A tribute to Bongani Gxilishe


My brother, friend and comrade – 30 September 1965 – 16 July 2021.

Honourable Premier, David Makhura, MEC Lebogang Maile, senior leaders in government, members of the Gxilise and Mdodana family, Bongani’s colleagues and comrades. 

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s an honour to stand here to say a few words about my brother, friend and comrade. Bongani was larger than life, and he lived it to the fullest – what aspects would I touch on and what aspects would I leave out, in a life so well lived. So many have spoken about Bongani the family man, the loving hubby to u Tammy (uBaby), a doting father to Kwekwe and Zoxolo, a loving son to MamBhele, a caring brother to his sisters, a member of the Thembu royalty, a former student leader, a seasoned political activist, a compassionate community leader, a keen scholar, or an organic intellectual. As I thought about condensing a 37 year relationship, capturing the essence of who this man was, I had a broad choice: Bongani the political activist, the community builder, the family man, the student leader, the ANC leader, the accomplished scholar, or the intellectual – but I thought I should choose a topic least spoken about, that he really loved and that is needed today more than ever before. I would like to talk about Bongani Gxilishe, the Public Servant. 

We are sitting on a ticking timebomb 

In the latest Auditor General’s briefing to parliament, the AG reported that just more than a quarter of South Africa’s municipalities, or 27%, admit themselves that they don’t know if they can continue; almost one in every four councils, or 57, failed to deliver any kind of financial statement by the statutory audit deadline. The AG said they believed this number could be higher as some financial statements were not completed for different reasons, including non-submission and late submission. 

The report further indicates a staggering R26bn in irregular expenditure at municipalities in the 2019/20 financial year. This irregular expenditure was incurred in 246 of the 278 municipalities across SA. The ugly news is the 22 councils countrywide with disclaimed audit outcomes — the worst possible — they went through almost R5.5-billion without being able to say where the money went. 

If you put this differently, of the R6.45-billion taxpayers contributed via the national purse to those municipalities through equitable share and conditional grant allocations, only R980-million remained by municipal financial year-end. In the scary words of AG Maluleke, “Nobody is reporting. Nobody is accounting. Nobody is sure where the money went.” 

This has three profound impacts: 

• Any local or foreign investor who is invested or planning to invest in a dysfunctional municipality who feels they have no control over their annual property rates bill or water and electricity bill, if they don’t have a guarantee of water and electricity [supply], or they have intermittent or no service delivery, what exactly is the reason for investing? 

• Many municipalities also fail to recover all of what’s owed to them, from rates, electricity tariffs and other levies; on average 63% is recovered. This means councils owe suppliers such as Eskom and water boards more money than is in the kitty and helps explain the 209-day payment delays to suppliers. The bottom line is that revenue not collected, creditors not paid, councils are in deficit.   

• Lastly, and probably more frightening, 46% of equitable shares, grants and other monies meant for maintenance and service delivery are instead diverted to pay the salaries of admin staff and councillors. Maintenance and service delivery does not happen. Poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment increases, and community anger and frustrations grow. 

“In the words of Gopal, 

Simply put, the so-called ‘financial distress’ at most municipalities is largely as a result of large-scale looting and corruption, we are approaching a situation where there is basically no value or investment proposition left any longer. 

With only 10.5% of the country’s 257 municipalities receiving clean audits, he says it is evident the financial situation among municipalities is dire, with lack of accountability rampant among officials. 

The AG’s revelation that no one can account for R5.5 billion at the country’s worst-run municipality is a clear indication that the roots of corruption run deep, especially considering that some municipalities fail to submit financials for auditing purposes, therefore leaving a financial reporting vacuum. 

Challenges of mismanagement, lack of financial accountability, unauthorised expenditure, tender rigging, corruption and malfeasance, are not limited to the local government sphere, the Provincial and national governments have also been found wanting. The role of the private sector, including major multinationals complete a picture of valuable and much needed public funds, being abused by political parties, shady businessmen, corrupt civil servants and dodgy middlemen.   

