Kubayi-Ngubane: From pregnant teen to political powerhouse

2017-12-17 06:00
Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane

Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane

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The country’s third communications minister in a year is not daunted by the heat of a contested portfolio. Charl Blignaut sat down with Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane to learn how her life experience will affect her policies.

"What if the Ramaphosa camp prevails and you’re out of a job in January?" I ask new Communications Minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane in her office in Hatfield, Pretoria. She smiles and shrugs in her immaculate green floral two-piece.

“Look, there’s no train smash. We are deployed. If I wake up in January and I’m out, I’m starting my PhD. It’s going to be on the role of public partnerships in state-owned enterprises [SOEs].”

SOEs are something she knows intimately – she was the energy minister during the Eskom crisis and has inherited a critically ill SABC, which are both paralysed by systemic state capture.

The hot seat she’s in was occupied by her controversial predecessors Dina Pule and Faith Muthambi, tainted, in turn, by corruption charges and the #GuptaLeaks. Critics fear Kubayi-Ngubane will prove to be another Muthambi, mainly because of her allegiance to President Jacob Zuma.

‘My mother was a domestic worker’

Kubayi-Ngubane makes no bones about openly supporting Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the succession race. Along with Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, she is one of her role models because of her effective management of the foreign and home affairs departments.

“And, anyway, I support a woman candidate,” she says.

She’s also open about her admiration for Zuma’s leadership style: “I’m also a bit of a traditionalist. It shapes my identity ... When he arrived in power, we could relate to him.”

Her upbringing as one of five in an impoverished household in Meadowlands Zone 10, Soweto, frames her complexities.

“The pillar of my family is my mother. She was a domestic worker all her life. That carried us through. We lived in a shack, where we were living when I passed my matric. I fell pregnant when I was a teenager. I was 17.”

Was she shamed?

“Look, you do have that issue. I think what made me strong was that my mother was resolute that I was going to get my matric. No child of hers would not get a matric. My child was born in January. I went back to school six weeks later.”

Her own birth into poverty and the birth of her son, who is now in university, would inform her politics.

“It’s not a strong political family. In political life, I had to develop myself,” she says.

Her mother was an ANC supporter, which shaped what side she was on when bloody clashes broke out near her school between Inkatha Freedom Party and ANC supporters in the early 1990s.

Her child’s father was around for about a year, “then he left the picture. We reconnected in later years and he has a relationship with his son.”

Her sister had matriculated and looked after her son. And when her mother stopped working, she took over minding him. Despite the odds, Kubayi-Ngubane became Thusa-Setjhaba Secondary School’s top pupil. She wanted to become a psychiatrist and ended up at Vista University’s Soweto campus.

“My registration fee, I got it from the church.”

The SRC stipend

In parliamentary circles, Kubayi-Ngubane is known as a stickler for procedure. As acting ANC deputy chief whip, many MPs would grumble about her insistence on punctuality and process. She is a career politician. Literally.

After she was caught hitchhiking home from university, she moved closer to campus, but had to pay for accommodation.

“From the start, I was giving the young men a hard time about their decisions. ‘This one, she is going to be a headache,’ they said. But they could hear the language of the ANC-aligned, so they recruited me into the SRC in my first year. And that’s how I survived, through the SRC allowance and later through bursaries.”

This helped her pay for her room and feed her baby. “I never owned a textbook because I couldn’t afford it ... Some people were theorising financial exclusion, I was living it. If fees went up, I would go home. So I also had to be at the forefront of these student battles to survive. I couldn’t trust another person to fight on my behalf.”

It’s the same thing at the Government Communication and Information System. Kubayi-Ngubane, I’m told, asks for documents to be prepared, but doesn’t like briefings in case crucial facts are left out, so she reads the paperwork herself.

“I did my degree in record time – three years – a BA in psychology and sociology,” she says.

A job a year

The next two decades would see Kubayi-Ngubane rise in the ANC Youth League and become a party organiser, leading to a monumental clash with then league president Julius Malema, a seat as an MP, the chair of the telecommunications and postal services portfolio committee, stints in the offices of then deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and former president Kgalema Motlanthe and, at the beginning of this year, a minister.

