Which Accounting Designation Is BEST for Me? (Part 2 of 5)


So you’re an accounting student, and between all the books, flags and tax regulations you need to get to grips with the various professional accounting bodies out there, each promising you an exciting, yet distinctly different career path. We realise that deciding which stream to follow is a big decision! Therefore, we’d like to take you through the thought-process and help your arrive at an informed choice. This is the second part of our “Career Guidance” series. Before you continue, we suggest you recap what you’ve learnt in part one: “Which Accounting Designation is BEST for ME!?”.

In this part of the series, we’ll explore the most prominent accounting institution, namely the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA). In particular, we’ll be looking at the different designations they offer to their members; their minimum requirements for admittance; what happens if you don’t meet the requirements; and how SAICA compares to the other leading institutions.

To start off, SAICA is the largest professional accounting body in South Africa and has bragging-rights to the all-star CA(SA) designation it offers its members. These four letters are well-recognised in the local South African market, and has been around since 1927, with ±44 000 registered members as of December 2017.

A fun fact: During World War II, 25 articled clerks were taken as Prisoners of War (POW). Hearing of their plight, the Institution arranged to send accounting books to every articled clerk POW so that they could continue their studies while incarcerated. #seriousaboutaccounting

Besides SAICA’s strong local presence, they’re also regarded as one of the leading professional accountancy institutions internationally and – for the last 7 consecutive years – has been ranked #1 for the ‘strength of auditing and reporting standards’ globally. Unfortunately, following the KPMG SA scandal, they were knocked off their throne (all the way down to #30!), with little prospect of climbing back to the top, thanks also to the most recent Steinhoff scandal involving Deloitte as auditors.

SAICA reintroduced the “Associate General Accountant” (AGA(SA)) designation in 2015 after being dormant for a few years, allowing members who were unfortunate not to achieve the CA(SA) stamp to be rewarded for their valuable experience and technical abilities. An AGA(SA) is regarded highly due to their practical experience, which is on par with their CA trainee counterparts. Their academic requirements are only slightly less stringent.

SAICA has ensured the quality of its members over the years. To keep the quality at a premium, SAICA requires a high minimum-educational qualification, ensuring that members have strong technical capabilities. Only certain Universities and accounting degrees are accredited by SAICA, with regular review of such accreditation (See the list here).

Having the CA(SA) / AGA(SA) designation behind your name sure would have a schweet ring to it, wouldn’t it!? We agree, but before you saddle that horse, we would like to give you a friendly heads-up regarding a few technicalities that kick-in under certain circumstances. Relax! In most cases, it’s smooth sailing. We’ll briefly touch on the most common circumstances that warrant closer inspection; however, the intent of this blog is not to slide down a black hole of obscure bylaws! Should you have further questions, send us a FB message, or contact SAICA.

Academic Requirements

Firstly, you’ll need to obtain an accredited bachelor’s degree in accounting at one of the 12 accredited universities in South Africa. To become a CA(SA) you are further required to obtain a PGDA (Post Graduate Diploma in Accounting), also referred to as a CTA (Certificate in Theory of Accounting) at an accredited University. For the AGA(SA) route you’ll only need to obtain an accredited undergraduate degree in accounting.

Most universities have admission requirements into PGDA/ CTA, and require a minimum average mark in your final undergrad year. Some Universities have an option referred to as a BCTA (Bridging-CTA), which is an additional qualification you need to complete should you not achieve the minimum admission requirements in your undergrad year (rather than having to repeat your undergrad to make the admission requirements). The BCTA (or equivalent depending on the university in question), can also serve as a bridge from another non-SAICA-accredited degree to be accepted into CTA. The BCTA’s have their own acceptance criteria and you should query these universities for additional information.

Practical Experience – aka “articles”

This is the exciting part where you sign a ‘training contract’ with an accredited employer (referred to as “training office”) and you commence your journey of building a successful career! The important part is that you must complete your training at an accredited SAICA training office (unlike some of the other institutions e.g. ACCA/ CIMA).

In most cases, and as a minimum, your training contract will require you to work for one employer for 3 years. The minimum 36-month period applies to anyone who has already obtained a SAICA accredited degree (Undergrad/ BCTA/ CTA) at the start of his/her training. In the event that a trainee starts his/her training without a SAICA accredited degree under their belt, an extended training contract will apply. In such cases, SAICA requires either a 48-month or 60-month contract, depending on the trainee’s academic progress at the start of the contract. Under certain circumstances, you can apply to lower the 48-/ 60-month training requirement (called remission). The details get technical pretty quickly, so we’ve only briefly outlined them:

48-Month contract: applies to anyone who has achieved a non-accredited B.Com undergraduate/ B Tech degree, or another qualification that SAICA has approved for the 48-month training contract program (See the list in link on page 13). Remission of 12-months is available should you complete an accredited SAICA degree during the training period.

60-Month contract: applies to anyone who does not qualify for the 36- or 48-month contract, and with a minimum of a matric certificate. The route caters for the part-time student and has many times delivered the youngest CA(SA)’s in South Africa. Remission is available to a person who graduates with an accredited degree within the first 12 months of starting the training contract; he/ she would only be required to complete 36 months of the contract from the date of obtaining the degree; OR, if the accredited degree is obtained during the training contract period, the contract length could also be reduced by 12 months (i.e. totalling only 48 months).

