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Sihle Zikalala, 38, loves people. Nobhala (secretary), as he is affectionately referred to by many ANC members, says his job is tailor-made for him as he loves being among people and listening to them.
He believes it’s his organising skills which makes him most suitable for the job. “What I know best is to be on the ground.” He says this hands-on approach means he has to be accessible, speak to everyone and not be “glued” to his office.
Having his fingers on the pulse of the organisation means that sometimes he will go to a meeting “just to listen” to people’s concerns and to experience first-hand the challenges in those areas.
“You must feel it, you must be there, you must understand the condition that is there,” he says.
And it is no mean feat. Effectively, he is the chief executive officer of the ANC’s biggest province in the country and responsible for its day-to-day operations. KwaZulu-Natal boasts a 250 000-strong membership and is in the midst of an intensive recruitment campaign, with minority groups at the top of its priority list.
Zikalala’s organisational skills shone through during last month’s elective conference when the ANC pioneered a computerised accreditation system which meant that the turnaround time for each delegate was less than five minutes.
ANC national executive committee member, Tokyo Sexwale, said the KZN elective conference was one of the best yet organised and that many could learn from it.
However, now that the provincial conference is over, it doesn’t mean Zikalala has more time on his hands.
“We are preparing for the national policy conference at the end of June (this month) and then the conference in Mangaung… we even know what we are doing next year,” he says.
However, Zikalala doesn’t see politics as a career and describes himself as “just an organiser” making his contribution to the social development of society as a whole. He says he doesn’t need to play a leadership role in the party, but “I cannot live my life without being a member of the ANC. The ANC has shaped my life.”
And it has. At an age when most ordinary teenagers were finding themselves and dealing with growing pains, Zikalala was doing his bit to path the way for a future SA. It was extraordinary times. In 1988 SA was in the clutches of the apartheid regime. Zikalala was just 15 and living in rural Ndwedwe. His political education came from his cousin, Sandile Dladla, a UDF (United Democratic Front) activist. Dladla mesmerised the young Zikalala with his political slogans and taught him about Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Soon Zikalala was also involved in politics and organising strikes at school. He played a leading role in the free education campaigns and calls for the formation of parent teacher student associations in the1990s.
“This is how people fight when they want to win their freedom; they throw stones at airplanes and overturn tanks,” wrote Cuban revolutionary, Fidel Castro.
The line comes from Castro’s epic four-hour speech “History will absolve me” which Zikalala rates as one of his all-time favourites and has read many times. Today Zikalala, who has worked his way through the organisation’s ranks, is vocal on the issue of “parachuting” – where people join the ANC and rapidly rise through the ranks without being “tried and tested” cadres.
While still at school, and at a time when there was IFP/ANC violence in Ndwedwe and other areas, he was instrumental in building party structures.
He was active in the ANC and its youth league and occupied a number of positions in the various structures, and even played a role in the peace committee which was formed to quell IFP/ANC violence in 1994/5. He was also involved in the South African Youth Congress, where he worked closely with Nathi Mthethwa, now national Police minister.
During the first local government elections in KwaZulu-Natal in 2000, Zikalala was elected to serve as a proportional representative councillor and went on to become the secretary-general of the ANC Youth League. When he left the youth league, he thought he would “do other things” but that never happened.
Instead he was elected as KZN provincial secretary in 2008. It is a role which keeps him busy because, whereas the youth can “speak anyhow”, the ANC is in the business of “transforming the state”.
Despite his hectic schedule though, Zikalala is a family man. Married to Neli; he is father to two boys; aged seven and four; and a little girl, Ayetaba, who is a year and a half.
Zikalala does not miss school functions and tries to spend as much time as he can with his children.
“They are at an age where they need a lot of time,” he says. Family time also means making breakfast for them or just relaxing with them as they watch kiddies’ programmes on TV.
As the son of a pastor, Zikalala also attends church on a Sunday when he is free. His parents were “progressive Christians” who only named him Sihle and did not see the need to give him an English name as well, which, he says, “was very good of them”. Neli and his only sibling, a sister who is a teacher in KwaDukuza, are both ANC members but not in any leadership positions.
Zikalala matriculated in 1992 and has started studying for a degree in communication science at Unisa, but for now it has been shelved owing to work commitments. He strongly feels that young people should not stop studying when they attain an undergraduate degree but must proceed to honours and beyond. He stresses that it is imperative that as society we produce intellectuals.
He points out that the ANC too should invest in its members as “governing the country is complex.” But Zikalala’s concern is that people are restricted by what they have studied and that, as the world becomes more integrated, they will lag behind because they cannot converse about other issues. It is important that we become a “knowledgeable society, he says.
Apart from politics, soccer is his other love. And his faces lights up when he talks about his favourite team, Kaizer Chiefs, and says he has loved the Amakhosi since childhood when Nelson “Teenage” Dladla wore the number 11 jersey.
He rates Barcelona as his favourite international team and saw them in action when they visited SA and played against Sundowns; and again when he attended a Palestine-related campaign in Spain.
His favourite international player is Ivory Coast international and former Chelsea footballer, Didier Drogba. When soccer is not on the menu, Zikalala tries to do cardio sessions at the gym and says his goal is to take part in the Comrades marathon someday.
Love him or hate him, Zikalala has brought a sense of openness with his straight talking to his position in the ANC.
Last month he said it was important to step up service provision because soon the second decade of democracy would be over and the ANC would not be able to blame apartheid.
In addition, the bulk of voters in the next election would not have experienced apartheid and would judge the ANC based on its performance in government, rather than loyalty. Also, while the party has strategised about recruiting minorities, it has failed to act on its plans – an issue it was addressing now.
Zikalala has also been vocal about the type of cadre the party needs, saying there was a difference between being a cadre and being a member. And he has constantly spoken out against “crass materialism” and those in the party who were focused on amassing wealth at all costs. Perhaps fitting is a quote from his favourite Castro speech. “Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me.”