‘I’ll never forget where I came from’

2013-04-24 00:00

MOSIBUDI Mangena was born on a white man’s farm in Tzaneen in 1947. The son of farm workers, the first school he attended was a mud church in the area where different grades gathered together, taught by one teacher.

Soon his parents sent him and his siblings away to Polokwane, where they lived with their uncle and attended a proper school.

It is largely thanks to their foresight that Mangena, the country’s Minister of Science and Technology from 2004 to 2009, was awarded with an honorary doctorate in science by the University of KwaZulu-Natal yesterday.

“My parents were trapped working on the farm,” he said. “But they had the wisdom to send all their children away to acquire a proper education. So here I am — that child who started school in a mud church became the Minister of Science and Technology for the Republic of South Africa. This shows you what education can do. If I hadn’t been given an education, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Mangena is one of the most polite, humble and obliging high-profile personas I have ever interviewed. When I called him to set up an interview, he informed me that he would check his flight schedule and come back to me. He did so immediately, and even though I pitched up in the lobby of the Durban hotel at which he was staying half an hour earlier than scheduled, he promptly came downstairs and pleasantly engaged with my mother and son before patiently answering my questions.

It’s difficult to believe that he was once the Deputy Minister of Education (2001), Minister of Science and Technology, as well as the president of the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo) for 16 years. He is also the author of four books: On Your Own (1989), A Twin World (1996), A Quest for True Humanity (1996) and My Grandmother is Permanent (2004).

He is currently writing a biography of sorts, having been given a fellowship by the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies. “I’m using the opportunity to write a book about my experiences and work as president of Azapo, a member of Parliament, a Deputy Minister of Education and Minister of Science and Technology.

“I’d like to put all those experiences into a book. I don’t intend for it to be controversial; it’s more a collection of memoirs.

“I thought those experiences need to be recorded for posterity and for other people who have an interest in the kind of things we’ve done and our successes and failures, and why we failed, because everywhere there are problems and successes.”

Mangena has lived an interesting life to say the least. After completing his schooling, he enrolled at the University of Zululand for a BSc degree, and began his political activism with the Students Representative Council which was affiliated to the South African Students Organisation (Saso). As a result, he was forced to discontinue his studies and moved to Pretoria, where he continued with his anti-apartheid activities.

He was arrested by the apartheid government in June 1973 and, after being detained in Port Elizabeth for three months, he was sentenced to a term of five years’ imprisonment, which he served on Robben Island. He was the first Black Consciousness Movement member to serve a prison sentence on the island. After his release, he was banned for five years and placed under house arrest before leaving the country for exile in Botswana, and returning in 1994 after the country’s first democratic election.

He is passionate about science and eventually completed his BSc via Unisa, obtaining an honours, and later a Masters of science in applied mathematics. He said he is proud of the advancements in science and technology that occurred in South Africa during his time as minister.

“Some of the highlights were bringing the international component of biotechnology to the country [this is based at the University of Cape Town]. We also managed to have an electric car called the ‘Joule’ designed. We managed to bid for the building of the biggest telescope in the world — this is a long process; it will only be completed in 2016.

“I absolutely enjoyed my term as Minister of Science and Technology — it was one of the most exhilarating periods of my life, working with scientists, helping them and facilitating their work. It was really fantastic.”

And what of his other passion — education?

“I think it’s a mess, currently. The education system is a complete mess, and I think it requires the entire nation to come together — parents, teachers and the government — to fix it,” he said.

“Currently, there isn’t sufficient determination to resolve these issues. Parents just send their children to school, and are not following up to ensure all is going well. The government can do much better in terms of ensuring schools are sufficiently resourced and what goes into a classroom is of the required standard.

“Education is the most important gift we can give anyone, especially the poor. If you give the poor education, they will look after themselves. In our country, the levels of poverty are alarming. We should be giving youngsters education so they can pull themselves out of poverty,” he added.

“I’ll never forget where I came from — and all children deserve the same chance.”

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