Another technical point to consider is the “Academic Progress” rule. It requires students without the accredited degree to make continuous academic progress (e.g. Pass all 1st year modules within two years); if not, they could end up getting penalised, or even worse, having their training contracts terminated. (Have a read pg 36 – 37).

DID YOU KNOW: You can also do your first year of training at a university as an Academic Clerk, which is particularly suited to those considering a future career as a lecturer. Many trainees take this time to complete an additional course or degree at the varsity in question, as the luxury of time is on their side! (The option is only available at some universities).

Competencies & Electives

During your training contract, you’ll be required to complete certain objectives, called “Competencies”. These are the set of skills which a CA(SA) and AGA(SA) is expected to master during the course of their training. If your training officer (an experienced CA(SA)) is satisfied that you show competence in all the required areas, he/she will open the door for you to register with SAICA as a member by “signing off” on said competencies. This is where we believe the true value of the SAICA designations lie – the invaluable experience gained under the guidance and mentorship of industry leaders.

Each Training Office offers the opportunity to gain a differentiated experience depending on the type of business it operates and their typical client profiles: from a multinational Audit Practice (e.g. Mazars / Nolands); a JSE listed manufacturing and distribution giant like Distell; or even a small Audit & Consulting outfit servicing Entrepreneurs and Startup Ventures (e.g. Zuydam Konsult / SDK Inc).

Each office also requires trainees to comply with certain objectives set by SAICA – called Electives. The most common elective offered by audit firms is the ‘Assurance and Audit Elective’. The other training plans (electives) that may also be offered according to SAICA include the following: Taxation; Financial Management; Management Decision-Making; and Risk Management and Governance Elective. Examples of firms that offer a non-audit elective: RMB, Investec, MTN, Ford, Distell and V&A Waterfront.

A quick note: You’ll find most people still refer to SAICA TIPP/ TOPP training contracts. These training plans no longer exist and have been replaced by training plans differentiated by elective. So, it is possible that the same firm offers both the Audit and Assurance and Taxation elective, in which case a trainee would select one of the two upon signing his/her contract. To make it easy: TIPP referred to “Training In Public Practice” and was mostly associated with the “Audit and Assurance elective”; TOPP, on the other hand, referred to “Training Outside Public Practice”, and covered all the other electives. Find out which electives are on offer at the particular training office where you apply and make sure you pick the one that best suits your future career goals.

Board Exams

SAICA has two professional board exams which trainees are required to pass before being admitted as a CA(SA). Without passing both exams students do not qualify to register as Chartered Accountants. Important to note:  AGA(SA)’s are not required to pass any board exam.

The first board exam is the ITC, an acronym for “Initial Test of Competence”. The exam is written at the end of January (with a supplementary exam in June) and consists of 4 individual exam papers (each 3 hours in duration!), and is written over 2 consecutive days. To qualify for the ITC, a candidate must have successfully completed an accredited CTA/ PGDA. The ITC exam has an average pass rate of ±76% and the work is highly technical (a reflection of the preceding CTA/ PGDA). Ask your lecturers what your University Pass rate is! 😉

The second board exam, called the APC (“Assessment of Professional Competence”), is an 8-hour exam written on a single day in November. The admission requirements are that candidates must have passed the ITC exam and have completed at least 20 months of their SAICA training contract (usually in the 2nd year of their articles). The exam is in a case-study format and a “Pre-Release” portion of it is released 5 days prior to the exam. It allows students to prepare a file and documents which they may take into the exam in anticipation of specific questions. The pass rate is higher than the ITC at an average of ±88%. The purpose of the exam is to test the professional competence of candidates (as opposed to the technical skills as  was the case for the ITC).


SAICA is highly regarded by most participants in the economy, making it entirely feasible – after you have completed your SAICA training –  to change course into another accounting niche (e.g. CIMA/ ACCA/ SAIPA) should you find that their offering is more appealing. With your degree and training contract in hand, you also stand to receive certain remissions from the other professional institutions. The inverse, however, is not possible in most cases (bridging from SAIPA / CIMA or ACCA to SAICA) as SAICA’s training requirements are typically not met by the other institutions.

Having the CA(SA) designation also allows the highest “authority” regarding certain corporate and legal functions in South Africa. One such example is that only CA(SA)’s are eligible register with the IRBA as a Registered Auditor (RA). Therefore, in terms of the legislative “powers” afforded to SAICA members, it is evident that the CA(SA) designation is superior to other accounting bodies (the AGA(SA) designation is on par with the other accounting designations!)

Although SAICA’s international renown has subsided somewhat, the CA(SA) brand is still a formidable force in the South African business landscape. Its younger sibling, the AGA(SA), is also showing signs of promising growth since its recent revival. The most important question remains, however: will SAICA be able to shake off the negative press attention it recently garnered and the detrimental influence it’s had on its image? Will the institution take the right steps going forward to ensure South African and international stakeholders its members are still of a premium “quality and standard”? We surely hope so!