Cebile Xulu survived a kidnapping as a young girl growing up in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) stronghold village of Ntembisweni near Greytown in KwaZulu-Natal.
But these days the Standard Bank Rising Star Award-winning corporate executive survives by owning the human capital space in her sector.
Speaking to City Press from her office at Mondelez International in Woodmead, northern Johannesburg, the company’s director of human resources (HR) told the tale of how, when she was 13, she was once targeted by kidnappers who were aggrieved by her father’s mediation efforts.
Xulu was one of six siblings with parents who were educators – her father was a principal at Ntembisweni Primary School; her mother, although a qualified teacher, was a housewife.
“The fights were not so political because the entire area was IFP. So, it was more like someone broke someone’s guitar in Gauteng so when they got home they fought. Factions did kill one another and others made money from selling guns. My father was a mediator and people were not happy,” she said, adding that a tip-off from a woman who had overheard the kidnappers saved her from the ordeal.
After that her family decided to send her to live with family friends in Stanger because she did not have relatives in that area and no one would suspect her of being there.
“There were several attempts on my dad’s life, too, but all failed. I went to live with the Mfeka family and I could not visit home so there were stories about why I had disappeared, things like I was pregnant and I was sent away,” she said with a laugh.
She spent most of her high school days at ML Sultan High in Stanger.
After matriculating she enrolled for a bachelor of administration degree, majoring in politics
and industrial psychology at the University of Zululand after her wish to study at urban-based institutions failed.
“My earliest career ambitions were really to be a teacher because that is all I was exposed to. I decided otherwise only in my final year at varsity when I understood that I wanted to work for a big corporate,” she said.
It was also at varsity that she became politically conscious, aligning herself to the Azanian Student Convention (Azasco).
“That movement had the brightest minds and I was attracted to that and I joined them instead of the IFP-aligned Sadesmo [SA Democratic Students Movement] because I came from an IFP stronghold,” Xulu said, reminiscing on the decision that she had to keep secret from her father.
After completing her undergraduate degree she completed her honours before heading back to her childhood village where, with her father having died while she was at varsity, she had to rebuild her home.
Armed with an honours degree she joined the unemployment queue but volunteered at a local school and taught business economics, geography and English and it was there during her efforts to resuscitate the library that the school’s sponsor, Masonite Africa, spotted her resourcefulness and recruited her as an intern.
Nine months into the internship, she was offered a job as a HR officer at the same company, a job she kept for four and a half years.
Working for a company that employed around 1 000 people, with only 10 females, subtle sexual advances and harassment were the order of the day and, as a young black woman, she experienced disrespect even in boardroom meetings.
Her next career stop was as an HR manager at a multinational household goods company where she stayed for only a year before joining A-Cubed consultancy firm in Durban.
It was there that she was exposed to major restructuring and risk management projects – even outside the country.
“Though I took a pay cut to take that job, its exposure set me up to be here today,” she said.
Two years later Xulu decided to look for a job that required no travelling, after she experienced a family tragedy, and that is when she joined Tongaat-Hulett at its Stanger plant.
After a year she left again and joined Heineken in 2009 and two years later, when the HR director resigned, she applied for the position but was told by her then boss she would not get it.
“He told me he couldn’t employ me because I was a strong Zulu woman and he could not have two bulls in one kraal; he didn’t like my hair because my short natural hair made me look masculine and he preferred the braids I had worn when I was being interviewed. He eventually hired a person who fitted his criteria and seven months later he asked her to leave and offered me the job,” Xulu said, laughing about the incident.
Xulu said that particular incident taught her that one didn’t have to have a position to lead.
“When that lady was there, I had to put aside my unhappiness and rally the team behind her because if she failed, we failed,” Xulu said.
Heineken also gave her the opportunity to stay in Amsterdam while she was looking after leadership talent for the Africa region.
“Europe was not my favourite place but it exposed me more to the African continent’s potential. I was also exposed to the stereotypes about black leadership,” she said.
After eight years at Heineken, which included the birth of a child while living in Amsterdam, she felt it was time to return home and that was when Mondelez International brought her on board.
A self-confessed feminist, Xulu is as passionate about transformation as she is about graduate development.
“Most graduates are not work-ready but corporates have to invest in helping government to improve the skills and even influence the curriculum.
“We must produce corporate-relevant skills. Get the Setas working properly and let’s get employable graduates,” she said.
On transformation, Xulu said there was too much talking and very little action forcing companies to comply.
“Some of these companies even budget for the fines and have no appetite to transform,” she said.
When not in the boardroom, Xulu loves reading business books and cooking.