The type of leaders we yearn for 

The AG, Ms Tsakani Maluleke’s profound words , which we should heed, should reverberate across the whole of South Africa, she warns us directly, “It is the type of leadership we deploy and appoint to specific roles that defines how an institution runs… Without dealing with the quality of leadership that’s in charge of institutions, we are not going to get this right.”  

This view is echoed by Mr Joel Netshitenze, who cautions organisations and institutions, about the type of leaders they chose, to paraphrase him, A defective leadership not only holds back the attainment of national objectives. It also presents a difficult conundrum for an organisation or institution – in that, to rationalise its bad choices, the Institution or organisation has to lower itself to embrace those defects of the leaders it has chosen, as its own defects. 

Steadily, these defects of the individual leaders become, by default the collective property of the organisation, its own blind spots and its subliminal attributes in the public imagination.” 

Leaders cast a long shadow over the organisations they lead, leadership therefore matters, it matters a great deal. Character, integrity and sound values, matter even more. How many stories have we heard, over the last 18 months or so of corruption, malfeasance, corporate greed, the abuse of public funds, bribery and racketeering? How many great names, and leaders, who come with great struggle credentials, yet find themselves mired in scandal because they have “limited capacity for self-restraint, who get entangled in venality hook line and sinker? Each of us sitting in this physical or virtual room could be captured tomorrow, could conduct ourselves in unethical ways or could embarrass our families through scandals. What separates those who are corrupt and those who are not, how can we make sure that we have more Bongani Gxilishes in the private and public sectors? 

Netshitenze advices us well, as current and future civil servants, or leaders in the public or private sector, “ The cadres of social change need to be inspired by a transcended posture: they should be able to resist the constraining and corrupting influences of the current system and not bow to its dictates as if they are the natural order of things.” 

He concludes, this requires clarity of thought on the value system that should underpin the vision of a democratic and equitable society.   

To understand and appreciate Bongani Gxilishe, and the role he has played in his life, is to fully and deeply understand Netshitenze’s prescient words. Bongani Gxilishe leaves this world without a single blemish to his name, he was not captured by factions or corrupt businessmen or special interests, he was not tempted or seduced to use public funds for his personal or family’s benefit. 

Bongani was a special breed of a civil servant, he was deeply schooled in the values of the liberation movement, highly groomed within the ranks of the student movement, grounded in the struggles of his people in the Eastern Cape, highly accomplished academically, and had worked his way through various administrations at local, provincial and national level. As a leader, in the public service, all his colleagues describe him as an empowering, engaging, and an inspirational leader, who was highly committed to improve the lives of ordinary people. When I think of Bongani’s leadership, I think of the high standard of leadership set by the leadership writers, Kouzes and Posner: 

“Each leader has to place the people at the centre, be responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes and accountable to them. This requires us as leaders to be selfless in our contribution, inclusive in our decisions, humble in our behaviour and inspiring in our actions. If we do this, our joy will not be in how exalted we may be; how elevated our positions are, how much wealth we can amass, and how much power we can have… It must come from a deeper and special place, where others benefit, grow, or prosper because of our actions … that’s true leadership.” 

This was Bongani at his very best, placing the needs of the people at the centre, being responsive to their needs, respectful of their wishes, and accountable to the people. Bongani was selfless in his contribution, inclusive in his decisions, humble in his behaviour and inspiring in his actions. In over 30 years as a civil servant, his joy was not how exalted he may be, how elevated he may become, how much wealth he could amass, or how much power he could have, his joy was the improvement in the lives of ordinary people. You see, Ladies and gentlemen, if service is beneath you, then leadership is truly beyond you. 

Bongani Gxilishe, was an accomplished student leader, the first ANC Provincial secretary, one of the rising stars in the liberation movement, had the presence of mind to understand what was important for the country, at an early time in his life and career. He could have had any job he wanted in the Eastern Cape, or nationally, be it a Mayor, MEC, some say even a Premier, or Cabinet Minister, he could have had a job in the private sector, but he chose to be a lifelong civil servant – with a specific emphasis on local government. 

