'He laughed at himself'

HARD TASKMASTER:  Sicelo Shiceka being sworn in as minister of provincial and local government   in 2008. Photo: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
HARD TASKMASTER: Sicelo Shiceka being sworn in as minister of provincial and local government in 2008. Photo: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

A LOT has been said about Sicelo Shiceka, the late former minister of cooperative governance and traditional affairs.

Political leaders and opinion-makers have without exception kept to the general norm, commiserating with his family.

They have spoken about Shiceka the activist, political leader, government leader and MP. Sections of the media have questioned the tributes, reminding us all about the findings against him by Public Protector Thuli Madonsela and his dismissal from the cabinet.

There have even been suggestions that were it not a year when there would be a policy conference and an elective conference of the ANC, the responses by his comrades in the ANC and its alliance partners would have been different. I find the logic bizarre, unbelievable and rather insensitive.

I want to comment about the Shiceka I had the honour of working with for close to four years, first when he was an MP and then as cabinet minister. I am not denying the Madonsela findings against him. Nor am I about to define him in terms of a report that covered only a few months of his life.

He was a dedicated leader, a visionary with an almost unmatched depth of understanding governance, especially in relation to the local and provincial spheres of government.

He was one of the most energetic people I have ever come across. His energy left those of us around him panting to keep up with his pace. When he dealt with the redemarcation of Khutsong back into Gauteng, his incisive mind and single-minded focus was demonstrated to all who worked with him.

One of the lessons I learnt from him was to "never lose sight of the ball in the field of play". He would then go into a mini-lecture with a simple logic that had profound wisdom. I got to appreciate the simple intellectual prowess and profound wisdom of amaMpondo more through minister Shiceka.

I will always remember Shiceka for reigniting a sense of pride in my Mpondo heritage, and in a way reconnecting me with my cultural identity.

I am not proud to say but it was only during the time I served under him that I got to understand the Ingquza Hill massacre better.

In Pondoland one comes face-to-face with the harshest realities of poverty, disease, unemployment and general social degradation.

In Shiceka, amaMpondo saw a ray of hope in having one of their own being a minister.

The logic was that maybe their pleas for government support and intervention would get to government quicker because they could always knock on maXhamela's door when her son, minister "Tshiceka" was home.

There was an expectation he would be their mouthpiece in pleading their case for water, electricity, road infrastructure, job creation, social infrastructure and, importantly, recognition of the historical significance of the Pondo Massacre.

That a president of the republic for the first time went and commemorated the massacre with amaMpondo in 2010 was translated to mean that amaMpondo had eventually come into the mainstream of the democratic dispensation.

One of the last surviving veterans of the massacre, Tat'u Silangwe, said he could now depart peacefully from this world and report back to his ancestors that the pinnacle of the historical struggles of amaMpondo had received the recognition it deserved from government. He died soon after.

Shiceka was unearthing the rot that had become apparent at municipality level in North West . In response to an instruction from the government, he led from the front, on the ground. He would see the brief to finish, guided at all times by the ANC.

"Ulala kanjani ungawugqibanga umsebenzi?" (How do you sleep without having finished a task?) was his frequent refrain to us officials when he received excuses for unfinished tasks. This was because his meetings could start from 9am to the early hours of the following morning, meeting various layers of leadership in each municipality.

Meetings with the ANC caucus were usually the last and would easily take us through to the next morning. I remember once driving from a meeting with a former colleague back to our hotel at around 5am. As we were walking in, tourists were already at the entrance waiting to be taken on their jaunts for the day, while we were going to sleep for a few hours before reconvening by 10am the same day.

When Shiceka was given a task, his focus on reaching the goal was a sight to behold. Officials had no option but to step up to the plate.

His leadership did not always endear him to many, including officials who would have preferred a minister who sat in his office and relied on their voluminous reports. Reports that he proved more often than not to be more fiction than fact. Sometimes this approach irked his colleagues.

The outcome of criss-crossing the country to get to the root of the decay was the Local Government Turn Around Strategy, which cabinet later approved.

Shiceka had a plan to get rid of the rot that has kept municipalities in a state of paralysis and decay. This is the sphere where the government will be judged the most on whether it has lived up to its election promises.

He was far from perfect and to work with him was not for the faint-hearted. The support staff in his office would attest to the fact that he was not just a politician whom the Public Protector had found against on serious allegations. That was not the sum total of the man. He was a freedom fighter who had taken his activism from the streets of Katlehong on Gauteng's East Rand into government corridors.

He had the ability to lead with a collective but was also able to take decisive action when necessary. He was prone to laughing at himself, his misfortunes and his imperfections.

He was fearless and dared to go in where angels feared to tread - and made foes in the process.

He was so kind he would take time to check on me when my father died in 2010. Lala ngoxolo Sukude!

  • Qinga was head of communication and spokeswoman for the former minister. She writes in her personal capacity