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Waitaki District Libraries manager Philip van Zijl. PHOTO: SALLY BROOKER

The man at the helm of Waitaki District Libraries has earned the highest honour in his profession.

Philip van Zijl has been awarded a Library and Information Association of New Zealand Aotearoa (Lianza) Fellowship.

Made by peer nomination, it recognised his “sustained and professional leadership in the fields of public and tertiary librarianship and association work”, the citation said.

The library profession has been Mr van Zijl’s “obvious love” both before and after he arrived from South Africa in the 1990s, it said.

“He achieved notable results with planning and redesigning buildings, technological advances and raising the profiles of the libraries, the staff and various groups within the communities he served.”

Mr van Zijl’s fluency in te reo Maori and support for Pasifika people, including those in Oamaru, was acknowledged.

“Philip is an enabler, natural facilitator, host and team builder. He supports his staff to achieve the highest goals regardless of where it takes them in their own careers and lives. He is happy to grow people to be useful and successful in any role, not just within his own library network, a rare trait in today’s world.

“He gives without counting cost and is a role model for others in leadership.”

Mr van Zijl said when he found out about the fellowship “I was in shock”.

“I felt humbled, but proud of this accolade.

“I want to acknowledge Julia Sutherland, my wife, for her tireless support, patience and often counselling over the years.”

Mr van Zijl came to Oamaru in February 2011, taking the scenic route. He grew up in South Africa, where he gained a bachelor of arts in history and Africa studies and post-graduate diplomas in education, librarianship and school librarianship, a bachelor of education and a master’s with distinction in librarianship.

His career began as a high school teacher-librarian in Cape Town in 1975. In 1982 he became campus librarian at the University of Bophuthatswana – one of the so-called ‘independent’ apartheid states”, and from 1986 until 1994 he managed a polytechnic resource centre just outside Durban.

Mr van Zijl was active in the anti-apartheid movement, serving on several organisations before and after it fell.

He was instrumental in having library services recognised as equal to the rest of the education sector and planning for education in the post-apartheid years. Information literacy was a priority in the systems he was commissioned to develop.

A British Council scholarship took him to the United Kingdom and to the International Federation of Library Associations conference in Sweden in 1990.

The following year he was invited by the United States Information Service to visit libraries there.

Mr van Zijl’s activism had got him “into trouble with the security police” in South Africa.

“I survived three assassination plots.”

In the US he was escorted by a minder who turned out to be a CIA agent.

He left the organisations he was involved with in 1994 and used a lucrative payout from his job to set up a restaurant in Durban. For the first six months he cooked authentic local cuisine that developed from Dutch, Portuguese, Xhosa and Cape Malay influences.

Mr van Zijl trained Zulu women to make the dishes in “huge cauldrons”. The restaurant was one of the few places in Durban where people could get indigenous food and dine outside.

He sold the restaurant after two years and came to New Zealand with his family as a tourist. He had always admired this country’s stand against nuclear power and apartheid, liked the Kiwis he had met, and after watching the movie The Piano was eager to see the scenery.

While eating fish and chips in Auckland, he saw a job advertisement in the newspaper wrapper. He applied for it and was appointed library manager at the Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua.

Te Arawa kaupapa Dr Hiko Hohepa taught him Maori.

Six years later, Mr van Zijl moved to Dunedin, running the Bill Robertson Library that served the Dunedin College of Education and Otago Polytechnic for four years.

In 2007 he went to Taupo to be the district library manager. He designed a new library where the tangata whenua, Ngati Tuwharetoa, was brought in from the “periphery”.

Four years in Tauranga preceded his return south to be closer to grandchildren in Dunedin.

Instead of formally retiring then, Mr van Zijl began his Oamaru role. He is proud of creating the position of Maori co-ordinator within the library team, starting meetings with karakia, and having the staff learn waiata.

He said his leadership philosophy was based on the African Ubuntu: “You are who you are because of all those people that stand beside you, stood behind you and the ancestors that came before”.

“You have to trust and not let your ego get in the way and be kind. Consequently you will be trusted and change accepted and people will lead from any position.”

Mr van Zijl will retire on February 5 to a cottage he and Dr Sutherland have bought in Dunedin. He intends to continue the spearfishing he took up as a teenager and to enjoy more time with his wife “who is also my best friend she’s a very special person”.

“I’m just so grateful the flotsam and jetsam of my life washed me up on these shores,” he said.

“The thing I’m proudest of is seeing my career out with a team of people like this.

“We’ve moved away from being a transactional library to an engagement philosophy.

“Hardly a week goes by that we don’t get chocolates, flowers or baking.”