Serving with pride

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Given the chance to rewrite a life partly spent in exile and returning to home soil to rise through the public service ranks is something retired Secretary of Defence Dr Sam Gulube would politely decline.

“If you [tell my] 22 year-old [self] today and say that the apartheid system is here, would I do anything different? Probably not, I would still do it. I have no regrets on the path that I took,” says Dr Gulube.

As South Africa commemorates Public Service Month in September, newly retired Gulube reflected on life prior to South Africa attaining democracy and on his illustrious career in the public service.

A trained medical doctor, Gulube’s medical career seemed but a mere dream when he was smuggled out of South Africa through Swaziland to Angola at the age of 22.

His journey to exile was necessitated by the warrant of arrest issued for his involvement in the 1976 student uprising at the then University of Natal.

It was this first brush with the law of the apartheid regime that set the wheels in motion for the makings of his life.

“I left South Africa in 1976 towards December through Swaziland. Our stalwart, John Nkadimeng who just passed away recently, was the one who took me from Mbabane, Swaziland through the border of Mozambique.”

While in Swaziland, Gulube was hosted by the likes of Stanley Mabizela and Bishop Mandlenkosi Zwane.

With Angola set as the final destination Gulube was among a group of several student activists, including the likes of Solomon Mahlangu, who were escorted to join the African National Congress’ (ANC) military wing uMkhonto we Sizwe.

In Angola, the aspirant medical doctor who had left behind his dream of becoming a general surgeon in search for freedom participated in the opening of a number of military camps.

He received military training and specialised in heavy artillery.

In 1980, he was deployed out of Angola through Zambia to the United Nations (UN) in New York. At the time, the ANC was not in government and thus their mission to the UN was not a permanent mission but rather an ANC observer mission to the UN.

Upon arrival in the United States (US), Gulube worked with struggle stalwart Johnny Makhathini who he describes as one of the best diplomats produced by South Africa.

“I was his deputy at the United Nations representing the ANC to the UN and the US. My formal title at the time was administrative secretary of the ANC mission to the UN and US,” says Gulube in an interview with SAnews.

It was during his time under the leadership of Makhatini that the formidable pair mobilised the international community against the apartheid regime.

Their efforts culminated in the imposition of sanctions against South Africa, which played a major role in defeating the apartheid system and bringing about democracy.

With South Africa on the cusp of freedom in 1986, the then 32 year-old Gulube turned his focus back to his dream of becoming a doctor.

He recalls how the then President of the ANC Oliver Tambo encouraged him to go back to school.

“I indicated to President Tambo that if I go back to school at the age of 32, I will have to start my medicine [qualification] from scratch and I will need 12 years because I would like to specialise. I always wanted to be a general surgeon.

“President Tambo said you have 12 years, go back to school,” Gulube says.

It was with the support of the late former Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, that Gulube obtained a scholarship from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to further his medical studies in America.

Gulube completed his studies after 12 years, realising his dream of specialising in general surgery.

On his return to South Africa in 1998, the newly qualified surgeon was integrated into the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) as a doctor at the 1 Military Hospital in Pretoria.

From his work at 1 Military Hospital, Gulube went on to work in other roles at the South African Medical Research Council, South African National Blood Service and then as advisor to the Minister of State Security before being appointed Secretary for Defence in 2011.

The Secretary for Defence is the principal advisor to the Minister of Defence on matters regarding defence policy and matters which may be investigated by the Joint Standing Committee on Defence, among other things.

It was this appointment as Secretary for Defence, that saw Gulube merge his skills obtained as a military veteran, administrator and medical doctor.

As co-chairperson of the Justice Crime, Prevention and Security (JCPS) cluster and “SecDef”, as he is popularly known, Gulube together with his esteemed colleagues crafted an operational model that lifted the work of the cluster to new heights.

“The contribution that we have made was to be able to bring into the leadership of the JCPS cluster the experience and exposure that we have had as we have journeyed up to now. For the last three years in the US, I was the chief resident of general surgery at Tampa Hospital in Florida.