He has had the unique distinction of being a civil servant in all spheres of government, he has served with distinction in a municipality, provincial departments in 3 provinces, and a national department. 

What kind of a public servant was Bongani? What lessons can we learn from his life and career in serving the people? 

Key public service lessons from Bongani Gxilishe’s life 

In the words of Woodrow Wilson, “There is no cause half so sacred as the cause of a people. There is no idea so uplifting as the idea of the service of humanity.” 

1. Leave a track record of success 

In the famous words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead, where there is no path, and leave a trail”.   

Bongani could have had airs of self-importance and grandiose when entering the public service as a Deputy CEO of the erstwhile Western District Council, after all he was the inaugural Provincial Secretary of the ANC in the newly formed Eastern Cape province. But this was not how Bongani was brought up at home or in the liberation movement, instead, he used his experience to bridge the gap between political leadership and the public administration. 

According to Andile Sidinile, a former local government colleague, Mthembu helped to form the municipalities of what became Cacadu District Council (CDC). The CDC lost 93% of its revenue when the then Port Elizabeth Municipality became a metropolitan municipality, but Gxilishe, who was now its Municipal Manager, left Cacadu as a financially viable and stable municipality.   

After helping with setting up democratic local government in the Eastern Cape. He went on to build the Extended Public Works Program nationally. Later he was to become a provincial Head of Department for Public Works (DPW) and Economic Development, Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEDEAT). He led these departments with humility and commitment to service. Whilst leading Public Works, he was also tasked with leading the Economic Development and Infrastructure cluster. Dr Guster Sharpley recalled that Madiba would canvass the views of the various HoDs through his sober analysis before Top Management and Cluster meetings so that there could be a singular purpose when they met. Despite all this seriousness, Sharpley added, Mthembu teased everyone, was a keen participant in the entertainment committee of HoDs and was empathetic when one of them experienced difficulties.  His Successor at DEDEAT, HoD Ms Mickey Mama, recalled that Gxilishe championed the formation and funding of the Wild Coast Special Economic Zone (SEZ). This work entailed the finalisation and approval of various studies. This SEZ is intended to be the economic engine of the Mthatha regional economy.  In addition, Ms Mama said, Gxilishe supreme strength was in building good governance systems and this we saw at DEDEAT when he improved the oversight of our public entities. 

2. Leaders model the way 

The first practice in Kouzes and Posner’s leadership framework is that Leaders model the way. In every department that Bongani led, he modelled the way, he led by example, he created a vision, developed common values and lived up to those values in everything he did, every single day. He did not just talk the talk, he certainly walked the walk. 

In the short time he led Copta in Gauteng, he had already started to model the way, in his unique engaging and empowering style. In the words of his colleague, Mpho Nawa. “We benefited from your clear focus on practical, straightforward advices, leadership and guidance expressed with refreshing honesty and humour. Behind your velvet tones and emphasis in the senior management meetings – We could hear your fearless iron with intent on finding lasting solutions to the problems of municipal governance in Gauteng. You depart at a point we were settling with your good leadership values, in which truth, humility and dignity were the weaving threads of our department. Tsamaya Sentle – Madiba – you left an indelible mark, My brother” 

In many of our institutions, people daily go home frustrated by the lack of leadership, compassion, empathy and a sense of direction from their leaders. Through his sheer force of example, Bongani shows us, if leaders take on roles for something greater than themselves, then their passion is towards the cause and not personal glory, self-enrichment or building a personality cult. Clearly Bongs knew that the greatest cause was to fix local government in Gauteng so that it can deliver to a highly expectant public.   

