Ngubane, Ben 1941–
Ben Ngubane 1941–
South African politician
South African post-apartheid politics have been characterized both by intense optimism and continuing frustrations. The images of apartheid falling, Nelson Mandela leaving prison after nearly three decades, and the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, are still powerful motivators as the country goes forward. However, in no way is the progress easy. South Africans struggle daily with the backlash of decades of racism, tribal differences, and a bloodstained history. Continuing political violence, poverty, and health issues, particularly AIDS, color every South African’s life. In addition there are numerous political factions vying for power. Even before Mandela’s presidency, these factions have consistently impeded the progress of the new South African democracy with their infighting and often violent actions. From the official political parties to the traditional tribal groups, each faction has their own agenda. It takes an astute leader with compassion for the needs of the people and savvy to the ways of politicians to make government work under such circumstances. One member of the post-apartheid government that is uniquely qualified for just such a role is Ben Ngubane. African Business described Ngubane as “one of those rare politicians who doesn’t have any real enemies.”
Baldwin Sipho “Ben” Ngubane was born on October 22, 1941 at the Inchanga Roman Catholic Mission at Camperdown in the KwaZulu-Natal province. He attended school at St. Francis College in Marianhill, a mission school just outside of Durban. After graduating in 1960 he continued at St. Francis as a Latin teacher for two years. He left teaching to pursue medical training, earning a medical degree from the Durban Medical School in 1971. This was augmented with diplomas in tropical medicine in 1982 and Public Health in 1983, both earned at the University of Witwatersrand. He rounded out his education with a Masters in family medicine and primary health from the Natal Medical School in 1986.
While pursuing his medical career, he joined the Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement and in 1977 became a member of its central committee. Like Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC), the Inkatha Movement’s ultimate goal was the liberation of South African people from the oppression of the apartheid government. However, there were key differences in their respective approaches. At that time the ANC was officially banned by the government and
At a Glance …
Born Baldwin Sipho Ngubane on October 22, 1941 in Inchanga Mission, Camperdown, KwaZulu-Natal province (then known as Zululand); married Sheila; four children; Education: graduated from St Francis College, a Catholic mission school, 1960; Durban Medical School, medical degree, 1971; University of the Witwatersrand, diploma in tropical medicine, 1982, diploma in public health, 1983; Natal Medical School, masters m family medicine and primary health, 1986. Religion: Catholic.
Career: South African government official. St Francis College, Latin teacher, 1960-62; South African Red Cross Society, regional councilor, 1978-; KwaZulu Legislative Assembly, 1978-; KwaZulu Government delegation to the constitutional negotiations, leader, 1991, minister of health, 1991-94; Government of National Unity, minister of arts, culture, science and technology, 1994-96, 1999-; KwaZulu-Natal Province, Premier, 1997-99; Commonwealth Science Council, chair, 2000-; ComNet for IT for Development, chair, 2000-,
Memberships: Member of the Inkatha Freedom Party Central Committee, 1977-; South African Red Cross Society, 1978-; Council of the University of Zululand; National Boxing Board of Control; Executive Council in KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Government, 1996-97.
Awards: Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Natal, 1995; citation for Dedicated Service during 1984’s floods in KwaZulu-Natal; selected to deliver the Lord Zucker man Lecture to the Royal Society in London on the future for South African Science and Technology, 1995.
Addresses: Mailing— Arts, Culture, Science and Technology Ministry, Private Bag X727, Pretoria, South Africa, 0001; Office —Oranje Nassau Building, Room 7060, 188 Schoeman St., Pretoria, South Africa; Press Agent— Mr, Andile Xaba, [email protected]
was operating in exile. The Inkatha movement, based in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was considered a ‘loyal opposition’ party by the apartheid government. Among its philosophies were the preservation of traditional culture and customs, and movement towards liberation in a non-violent manner. At the time it also had a very strong leaning towards Zulu nationalism. Because the Inkatha movement initially tried to work with in the dictates of the apartheid government, many South Africans, exiled and not, viewed Inkatha as a collaborator of the government, not to be trusted.
The apartheid leaders quickly saw the Inkatha movement as a way to combat the ANC and other opposition leaders and manipulated the movement accordingly. Mistrust between the ANC and Inkatha began to grow. Ngubane would later tell Focus, “The original sin here was the ANC’s refusal to make room for traditional African society within the liberation struggle. Inkatha contributed a great deal to that struggle but our role was denied and denigrated.”
Meanwhile, Ngubane was working his way up the ranks of Inkatha and the KwaZulu government, eventually becoming Minister of Health in 1991. However, his medical training had as much of an impact on his activities as did his political leanings. From 1978 on, Ngubane was very active in the South African Red Cross. He became a Regional Councilor for the organization in 1978 and throughout the 1980s represented South Africa at international Red Cross congresses. During the devastating floods in KwaZulu-Natal in the early 1980s, Ngubane was instrumental in implementing Red Cross services. Because of these actions he received a citation for dedicated service. During these busy decades Ngubane also managed to find time to begin a family and pursue his interests, which include education and sports. He also bore witness to the horrors of political and civil unrest that characterized South Africa during this time—student uprisings, politically motivated massacres, and widespread corruption.
