing after 2 years of not studying. This was because I now had all the auditing principles and tax principles embedded in my DNA.

So I took all the time from Tax and Auditing and only studied Accounting and Management Accounting, and yes I finally cracked it.

This was also the first time in my life I had studied for something consistently.

I finally passed CTA.

When I finally passed, it was so surreal that I kept staring at my marks every day for a week until I received the official academic record that I have passed.

It felt like the whole weight and oppression of battling with one thing for the past 9 years finally lifted and nothing was no longer holding me back in all areas of life.

Advice to those pursuing CA:
  • I have had many friends who looked up to me and came to me for help on certain complex topics but they studied consistently and I did not.  They passed CTA first attempt although some of them just barely made the entrance requirement into CTA. They understood that CTA was a marathon and they paid their dues daily.
  • I, on the other hand, did not study consistently and tried to make CTA a sprint just before exams and I fell flat on my face.
  • What I learnt is, you can never achieve true mastery of any subject unless you pay the price day in and day out.
  • I always say hard work beats talent anytime when talent is not working hard. I am proof of this. So while brilliance would go a long way,  it is not a requirement, consistent hard work is.

Articleship Journey

Articles played a vital role in shaping my character and knowing myself better.

I learnt to quickly manage different personalities from all the audit managers and from the client’s side.

People skills and managing personalities are very important if one is going to thrive in articles.

I was approachable and I would approach anyone and everyone I needed to get the job done.

My approach was always based on the personality of the individual concerned.

I took time to read and learn people and what makes them tick so that I can approach them in the same spirit.

There is always politics in articles and amongst clerks, I always shied away from politics and focused on getting the job done and also learning and personal development.

This quickly made me the go-to person amongst my peers, especially when they needed someone to explain certain audit sections or to mediate with another senior because the consensus amongst my fellow trainees was that I seemed to be liked even by the most “difficult” of managers and seniors.

Overcoming struggles and dealing with Failure

Luckily for me, I started reading self-help books from the age of 14 when I was in high school which equipped me with all the tools to get through tough times.

I learned long ago, that failure is an event and not a person.

Friends and family did not understand me:

I have lost friends in this journey.

I had to break up with a girlfriend because she was a naysayer. She kept telling me to pursue another career and felt CA was not for me!

At some point, my parents also didn’t understand the CA journey. They didn’t’ understand why I wanted to finish articles if I could just leave articles and get a better paying job.

I had to explain to them, the bigger picture and long-term goal and to see articles not as a job but as a learning platform that is also a qualification in itself.

Many of our struggles are hardened by our families and friends’ not understanding what we going through as they cannot relate and they don’t understand why we are so stressed all the time.

Losing my job:

The journey after completing articles was also not very smooth. Just when I had decided on a 2-year study break, I got retrenched twice in that one year. 

To make matters worse, I had just bought a new car and moved into a new place.

Sacrificing my passion:

I have also been practicing Karate since the age of 14. I’m a 1st Dan Black Belt.

I have had to sacrifice training and participating in world tournaments so I could put more time into CTA and fulfill my CA(SA) dreams.

In Conclusion

I never felt like giving up, because I always knew, there was nothing else for me but this.

What has always helped me is I have always had a healthy dose of self-esteem, in fact, I’m my own biggest cheerleader and hype man.

With regards, to dealing with exam failure, it came down to one question for me, which was - was that the best effort you put into your studies, could you not have done more?”.

My answer was always the same.

I never put in enough time as required by the course so I never gave myself a fighting chance. Up until I have given it my best and failed, then I could not walk away.

Here are a few tips from me:

  • Firstly, to all those still studying, no matter your grades or intellect, listen to your lecturers and those that have walked the path. You need to respect this journey.
  • Give it your best and put in the required effort or you fail dismally time and time again.
  • On the road of survival, when the winds of tough times blow you, allow them to bend but never break just like a palm tree. Resilience for me is about bending without breaking.
  • Playing a sport or having or hobby which can be an outlet for your frustrations also helps as you will need all the support you will get.
  • Try to find people in the same field who relate to your struggles as it will be easier to help each other.
  • To the young professionals, invest time in your own development; you must be a brand for your own self.
  • Before you undertake anything or task, always begin with the end in mind because that way, you know where you are going and what the destination looks like, this way you will make sure that what you do on a daily basis builds up to that destination and does not jeopardize it.
  • Be courteous to everyone you meet and learn from peoples’ experiences. Seek first to understand before trying to be understood and people will be drawn to you.
  • There will never be another you, so be the best version of yourself.
  • To get you started I would recommend getting yourself these two books - 'The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People' and "Tough times never last, but tough people do'.

BONUS: Here are Some Advice to Overcome Failure and Get Success In CA

Senele Mbath, CA

“Presently I am a CFO running the Finance Department and life is good, however, this was not my story while growing up.

Life was hard back then. I grew up in a poor community. I had tough days however giving my studies importance and pursuing CA from SAICA changed my life forever.”

My journey becoming a Chartered Accountant in South Africa

Taryn Raju, Chartered Accountant

"In my final year of Bachelors in Accounting, I went through some personal issues and ended a 5-year relationship which was honestly just as important as my CA dream.

Unfortunately, back then this breakup crushed me emotionally which affected my studies as well".

Read My 10 Year Long Journey to Becoming a Chartered Accountant CA(SA)

Khaleel, CA 

"To be honest it was NEVER my intention to pursue Chartered Accountancy.

I come from a somewhat humble background and prior to moving to Dubai, I traveled abroad only once."

My Journey from Becoming a CA(SA) to Living in Dubai as an Expat

                                                  Now It's Your Turn


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