3. The Public service is about lifelong learning and development 

In the words of Bulumko Nelani, “Bongani had a unique combination of political, managerial, and interpersonal skills that always got the best out of people. He can best be remembered by fellow public servants through mastering these attributes, having compassion, and always putting people first.” The complexity of development challenges, as our democracy evolves, necessitate cutting edge skills and sharp minds in the service of the people. Sending our best cadres to the front will be an invaluable memorialisation of Bongani. 

Mthembu had an incredible ability to identify talent, create opportunities for that talent to prosper and be deployed correctly to ensure realisation of maximum potential. There are so many young civil servants today, who through Bongs keen eye for talent, are now senior leaders in the civil service. Bongani always encouraged his colleagues to read, to research, to be on top of their game, he himself led by example, he was a model student. He believed in lifelong learning, and was continuously studying and researching, this is a call to so many leaders in the public service, we need the most innovative ideas to solve the complex problems we face. Bongani’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge propelled him to study and qualify for a BA (Vista, 1989), HDE (Rhodes, 1991), Master of Management – Local Governance & Development (Wits, 2001) and MPhil, Economic Policy, (Stellenbosch, 2012). Oom Gov, his mentor would have been pleased. 

4. The public service is about building durable institutions 

Mr. Bongani Gxilishe joined the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) in 2003 as a Provincial Commissioner of the Western Cape. He joined the Department when it was nationally battling to justify its purpose of existence in a democracy. In the words of a former colleague, Andile Nelani, at the provincial level, the Western Cape was characterised by high levels of serious crime trends in racially divided personnel in DCS. Bongani hit the ground running at a strategic level by ensuring that the systems, processes and procedures of the National Department of Correctional Services are revisited in order to Gear DCS for rehabilitation. He was instrumental in redefining the purpose of the DCS business from the Correctional Services Act,No. 111 of 1998 as amended. Mr. Gxilishe led this transformation process as a Project Leader in Gearing DCS for rehabilitation. This project was a great departure in prison and prisoner management in South Africa. This culminated in a development of a strategic discussion paper on gearing DCS for rehabilitation which resulted in the crafting of a green paper and ultimately a White Paper on Corrections in South Africa. The White Paper on Corrections in South Africa was approved by Cabinet in 2005. It is in this White Paper as a strategic legal framework for DCS that “corrections” was redefined as a “societal responsibility” Inherent in the new ethos of corrections, offender rehabilitation was put at the centre of all activities of the DCS. 

Mr. Gxilishe demonstrated great prowess as a strategic leader when he effectively operationalised the White Paper on Corrections in South Africa through decentralising powers to Area Commissioners. He made them implementing agents of this piece of legislation. He led them from behind in prioritising quality education and training for offenders in order that offenders can derive a direct exchange value in participating in their own Rehabilitation Path. It was during his operationalisation of the White Paper on Corrections in South Africa, that offenders were allowed to participate in external community sports leagues as well as community boxing stables. These Community Outreach Programmes assisted in creating social cohesion and nation building in the Western Cape that had sharp racial tensions. These endeavours assisted in improving the image and reputation of the DCS. 

Mr. Gxilishe created a sound working environment by embracing the labour movements that were legally allowed to organise workers in DCS. Mr. Gxilishe implemented the White Paper on Transformation of Public Services through embarking on a responsible manner of implementing affirmative Action in the Western Cape through institution building and human capital development for transformed service delivery. When Bongani joined the DCS in 2005, the Western Cape was the number one performing Province in DCS. This was demonstrated through elimination of audit queries in the Western Cape. 

In the words of, Likhaya Ngqezana, “He distinguished himself as a humble administrator of extraordinary commitment. Gxilishe knew very well that infrastructure had to be sorted out in his province, in order for business activity to upscale. This saw him leading the Infrastructure cluster for the period of 9 years in the Eastern Cape administration. Both public sector and road infrastructure has improved in the province for the past 10 years, and has the fingers and footprints of this exceptionally hard working civil servant.” 

