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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

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Abstract

VERHOEF, Grietjie. Values in the accountancy profession: a historical investigation of the establishment of the profession in South Africa. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2011, vol.51, n.4, pp. 575-596. ISSN 0041-4751.

The profession of accountants and auditors faced growing suspicion and distrust after the Enron debacle. The accountancy profession emerged on firm foundations of strong ethical values, codes of professional conduct and standards of professional practice. From these foundations the profession sought various ways of securing its professional domain. One of the most important strategies towards the protection of professionalism, was the concept of professional self-regulation. Through the self-regulation the profession sought to establish the values of the profession, enforce them through high standards of examination and controlled practical training. Finally, the profession sought to control access to public practising rights through the exclusive right to licence professionals. The values underlying the profession were integrity, accountability, honesty, reliability and trustworthiness. This article explores the early formative years of the accountancy profession in South Africa and the attempts to take control of the protection and promotion of the values of the profession through mechanisms of professional closure. These attempts displayed simultaneous elements of intra-professional contestation as well as professional collaboration to secure control over the values the professions prized as the distinctive characteristics of its true profession. The article shows the various routes the accountancy profession explored in order to arrive at a position of professional closure on the basis of its distinctive values. Differences between the membership criteria of the different professional associations created reciprocity differentiation amongst the different professional bodies in South Africa. The profession attempted to overcome these potentially disqualifying obstacles to practice rights by seeking national statutory recognition. These attempts were frustrated. Fear of opening up the professional market to unqualified people led the four professional bodies to rally around their membership as benchmark of the profession in the Union of South Africa. Protest by accountants not included in the "Chartered Societies" increased slowly until the Minister of Finance responded by appointing commissions of enquiry into the accountancy profession. These commissions sanctioned the existing professional organisations, but did not deter bureaucratic suspicion of the quality of some public auditing. The original official position was that the profession should conduct its own affairs and seek collaboration within itself without government intervention. This position was reversed by the late 1940s. The article explains how the profession was forced to collaborate with the state to acquire statutory sanctioning. State intervention in what the profession has perceived as its exclusive domain, was justified on grounds of the "public interest". The article explores the consequences of this development for the profession. It is argued that the profession lost exclusive control over the setting, examining and enforcement of those exact values the state argued it needed to step in to oversee in the "public interest". A loss of control over professional values might have contributed to serious accountancy and auditing lapses as witnessed with WorldCom and Enron, but in South Africa may be equally pertinent in empowerment strategies.

Keywords : professional autonomy; accountants; auditors; professional code; ethics; values; examination; licensing; professional domain; professional closure strategy.

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