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Khaya Sibeko

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As A Giant Takes His Bow

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Mr John Kgwale Tsebe

Dr John Kgwale Tsebe

The philosopher and author of the renowned of “As A Man Thinketh”, James Allen, writes that “the world is beautiful because” composers; poets and painters “have lived. Without them labouring humanity would perish”. If that be so then librarians must occupy a higher space in the universal order of things. For the conduct and work of the library and information services affects all we do.

So when I received an invitation to the retirement function of the National Librarian and chief executive officer of the National Library of South Africa, Mr. John Kgwale Tsebe, I knew it was an occasion not to be missed. Mr Tsebe, who amongst his many qualifications holds a Master’s degree in Library Science from Syracuse University and a Master of Public Administration degree from Harvard University, is retiring from the library and information services after 40 years, the last ten having been spent at the national library.

Mr Tsebe was lauded for his unquestionable “dedication to his work” by the national library’s board chairperson, Ms Ellen Tise, while his longtime friend, Dr Andrew Kaniki, spoke glowingly of his pan African outlook and his work in realigning the country’s library and information services with the rest of the continent. That would aptly explain why he chaired the Executive Committee of the Standing Conference of African National and University Libraries in Eastern, Central and Southern Africa for 2 consecutive terms (1998 – 2000 and 2000 – 2002) and he is currently representative of Southern Africa at the newly formed Africa Library and Information Association and Institutions. The outgoing “Librarian-General”, as the late Vuyo Mbuli often referred to him, credentials on the greater international stage were also highlighted by various speakers. In 2007 he was part of the National Committee that led to the hosting of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in Durban and he also served in its Standing Committee for National Libraries Section between 2007 and 2011.

When Mr Tsebe assumed his position at the helm of the national library, he had the unenviable task of getting employees of different races to buy into a singular non-racial and transformational ethos. The fruits of that bold move can be seen in the friendly and dedicated multiracial staff that tirelessly serves the throngs of people that populate the national library daily. His ability to get people from different backgrounds to sing from the same hymnbook is perhaps the reason he’s now the chairperson of the Conference of Directors of National Libraries, a committee of the executive heads of libraries of the world and a member of UNESCO’s Memory of the World National Committee and World Digital library.


During Mr Tsebe’s decade long tenure saw the promotion of reading especially amongst younger people getting thorough publicity through initiatives such as the National Book Week coupled with the refurbishing libraries and building of new ones thanks to a 1 billion rands grant from the department of Arts and Culture; the 27 million rands from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and 200 computers from the Carnegie Corporation. The national library, “the palace of the nation” as one speaker dubbed it, has become the hub of robust debates on national and international matters.

In a country where all public servants are painted with the same brush of incompetence and corruption the Mr Tsebes of the world quietly and diligently go about bettering the lives of whole communities. A better patriot and a person who embodies the “Batho Pele” spirit to the latter can’t be easily found today. His unyielding commitment to the service of others sadly meant that his friends and family had to endure hard times and pleasant moments without him. One hopes that they’ll take some measure of comfort in knowing that every time a young citizen from the most destitute of backgrounds credits a local library for having helped him/her in achieving great matric results or when a graduate, who for years couldn’t find employment, cites public libraries as his salvation during those tough times or when illiteracy is eradicated, it was in no small measure due to the globetrotting; partnerships-signing and energy sapping efforts of their beloved and widely published Mr Tsebe. His mentor and lecturer during his BA Studies at the then University of the North, Prof S.P Manaka, South Africa’s first black professor of Library and Information Science, must be prouder of his student wherever his soul is. “I have just done my bit. That’s how I would like to be remembered” was his reluctant and humble reply when I asked how he’d like to be remembered.

Strength and honour on your life’s new chapter, Librarian-General.

*This article is dedicated to the memory of Professor Mbulelo Mzimane 1949 – 2014.

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