After the freeing of Mandela by F.W. de Klerk and the formal reinstatement of the ANC as a political party in 1991, Ngubane became heavily involved in the negotiations that would lead to the 1994 multi-party democratic elections. At this time Inkatha formed the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). By this time the rift between the ANC and Inkatha was massive. Violence between members of the two parties was endemic and untold thousands lost their lives.
Even as Ngubane and other IFP leaders worked with the ANC and other party leaders, a violent campaign was being waged by IFP followers angry at the ANC’s central role in the negotiations. During these negotiations, Ngubane’s behavior cemented his reputation as gracious, moderate, and decisive. Of Ngubane’s style, one political rival told African Business, “He has an unsettling aptitude to get to the crux of the matter with uncanny speed and accuracy.”
In 1994 elections were finally held and (as expected) the ANC came out the winners with 62% of the vote. Nelson Mandela became president and, true to his vision of a united South Africa, appointed Ngubane to Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. His performance in this role garnered national approval. Of his tenure, the Mail and Guardian wrote, “with his medical and cultural background he has made real impact,” and described him as “likeable and knowledgeable.” Highlighting the ongoing problems between the IFP and the majority party, Mail and Guardian continued, “He is the only Inkatha Freedom Party member who deserves a place in the Cabinet on merit.”
Two years into Ngubane’s five-year term, the IFP called him back to KwaZulu-Natal to assist with provincial legislature. A year later, in 1997, he was appointed to the Premiership of KwaZulu-Natal. Of his departure from national government, African Business wrote, “regret was genuine in all shades of political opinion.” KwaZulu-Natal was rife with crime and unrest upon his appointment. One of his first commitments to the people was to promote peace and reduce the crime rate. Statistics prove he succeeded. He told African Business how this was accomplished, “More visible security was a key move.” However, emphasizing his beliefs in leading by example, he continued, “What has also helped greatly is the tone of the rhetoric coming down from the politicians. [The government] is no longer permissive.” As he worked to combat the social and economic problems of KwaZulu-Natal, Ngubane also sustained his role as an IFP leader becoming the national chairman of the party.
As premier, Ngubane’s commitment to improving education came into focus. In discussing what he viewed as the futility of the labor initiatives of the ANC majority government he told Focus in an interview, “What we actually need is training, training, and more training. Not just excellence in higher education but perhaps even more important, training for artisans, plumbers, mechanics and other intermediate skills.” During his two years as premier he also tackled problems of productivity, finance, development, and IFP-ANC relations. In the same interview, he said, “IFP-ANC talks are important: we must work together to lower tension and increase tolerance.” Of the magnitude of his tasks he told African Business: “There are people who tell me that change on such a big scale takes time. I remind them that time is something we do not have a lot of,” adding with characteristic decisiveness, “We have a challenge, and we will face it now.”
In 1999 Mandela stepped down and Thebo Mbeki was elected president. Again the ANC took the majority of the votes. Ngubane left his premiership of KwaZulu-Natal and was once again appointed Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology. Of this transition the Mail and Guardian alluding to political finagling, wrote, “the IFP ousted him from [the premiership] and transferred him back to Arts in the national government. The official reason for his removal was that he had presided over poor matric results. Speculation was that the real reason was his refusal to back a Casino bid involving IFP sympathizers.”
In the years since Ngubane returned to national government, he has spent much of his energy on science and technology. In 2000 he became the chair of the Commonwealth Science Council, an international organization that promotes the advancement of science in the 54 countries that make up the voluntary Commonwealth organization. In the same year he became chair of ComNet, another Commonwealth organization that promotes computer, Internet, and web technology for its member nations. Under his leadership, South Africa has embarked upon the development of an international astronomy program and the building of one of the world’s largest telescopes. However, according to the Mail and Guardian’s 2001 grading of South Africa’s politicians, Ngubane has failed miserably on the Arts and Culture front. “The theater industry is a sad story of downsized theatres, closed mainstream performing arts companies, procrastination and poor departmental decisions.” It continued, “Ngubane’s department has been criticized for a lack of progress in delivering new jobs and income-generating opportunities in [crafts and cultural tourism].”
As a medical doctor and a politician, a respected national and international leader and a member of the much-maligned IFP party, Ngubane has had to balance many roles. History has recorded his success in his execution of these positions. However, nothing is ever easy in politics. Critics and opponents are forever there to document and exploit missteps and failures. Yet, as African Business wrote, “he is one of those uncommonly found public figures who is well-liked across party lines.” In a country with such a complex historical, cultural, and political identity, this alone is an accomplishment to be celebrated.
African Business, November, 1997, p. 28.
Mail and Guardian, (South Africa), June, 1999; November 12, 1999; December 22, 1999; December 22, 2000; December 20, 2001.
"Ngubane, Ben 1941–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 23, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/ngubane-ben-1941
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