ACCOUNTANTS were "catalysts for change" needed by SA to help the state make important decisions affecting the economy, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said yesterday.

Mr Gordhan's address to the South African Institute of Professional Accountants (Saipa) conference in Johannesburg stressed the role of accountants in the social and economic changes of the global economy over the past three years, reflecting on international efforts to improve accounting systems to avoid a repeat of the global financial crisis.

He said SA's tax gross domestic product ratio was above 28% and that SA was "barely crawling back to 25%". He added that accountants were crucial in giving information to state that would allow for growth and revenue, so that government could operate without increasing deficit.

"The financial crisis raises questions about sustainability of the world's current path to development. Just because conditions appear to be okay now, it doesn't mean it will remain that way in five years' time."

The role of accountants has become more important to general society in the current economic times. "Historically accountants had the role of providing information to shareholders but their role has now extended to informing persons in labour, government, the banking sector, regulators and general society," he said.

Mr Gordhan noted the insufficient numbers of accountants, particularly black accountants in the country, saying this was a challenge. He urged those in the field to make employment opportunities more accessible for unemployed graduates.

"It is important that we give unemployed graduates in accounting an opportunity to have that first work experience."

"Research has shown that young people who are not given that opportunity by the ages of 24 and 25 find it more difficult to get work later on in life," he said.

Saipa chairwoman Shirley Olsen welcomed Mr Gordhan's challenge to the industry to assist graduates. "Accountants especially should take graduates and students into mentoring. This is important because a degree without experience is useless."

Ms Olsen said a balance between academic qualification and field experience was important to build strong accountants. "It has always been important to couple the two especially in this industry. Ideally we recommend three years of study before one pursues articles or a learnership."

She also said that ethics were crucial for accountants in SA. "I absolutely believe ethics among South African accountants are at a desirable state. Our industry has a strong ethical code and ethics, especially in business and the accounting industry - something one cannot do without."

Communications co-ordinator of South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (Saica) Bontle Tsikwe said SA was ranked number one in the world for quality of financial reporting and auditing by the World Economic Forum.

"Accountants play an integral role in the economy of SA as they contribute directly to the highly respected level of financial reporting and audit standards of the country. Chartered accountants play a particularly significant role in achieving this rating not only as chartered accountants operating in public practice but also as business leaders," she said.

Ms Tsikwe said Saica believed SA needed more chartered accountants "to further contribute to the success of business in SA as well as the reputation of South African business among international investors".

Mr Gordhan said much had been done to grow the pool of accountants.