5. The Public service is about making a real difference in the lives of people 

Bongani was the first DDG for EPWP, and under his sterling leadership the branch was able to exceed the target of 1 million job opportunities and they created 1.6 million. He led the branch into the second phase and saw the staff complement increase from 50 to 200, this because he believed that the team should be on the ground where the programme is being implemented. He always reminded his team that the impact EPWP is not being felt, as long as his grandmother does not know about it. Such was a man who believed that government programmes should change the lives of ordinary citizens. 

Under his leadership, banks and the private sector became partners in the implementation of the EPWP, this owing to his negotiation skills and ability to strike a balance between political imperatives and execution of administrative tasks. He was able to convince National Treasury to set-aside funds for the incentive grant for those public bodies that excelled in the implementation of the programme. This grant still exists today, even though the country is under financial distress.   

He acknowledged and rewarded excellence by profiling and elevating the programme through the Bokamoso Awards, another of his initiatives. He was bold, militaristic and would lock the doors leaving those who were late for his meetings outside. Yet he was open to new ideas, always encouraging collaboration between colleagues. We knew better not to engage him if you we were ill prepared, he would rebuke us with his favourite word, “mamela” and tear our argument into pieces with his razor-sharp mind. Mr Gxilishe was and remains the embodiment of Batho Pele principles. 

6. The Public Service requires ethics, diligence, accountability and professionalism 

Bongani was a consummate professional dedicated to serving the citizens of SA as envisaged in our constitution, he set a very high Standard of professional ethics that he promoted, championed and maintained. He not only espoused these principles and values, he lived them, and inculcated to any of those he led and mentored in the in the public service. Bongani was passionate about the appropriate use of public resources, and that every rand spent must go to its intended use and be fully accounted for. He also had great foresight in mobilising resources from the private sector and built long lasting, mutually beneficial partnerships with private sector organisations. 

He always insisted that public servants must be apolitical, yes, they may be politically aware, but should never align themselves with political factions, or treat citizens differently based on political affiliation. He was fiercely independent and protected his teams from any form of undue political interference. Bongani was a non-racialist through and through, he firmly believed that public servants must serve all citizens in line with the spirit of inclusiveness and diversity enshrined in our constitution. 

Bongani was unique in many ways, one of his most important requirements was that the voices of ordinary people be heard, understood, appreciated and responded to. He insisted that in his departments, or the ministries under which he served, officials must regularly account about the letters, calls or emails they received from ordinary citizens. He strongly believed in public accountability and would diligently lead his team in preparations for the media, committees of the legislature, Scopa, and the public at large. To him public service meant transparency and accountability. In such sessions, he and his team would showcase progress, but would own up to shortcomings. 

7. Leadership is about setting the tone 

In the words of the Eastern Cape Department of Public Works team, “We are deeply saddened by the untimely passing of Bongani. To us as Public Works, we do not remember Mthembu as a prissy person only worthy of praise and veneration. Indelible in our hearts as the Public Works family, we choose to remember his comportment (conduct), his deportment (posture) and his acerbic and irreverent sense of humour as a colleague.” 

Two incredible stories show Gxilishe’s humanity, you saw that humanity in his humour: 

• Our Executive Management is due to start at 9h00 am. At 8h30, I get a call from a rather knackered sounding HoD. He says to me, “Jola please chair the meeting this morning andikhange ndibufumane ubuthongo.” Yintoni ngoku Madiba? I ask. At about 23h45 I got a call from komnye wabaSisi beANC baseLegislature. She was yelling at me – HoD, HoD uphi? Yiza Yiza ndise showereni, umzimba wam ugcwele yisepha and leshower icimile. Ndithini HoD??? As a person who is in charge of showers in Government properties, he needed to respond to the soapy and distressed MPL and his response was hilarious – Dear MPL, I am happy to help, but I need to first consult with my wife and get permission to visit a naked woman at this time of the night! 

• Still on the theme of time management, Madiba’s unpredictable and disembowelling wit was also demonstrated when one colleague presented a rather long-winded presentation. At the end of this verbal marathon, I expected from him the usual, intle mayidlule comment. To my surprise Madiba was curt and straight to the point: Mhlekazi kucacile you did not have the time to prepare a short presentation! Next time please give yourself enough time to prepare a short presentation! 