“I also did my rotation at the veterans administration in Tampa so I had that exposure too, looking at how the Americans would look after their veterans administration. I also visited a number of military institutions in the US, both for research and development.”

It was this experience and approach of doctors doing their hospitals rounds known as “SOAP” an acronym for subjective, objective, assessment and plan that Gulube weaved into creating a seamless strategy for JCPS operations.

In the context of the JCPS cluster, the strategy entailed providing background, analysis and a multidisciplinary approach to all the operational plans carried out by the cluster.

At the conceptualisation of this operational model in 2015, a new wave of violence against foreign nationals hit KwaZulu-Natal after the initial outbreak in May 2008.

It was this crisis that birthed the JCPS operational model and strategy.

“I sort of brought that operational model into the JCPS. We then developed an operational model, [of] which I drove the process. I said first, our operational plan that we need to give to the Minister must have background and analysis, that was my collection of information and then it must be an interdisciplinary approach.

“This approach must have a regulatory, communications, economic, social pillar and after that it must then have an action plan which is now the operational plan and it must be driven by the Natjoints [National Operational and Intelligence Structure],” says Gulube.

To date, the operational model developed, still rouses applause in government circles says a proud Gulube.

“That model has served the JCPS cluster well. Sometimes even when we got to present in Cabinet, they would be highly appreciated and praised by government, saying that they are good reports because of the scientific inputs and scientific basis on which we were basing our reports,” he says.

It was this very model that mapped out the plan for the repatriation of South Africans in Lagos, Nigeria following the Synagogue Church of All Nations building collapse in 2014. The model was also used in the repatriation of South Africans from Wuhan, China after the outbreak of the Coronavirus.

Recently, the strategy took on a new form that has become the Coronavirus Risk-Adjusted Strategy.

“At Natjoints we developed the Risk Adjusted Strategy for the National Coronavirus Command Council to combat COVID-19 as part of our national plan. The Natjoints has been a coordinating mechanism for the COVID-19 National Command Council and we have used that kind of a scientific approach in developing our reports,” explains Gulube.

Gulube – who retired at the end of August 2020 as SecDef – has seen much and contributed much to the public service. He urges his successor to build on the strides made.

“The advice I would give to the Secretary of Defence is to continue to use the scientific approach to our processes, continue to engage to look at the continuous improvement of our public system.

“I am the first person to say if it is not broken please don’t fix it. But at the same time you must never be satisfied with the systems that you have – you must always think about how to continuously improve the system,” he says.

Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula announced Gladys Sonto Kudjoe’s appointment as South Africa’s new SecDef in July 2020.

Gulube’s last assignment was to develop the Risk-Adjusted Strategy to combat COVID-19.

On what he plans to do with his time in retirement, the 66-year-old says he will still be involved in the health sector while also setting his eyes on agriculture.

“I think one way or another I will be in the field of health giving advisory services in the field of security. I would still like to do that but more importantly, supporting security. I am talking now about food security. So farming is on the horizon,” he says.

Recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke of the importance of an efficient public service.

“A streamlined, efficient and well-integrated civil service is the hallmark of a capable State. Likewise, an unproductive, inefficient and cumbersome civil service can frustrate the implementation of even the best policies,” said the President.

In addition, the President emphasised that being a public servant is an honour and privilege that demands dedication, selflessness, professionalism, commitment and the utmost faithfulness to the principles of Batho Pele – putting the people first.

He highlighted that at a time when South Africa is confronted with incidents of corruption, Public Service Month should be an opportunity “for the men and women tasked with this weighty responsibility to set themselves apart”.

Public servants should “rededicate themselves to their calling and to fully comprehend what it truly means to be a servant of the people”.

With his retirement arriving on the doorstep of Public Service Month, Gulube who has served in the public service for 44-years is urging public servants to remember to serve.

“My message is that we are in the public service to render service to others. Like in any other sector, you will always have few individuals who will tarnish the image of the public service.



“The public service are the unsung heroes of our democracy because the majority of public servants are really committed, dedicated and are aware that their salaries and working condition might not be as good as they might be in the private sector, but they are in the public service to serve other people,” says Gulube.