Abstract: Accountants and Business Culture: The Agency of the Accounting Profession in Nineteenth-Century South African Business Culture

Grietjie Verhoef


Traditionally accounting has been seen as 'neutral,' a system of technical reporting instruments, but new literature has shed much light on the social and value-laden nature of accounting practice. Not much work has been undertaken on the relationship between the business culture of nineteenth-century "South African" colonies and the agency of the accountancy profession. The representations by accountants impact directly on human behavior, also on that of business people. As business ventures emerged in the British colonies of the Cape of Good Hope and later in the Natal Colony, the accounting profession was actively engaged in framing the nature of professional domain control. Business development in the colonies displayed entrepreneurial activities but conditioned by British accounting principles introduced to colonial enterprises. The paper explores the relationship between the emerging colonial businesses and the accounting profession. As economic developments gained momentum after the mineral discoveries, business opportunities expanded, strengthening the claim by accountants to market domination. Accountants engaged increasingly with the statutory processes in the colonies, specifically with respect to the development of legislation pertaining to companies, banks, taxation, estates and trusts, and bankruptcies. By devising Professional Codes of Conduct and professional qualifications and by engaging with the colonial governments on statutory developments, the accounting profession was instrumental in establishing British business culture in the colonies as well as in the former Boer Republics after defeat in the South African War of 1899-1902. The paper will explore the linkages with accountants and professional accounting associations in other parts of the British Commonwealth to trace the degree to which British business culture became engrained in the South African colonies. It is suggested that the accounting profession has had a profound impact on shaping the culture of business in nineteenth-century 'South Africa.'