Some people will wonder all their lives if they have made a difference. Commander Tsietsi Mokhele will never have that problem. Nothing prepares one for the quiet intellect of the man at the helm of the South African Maritime Safety Authority.
It is blazing hot in his hometown of Vanderbijlpark, where we meet in a local coffee shop. He looks crisp and fresh in a light blue shirt, relaxed on one of his rare days off, with little trace of the seagoing officer who led the country’s naval integration process as a co-chairperson within the Transitional Executive Council, the body charged with managing South Africa’s transition to democracy in 1994.
Fondly known as ‘The Commander’, it is in this town that his love of water was kindled.
“As a boy, I would spend my Sunday afternoons along the banks of the Vaal River, mesmerised by the water, the boats, the fishermen, thinking that one day I would own a boat and be able to float wherever my heart desired.”
It was probably this river that led him to qualify in ship command and navigation in what was then the Soviet Union, while in exile.
“I had qualified for an aviation course, which was the apex for the students, becoming a pilot, but the maritime appealed to me. Far away from my home, in cold Russia, I remembered my dreams of having a boat on the Vaal and the choice was made.”
His memories of the Vaal are not all fond, as he grew up in the brutal times of apartheid, treated as inferior due to the colour of his skin.
“My father worked in the local hotel in Vanderbijlpark and my mother was a domestic worker. The two things I remember of my childhood are the protection and love of my family,” he says. “Despite their meagre earnings, we never went hungry – and there were seven children. And we were all educated.”
Mokhele remembers his social consciousness came to the forefront as a teenager, after his father was attacked one night coming home from work. “I was defiant and angry and could not understand why, when he had two cars parked in the yard, he was cycling to work and back. The next day, I drove his car to the hotel to pick him up. He was furious with me and said I was going to get him fired.”
He didn’t believe his father and was devastated when, soon after, his father was forced to resign, due to his employer’s inability to understand how a poor black man, working as a waiter, could afford a car.
“Because he was good with his money, he was punished. Seeing how my community lived, how I had to be hidden away at the home my mother cleaned, were all incidents that shaped and formed me, ultimately leading to my joining the struggle.”
It was during his time as a technician in Pretoria that he became more politically aware.
“I took a decision that I would rather be dead than live a life where I would accept inferiority as my status, based purely on the colour of my skin.”
And while he survived longer than he ever expected – he only ever hoped to make 25 – his life was forever changed when he actively became involved in politics.
“I made a promise to my parents when I left school to fight apartheid; that I would return educated,” he says. “And I did. I spent months in detention before I finally fled the country, via Lesotho to Zambia, then Angola and, finally, Moscow.”
While in Zambia, Mokhele’s son, now 25, was born. “His mother was to stay there while I went to Soviet Union but the security forces could not get me, so they took her.”
To this day, the search for the mother of his child continues. While two former security policemen have confessed to her kidnapping, she has never been found.
“I can still forget the torture and hurt inflicted on me, but I don’t know if I can ever come to terms with what happened to her. If they could do the horrendous things they did to me, what did they not do to her? What horrific things happened to her that they don’t want to even consider telling us where she might be today?”
The struggle left him bruised on an emotional level. “Life goes on, and we achieved our goals, but the price was high.”
His newborn granddaughter is named after “my woman”, who he will continue searching for until he is no longer physically able to.
“My son grew up without his mother. The security police dropped him off at my mother’s house when he was 18 months old. He has just become a father himself, naming his child after his mother. He deserves to know what happened to the woman who gave birth to him.”
But, Mokhele wears his battle scars well. “I returned in 1993 to the country of my birth with so much hope, that I still carry inside me every day.”
His work at Samsa is an ode to that hope. “I am in awe of what we have achieved since 2008. I was not looking for a job when the offer to head up Samsa came, but I don’t regret taking on this challenge, even for a day.”
His contract comes to an end in December, when he will have to take serious decisions regarding his future.
“I believe my work within South Africa’s marine industry is not yet done. In the past five years, we have turned the marine sector around, bringing it into the foreground where it belongs and, by the end of this year, South Africa will have adopted maritime as one of its key industries, playing a major role in our economy,” Mokhele says. “We have shown the leadership of this country the massive potential in the marine sector, but now is the time to start the action.”
First and foremost, he says, is a fleet of South African-flagged ships.
“We spend some R37 billion on the transport of our trade because we don’t have our own fleets,” he says. “Some 30% of the world’s crude oil passes by Cape Point every year, but we don’t service any of it. We need to start harvesting these opportunities and see ourselves as the marine country we are. We should have a marine economy.”
He believes that Samsa has established this thought process within the top echelons of government.
“The organisation is at its peak having established the vision, now we need to create the framework and platform to make that very same vision operational.”
Mokhele believes he can do this. “I am ready for the challenge of the next step. I have reached that point in my career where it is no longer about the job or where I am doing it, but rather about achieving the vision for my country and seeing this South Africa that we fought and died for prosper.”
It is especially his time at WBS, where he completed a PDM, that he honed this vision.
“It was during the syndicate sessions especially that I realised how much talent this country has,” he says. “It was also where I redefined myself into a better leader. I credit a lot of my success to the school that I believe is one of the best in the world.”
Having studied across the world, he credits WBS for its exceptional lecturers whose practical experience make all the difference.
“It was at WBS that I redefined myself, because it was here that I learnt about not just accepting academic learning at face value and was given the tools for organisational learning that, ultimately, leads to the development of leaders. WBS challenged my concepts and resulted in a very steep learning curve, where I left not just academically and intellectually stimulated but also inspired.”
He considers himself the ongoing student. “Education never stops. My father taught me that and I have hopefully passed it on to my children.”
Any talk of retiring is laughed away. “I have four children and two grandchildren, who are always asking me when I am going to slow down, but there is still so much we have to accomplish. Our work is not done. Maybe when I see the first South African-flagged ship sail out of one of our ports then I will come home, buy that boat and go for a sunset cruise on the Vaal.”