Maritzburg’s magician

2011-11-15 00:00

SITTING in the fragrant rose garden at Rosehurst Café, I wonder if this is the right setting for a chat with the uMgungundlovu District municipal manager. It is very beautiful, but oh, so feminine. It’s too late. He walks in wearing a formal suit and tie and smiles.

“Oh, this is different, very relaxing,” he says. Sbu Khuzwayo has learnt to be flexible, if nothing else, in his job. With two years to go in his contract, he has dealt with the worst and he hopes that he can keep the municipality on an even keel for the rest of the journey.

When he was appointed as the acting municipal manager in 2008, he believed that he had been given the post as a punishment. “I really wondered what I had done wrong. I was minding my business at the Department of Local Government and Traditional Affairs [now Cogta], and then I was told to go to uMgungundlovu and sort out the mess. When I arrived, things were in a state of chaos. We did not even have toilet paper, a fax machine or telephones.

“It was like arriving in hell. I can now say that we have progressed in a major way to a position where we have money in the bank and we are running ­relatively comfortably, but we are still a long way from achieving optimal capacity.”

Khuzwayo says that there are many challenges for the district, and they are not unique to this region.

He says the municipality needs skills to improve its capacity to deliver services. “People always moan about the shortage of money, but I would say that it is really about the lack of dynamic and motivated people [who] in the right positions would make the world of difference.”

Khuzwayo says that it is his dream that after his contract has ended in 2014, he goes back to the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs to use his skills in a supervisory capacity to help other municipalities that face the same issues.

“I do feel that I have achieved a great deal, but it has not been an easy journey. I am human and I have made mistakes. But it is better to learn from your mistakes than to profess ignorance and blunder forward.”

Khuzwayo says that when he first took up the position he was terrified of making matters worse, so he took every decision under legal advisement, but as he grew into the job and began to trust his instincts more, he became more confident of his ability to decide on the merits of each case based on the facts.

“The previous incumbent had four advisers and two bodyguards, who were all drawing large salaries. I do not have any bodyguards and I trust myself to make the correct decisions, or I ask someone who is more knowledgeable than me for advice. I learnt early on that it is better to confess your ignorance and ask for advice than to expose your ignorance later on.”

Khuzwayo says managing the district is a bit like putting a massive jigsaw puzzle together. Sometimes the pieces fit together and at other times, they don’t. He had just returned from a disaster-management meeting, and has been trying to get stakeholders to work together on a plan for the district.

“Progress is being made, but Rome was not built in a day. You have to avoid petty politics and egos, and try to get everyone to see past their own interests to what will be good for the area.” Khuzwayo says that he believes that involving private stakeholders such as the Red Cross and Gift of the Givers in these forums is vital because they have skills and experience that can add to the effective functioning of the plan.

He also has big plans for the Environmental Management Forum, and says that there is a huge passion for conservation in the area and there should be commitment to work for the common good. The district is willing to work with people where there are common goals.

Khuzwayo, once a headmaster, believes that education is the key to enhancing the efficiency of the municipality. In fact, he believes that South Africa’s children have not been given a decent education.

“We have produced a generation of children who are basically unemployable. It is a tragedy.”

He was a rebel pupil in the 1976 riots and took two years to complete his matric. He then studied further to get his teaching degree. He believes implicitly that education is the only way young people can save themselves from poverty.

“I worked tirelessly to build up the school where I was teaching, only to see it burned down by people who were jealous. I was devastated. For two months, I nearly lost my mind. I was deeply affected. I could not believe that people could do something so selfish.”

Khuzwayo did not realise at the time that this was a turning point for him. He rebuilt the school the next year and then decided to move on and study town and regional planning, which led him into the area of local governance. He received a masters degree in this field. But he believes his years as a teacher were not wasted.

“I learnt that you must listen to people. Active listening skills are vital in this job. Also, as a teacher, you have to absorb the teaching material and then explain it to the children. I use this in my job. But I think my best quality is that I am a team player.

“I used to be tempted to do everything myself, but then you spread yourself thin and you get burnt out. You have to trust your staff and also empower them to do the job.” He is known as the man who never sleeps until his inbox is cleared. Khuzwayo says he admires humility in people because it breaks down barriers and helps effective communication. “Truly great people don’t need fancy titles and material possessions to define them. Their actions speak for them.”

Perhaps that is why he signs his e-mails simply with MM for municipal manager, and drives a VW Polo in defiance of all the luxury cars that some politicians drive. He also cut his salary by R150 000 when he took office, but sadly his example was not followed by others in the administration.

“I looked at my salary and at the budget and said we can’t afford this, it’s ridiculous. Luckily, my wife makes the money in our house, she’s the capitalist.”

Khuzwayo’s wife Nomzamo, is a medical doctor in Durban and she scoffs at him when he indulges in his socialist tendencies. He shrugs and smiles and says: “Oh well, we have been married for 20 years, she puts up with me.”

He has three children. two are grown up and his youngest son attends school at Michaelhouse. He says the children have given up on his hectic schedule. Khuzwayo makes the daily commute from Umhlanga to Pietermaritzburg, and says he uses the time to clear his head. “If I lived in Pietermaritzburg I would never leave work.”

He has no political ambitions, saying one should not mix politics and business. “To run a municipality, one has to keep a clear head and make decisions that will benefit the people and also keep to a budget.”

When he leaves he has one goal and that is to leave with his integrity intact. “People can criticise you for many things, but if you have done the job honestly to the best of your capabilities then you cannot be hung out to dry. You alone own your integrity.”

Part of his job is to find money in impossible situations in order to deliver. “I was once escorted to a service-delivery protest by the police. The crowd was baying for my blood. It was horrible. I had to explain that we did not have money to do what they wanted right then.”

He left the demonstration, organised a meeting with Umgeni Water and managed to sort out a water supply. “I am sometimes a magician. I am expected to perform miracles. It requires me to think outside the box.”

Khuzwayo finishes his scone with strawberry jam, and heads out the door for another meeting. “Don’t tell my wife, I’m supposed to be watching my weight,” he says, smiling.

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