Kathy Gibson reports – Every year it seems that business confronts more uncertainty – and this doesn’t look like this will be going away any time soon, or deter them.

This is the word from Ignatius Sehoole, CEO of KPMG, presenting the 2023 CEO Outlook this morning.

Southern Africa retains significant long-term potential, with a growing human capital advantage, access to abundant mineral and natural resources, and pockets of excellence in institutions and infrastructure.

“Emerging market economies are, however, also severely impacted by world events,” Sehoole says. “As global capital remains risk-averse, smaller currencies and stock markets suffer, and the potential for foreign investment diminishes. Organic growth is being prioritised over dealmaking as CEOs focus on keeping the number of uncontrolled variables to a minimum.”

While global CEO confidence in the growth prospects of their own companies over the next three years hit a three-year low at 77%, down from 85% in 2020, according to the KPMG CEO Outlook Survey 2023, Southern African CEOs are far more optimistic with 90% of respondents indicating confidence in their company’s growth prospects.

In addition, 96% of South African CEOs see their earnings increasing over the next three years with 20% of CEOs forecasting earnings growth of between 0% and 2,5%, 63% of South African CEOs forecasting earnings growth of between 2,5% and 5%, and 3% of CEOs forecasting growth of between 10% and 25%.

“What we are seeing coming out of this report is that CEOs are placing an increased emphasis on organic growth opportunities in lieu of deal-making opportunities, as global uncertainty continues,” says Frank Blackmore, lead economist of KPMG in South Africa.

“The top three operational priorities for Southern African CEOs to achieve their growth objectives over the next three years include advancing digitisation and connectivity of all functional areas (35%), the improvement of customer experience (28%), and improving their employee value proposition (EVP) to attract and retain the necessary talent (28%).”

This annual South Africa report, which KPMG compiled in partnership with Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), draws on the perspectives of 60 CEOs mostly from South Africa, and six other countries, within the Southern Africa region. This follows on the back of the Global KPMG CEO Outlook Survey conducted among 1 325 CEOs across 11 markets which examined how CEOs are looking to tackle this complex set of emerging and converging challenges.

The three major issues of technology, talent and ESG (environmental and social governance) were in the top 10 last year and continue to be important. “The businesses that position themselves to exploit the opportunities these three thing bring will do better going forward,” Sehoole says.

Disruptive technology

“From time to time, there comes technology that disrupts everything,” Sehoole points out.

The big disruptive technologies in 023 are generative artificial intelligence (GenAI), and cybersecurity and regulation: 71% of southern African CEOs believe that GenAI is a top investment priority; and 28% believe it can offer them new market growth opportunities.

With the willingness of businesses to adopt GenAI into the workplace, there are notable challenges and concerns that CEOs have also expressed. Accordingly, 33% of them believe that the main challenge they will face is securing the technical capability and skills required for their employees to benefit from GenAI in their everyday work.

Furthermore, the ethics of this emerging technology remains an ongoing discussion within the business, with 80% of Southern Africa’s CEOs agreeing that a lack of current regulat ion for GenAI may become a barrier to the success of their organisation adoption. Considering how GenAI should be regulated, a common outlook of CEOs viewed this technology to be a critical topic of conversation for business going forward.

In terms of cybersecurity, 84% of southern African CEOs believe that although GenAI can enhance cybersecurity, it may also pose an addition cyber risk.

Sixteen percent of CEOs do not believe their organisation is well prepared to deal with a future cyberattack.

“Artificial Intelligence models have the potential to transform businesses and everyday life profoundly. Yet their applications, including the benefits and risks, are widely misunderstood. Cyber security is rated as the top risk globally that will impact public trust in the use of this technology. We need to embrace this technology in a safe and secure way,” says Sipho Ndaba, partner: tech assurance at KPMG in South Africa.


Talent remains a top priority for southern African CEOs, particularly with many skilled people leaving.

Last year, CEOs said the way of working will return to pre-pandemic ways within three years – and this year, 72% of them are still saying three years.

Despite the slippage of the timeframe, CEOs are still determined to go back to the office, while younger employees are pushing back.

Globally, 87% of CEOs are willing to incentivise people to come back to the office with favourable assignments, raises or promotion. This might not fly in South Africa, Sehoole points out, and we may retain the hybrid working model.

What is interesting to note is that given technology advances through the rise of Generative AI, 73% of CEOs in Southern Africa have expressed that they will be prioritising the placement of their capita l investment into acquiring new technology rather than the upskilling of their workforce.

Meanwhile, 78% of CEOs acknowledge that diversity in the workplace requires implementing change across leadership at the most senior level.

“However, 96% of South African CEOs have still projected a growing headcount over the next three years,” says Makgotso Letsitsi, head of people, transformation and citizenship at KPMG in South Africa. “The findings in the KPMG Report also pointed to the talent landscape evolving and that there is a definitive shift in leadership and management style.

“The majority of CEOs across Southern Africa (53%) agree that it will be through shared management and operational responsibilities that greater success will be enabled during this politically, socially, and economically unpredictable time.”

Sehoole adds: “As we examine the KPMG CEO Outlook Report, we can see how CEO views on what risk factors they are facing in their businesses has shifted. The rise of generative AI, how talent management is viewed and high expectations in addressing ESG, and diversity and inclusion have become topical business focus areas.

“CEOs are not only trying to understand how to operate in tomorrow’s market, but how they can capitalise on new technologies, while nurturing their workforce through shared management and operational responsibilities and ensure their ESG initiatives gain traction.”


When it comes to ESG, a lot of focus has historically been placed on the environmental part of this, with an eye on quick returns. In 2023, though, southern African CEOs see the social side of it as an important place to invest, with returns expected in the long-term. Fifty-eight percent of CEOs say it will take three to five years to see a significant return on these investments.

Eighty percent of southern Africa CEOs believe that scrutiny of the diversity performance of organisations will intensify over the next three years

According to Pieter Scholtz, partner of KPMG South Africa and the KPMG lead for ESG in Africa, CEOs across Southern Africa agree that key investment priorities include governance models and transparency protocols as well as addressing environmental challenges and focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“The ESG space has grown in southern Africa and CEOs believe that the public is looking for businesses to fill the void in various societal issues, including diversity and inclusion within the workplace. Diversity and inclusion remain a top priority in organisations, with 83% of Southern Africa’s CEOs believing that achieving gender equality in the C-suite will be a critical determining factor.

“While we know that CEOs, globally and in southern Africa, agree that there’s a connection between a strong ESG strategy and positive financial performance, given frequently changing ESG regulations – CEOs are also rethinking and resetting their ESG strategies as their understanding of the landscape continues to grow.”

In addition, barriers remain to achieve a net zero climate goal for global corporations, including lack of appropriate technological skills, cost of decarbonisation, lack of skills to implement solutions, the complexity of decarbonising supply chains, and lack of internal governance/ controls to operationalise it.

For southern Africa’s CEOs, however, 47% believe that lack of appropriate technology solutions will be the greatest barrier to achieving net zero or similar climate ambitions and 32% say that a higher cost of and/ or difficulty in raising finance may be the main reason why the expectations of stakeholders will not be met when it comes to ESG.

Pictured: Ignatius Sehoole, CEO of KPMG Southern Africa