Xolani Sithole rises from the dusty townships of KwaZulu-Natal to become one of the logistics industry’s most important figures
Xolani Sithole remembers his mother lining the walls of their shack with old newspapers and using the remaining pages as toilet paper.
He had been made to read them first, of course. His mother insisted on it, believing they would help him improve his English and find bursaries.
As he perused the job classifieds, he noticed that employment opportunities for chartered accountants seemed to be in abundance.
“I then spent some time in the library reading about CAs. It appeared that it was one career that was relevant to many industries, because every business needed an accountant,” Sithole recalls.
It seems odd that a child growing up in the impoverished KwaZulu-Natal townships of Ezakheni, Steadville and Shayamoya near Ladysmith would take such an interest in finance. But Sithole was no ordinary child.
Even as a young boy, he was fascinated by wealth accumulation and what was required to achieve it.
While visiting Johannesburg where his grandmother worked as a domestic worker, he has seen the opulence of Sandhurst, and dreamt of the day he would be able to shop in Sandton himself.
He had also witnessed people from his own township rising above their circumstances to attend university and go on to forge impressive careers for themselves – professions he had only ever read about in those wallpaper newspapers.
Most importantly, he experienced situations that showed him how problems could be turned into opportunities.
While he was fortunate to be able to catch a lift to and from school with his area’s only taxi driver, it meant that his academic day started very early in the morning and ended very late at night as the driver made his rounds.
The additional time allowed him to study and finish his homework and then help his sisters with theirs. It also provided longer hours in the town’s library which, unlike the townships, had electricity.
While he would not know it at the time, what he experienced in these years would shape a future that not even he would have thought possible.
In July, Xolani Sithole was named international logistics divisional head for Bidvest International Logistics, a portfolio that will require him to help guide the company through one of the most challenging times in the logistics industry’s history.
Given his already-remarkable journey, no one is betting against him.
The Wits University accounting graduate comes to the position boasting a wealth of financial management and logistics experience, having held senior positions at some of South Africa’s leading companies.
Having joined Deloitte as a trainee accountant in 2006, he soon went on to enjoy stints as Sebenza Forwarding & Shipping (group financial manager and later managing director) and Otis before joining BIL as an international logistics executive in 2019.
Like everything else in his life, Sithole’s move from finance to logistics was a case of grabbing an opportunity with both hands.
“Sebenza was a Deloitte client in the Entrepreneurial Services Division. I was sitting in the office at Deloitte without any client and a partner on the Sebenza audit asked me to go and finalise the Sebenza audit. I spent some time with Sebenza’s financial director and I realised that the clearing and forwarding sector is the best place to get to understand what’s happening in the economy.”
During his career, Sithole has also worked at the Makana Investment Corporation, an investment holding company founded by former political prisoners at the instruction of Nelson Mandela.
His time there allowed him to move from “routine” financial management and accounting to investment management and deal-making.
“It added the experience in mergers and acquisitions and negotiations to my experience. I also started sitting on various boards as a non-executive and gained experience in being a director.”
Sithole is under no illusions of the enormity of the task that awaits him given the pandemic’s impact on the logistics industry.
However he is thankful that BIL is extremely well-resourced in terms of experienced and committed staff, leadership and technology to manage cargo effectively.
“Bidvest is a respected brand locally and abroad and high quality and supportive clients who see us as their business partners. This is a very strong position to be in.
“Of course there are challenges. These include the long-lasting impact of Covid on the supply chain, the shortage of space on ships and of containers, the skills shortages in the global supply chain and the unprecedented volatility (more inflation) of freight prices.”
But all these can be overcome with proactive and regular communication with clients and BIL’s prowess for adaptability.
Sithole is already looking ahead, believing technology will play an increasingly crucial role in facilitating logistics management.
“This will further be improved once government entities and authorities like SARS, law enforcement agencies and the ports also achieve their own goals of technological advancement. Technologies like blockchain will become more possible and improve the integrity of logistic data that is processed. This will really make South Africa attractive to investors.”
Given his incredible rise from the dusty townships of KwaZulu-Natal to where he is today, Sithole is well-placed to advise young professionals on what they should do to make it in their respective fields.
“I would definitely urge young people to spend less time aimlessly browsing social media or watching too much TV. They should instead use the time to improve their skills in technology, selling, communication and business,” he says.
“Young people should also not be afraid to fail, because failures are lessons that prepare us for the next opportunity.”
“Finally, young South Africans should set themselves goals and measure them. Set goals for your finances, skills, knowledge, and stay committed to achieving in your daily decisions. Most importantly, never be a victim of circumstance.”