Purpose: The paper aims to examine disputed interpretations of “key meanings” between the audit regulator and Big 4 firms during a highly contentious regulatory debate, showcasing their use of “strategies of resistance” to achieve their intended outcomes.

Design/methodology/approach: A qualitative analysis is performed of the discourse in a South African audit regulatory debate, set within the country's unique political and historical context. The analysis is informed by the theoretical construct of a “regulatory space” and an established typology of strategic responses to institutional pressures.

Findings: The study’s findings show how resistance to regulatory intentions from influential actors, notably the Big 4 firms, was dispelled. This was achieved by the regulator securing oversight independence, co-opting political support, shortening the debate timeline and unilaterally revising the interpretation of its statutory mandate. The regulator successfully incorporated race equality into its interpretation of how the public interest is advanced (in addition to audit quality). The social legitimacy of the Big 4 was then further undermined. The debate was highly contentious and unproductive and likely contributed to overall societal concerns regarding the legitimacy of, and the value ascribed to, the audit function.

Practical implications: A deeper appreciation of vested interests and differing interpretations of key concepts and regulatory logic could help to promote a less combative regulatory environment, in the interest of enhanced audit quality and the sustainability and legitimacy of the audit profession.

Originality/value: The context provides an example, contrary to that observed in many jurisdictions, where the Big 4 fail to actively resist or even dilute significant regulatory reform. Furthermore, the findings indicate that traditional conceptions of what it means to serve “the public interest” may be evolving in favour of a more liberal social democratic interpretation.


public interest, audit regulation, audit quality, auditor rotation

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