8. Inspirational and passionate leadership 

In the words of Mrs Mickey Mama, “Bongani was Very passionate about development, especially the disadvantaged communities and young people. He drove us hard to be practical and intentional in delivering on our mandate, and he was very passionate about results on the ground.” 

Bongani mastered the art and science of corporate governance – he was able to oversee 6 Public Entities that fall under his Department, stretching them to do more in delivering on our mandate. He definitely earned respect from all the 6 CEOs of these entities. 

As the Chair of the Economic Development Cluster (platform of all depts and entities in the economic sector), he demanded punctuality, meetings would start, without fail, at 08h30, and he would say to those present, He would say, let’s start, asizango dlala apha, abantu bakuthi bayasokola, masiqhubeni” 

His meetings would be incomplete without progress reports on the expanded public Works program, presented by Gqengs Mageza. To him this was one of the most important initiatives for poverty reduction, he would say loudly, “le i program isusa ikati eziko for abantu bakuthi “

Bongani was an incredible organiser from his political days, he used the same skills to mobilise resources, he was instrumental in mobilising designation and funding of the Wild Coast Special Economic Zone in Mthatha. This initiative has commenced – starting as an industrial park. This is definitely one of his legacy projects 

Bongani was also was a development practitioner to the core, according to Mrs Mickey Mama, he was able to balance economic development with sustainable environment. He hated filth and grime, and he was at the forefront of the initiative CLEANEST TOWN AWARDS. He passionately mobilised funds for restoration of municipal landfill sites 


Ladies and gentlemen, members of the Gxilishe and Mdodana family, I hope you better understand the most hidden part of Bongani’s life, which was only visible to those he worked with and those who benefited from his sterling contribution. May this be a message to all South Africans that there are honest, hardworking, ethical, conscientious and diligent public servants, who need to be given the space and support to do their work to help our communities. I hope this message can one day also be read by a young public servant or a student contemplating joining the public service, who can learn these great lessons from Mthembu. Bongani’s story is also a wake-up call to those public servants, who have forgotten the sacred duty of serving the people. 

I am proud to stand here and say that my brother, my friend, my comrade leaves the stage with an unblemished record. He leaves the Gxilishe family with a proud legacy of service, humility, selflessness, delivery and professionalism. Sis Tamie, u Baby wakho has made you proud, he has set a great example for his two angels on earth, Zoxolo and Kwekwe. As his friends and comrades, we lost the first among equals, a role model, a guide and a counsellor and a comrade who would pass easily through the eye of the needle. 

Hamba Kakuhle Mthembu, Mkhuluwa wam, you have shown that there is no greater challenge and no greater honour than to be in the public service. You showed us that to give real service you must add something which cannot be bought or measured with money, and that is sincerity and integrity. Through you we have learnt that the public service is more than doing a job efficiently and honestly, it must be a complete dedication to the people and to the nation. Finally, you are an example to be emulated that if you make a choice to serve the public, public service, then serve the public, not yourself, or your interests, or that of your family or friends. 

Hamba Kakuhle Madiba, Mthembu, Dlomo, Sopitsho, Yem Yem, Zondwa, Ngqolomsila, ugqatso ulufezile, icekwa lilele nathi!!! 

Usibulisele ku Sheya Kulati; Mike Koyana, Ncediso Captain, Sindisile Maclean, Mvuzo Mbebe, Mike Kenaite, Tando Nyati, Kimi Makwethu namanye amaqhawe omzabalazo. Usicelele uxolo ku Madiba, Sisulu, Mbeki, Mhlaba, Mama uGcina, no Mama uSisulu, uthi kubo ilizwe silimoshile, abantu sibatyeshele, umbutho wabo wehlelwa sisidima, kwaye urhwaphilizo lusongamele.