In between, she has returned to study, and is now the proud holder of a master’s degree from the Wits School of Governance.

She has worked in the private sector, starting off in a nongovernmental organisation and developing a passion for social development work but, when needed, has worked in retail. She may even have served you on the floor of Edgars in Eastgate Shopping Centre. Later, she worked in tourism and health services, for banks and for labour brokers.

She quickly learnt, she says, that annual increases are puny compared with negotiating a new starting salary.

“I decided that, from now on, it’s going to be a job a year. I needed the money and the diverse experience has been very good for me.”

By 2005, she was able to buy her mother a house and herself her first car, a white Opel Corsa. She was hijacked at gunpoint two months after she got the car.

Love and nappies

Scarred after falling pregnant so young and devoted to her work, Kubayi-Ngubane didn’t imagine she would get married, and chose reading at home over attending social events.

But her husband, Joel Sihle Ngubane, had other plans.

“I was in Durban attending a conference or something and he asked to see me through a friend. So I went and there I’m talking about my work. He’s also in the ICT space. He’s a bit shy. So he sat there listening until I said: ‘I have to run.’ Gone.”

But he persisted and they started dating – when she found the time.

“When he proposed, I just looked at him and I said: ‘I don’t think you know what you’re getting yourself into. I am not the marrying type.’”

Despite persistent rumours, he is no relation of corruption-tainted former minister Ben Ngubane.

Kubayi-Ngubane fell pregnant with her second child, who is now 10 months old. Within weeks, she was back at work – this time as the minister of energy.

“The child was crying at night, I was not yet sleeping. A call comes in. I look at the phone, I ignore it the first time, I didn’t know the number. Then the spokesperson of the president calls and I answer. ‘Hawu, Bongani, at this time of night? What do you want?’ And it’s the president. He said: ‘We think we are ready to give you a responsibility as the organisation’. I said: ‘But I’m on maternity leave, Mr President.’ And he said: ‘You know there’s no such thing when the ANC calls. The ANC prepared you for this.’ I kept quiet. He asked: ‘Are you still there?’ I said yes. He said: ‘Okay, we’ll be doing the announcement tomorrow.’”

She says she was not asked to deliver nuclear energy, but was chosen to protect the department from fierce lobby groups and because of who she is as a person.

The youngest minister in the Cabinet, she was moved to communications, she says, because Zuma was concerned about the negative narratives around government.

The lowdown on policy

Our conversation turns to the key policy issues she faces. Muthambi released storms of criticism when opting for unencrypted set-top boxes and when tabling the Broadcasting Amendment Bill of 2016 that seeks a tightening of control over the SABC.

Kubayi-Ngubane says she doesn’t have time to challenge encryption if the country is to meet the global switch-over to digital TV.

And the bill? “What we have agreed with the team is, let’s have a discussion. Are we disagreeing with it all? Because if there are certain parts that need amending, we’d rather have the portfolio committee amending those if we agree. The process of getting a bill to Parliament is quite tedious. If we agree that everything must go, so be it.”

She’s challenging a court ruling overturning Muthambi’s bid to determine executive appointments at the SABC, but insists this is because the judgment is flawed and not because she wants to make appointments.

“I am not Minister Muthambi, I’m me. I said to the SABC board: ‘There’s a bill, what are your issues that we need to reflect in Parliament?’ They have not yet come back to me. Their priority is to stop bleeding money. What are their options other than a guarantee? SABC senior management is bloated. They need to cut the fat.”

Will she empower the Independent Communications Authority of SA to regulate the industry?

“It’s a top priority, which is why I immediately appointed a chairperson when the new council was named.”

How will she deal with them reporting to two ministries?

“The ANC has taken a resolution to re-merge the departments of communications and of telecommunications and postal services. This happened at the ANC policy conference in July.”

That said, the same conference is said to have supported encrypted set-top boxes.

I ask about community broadcasting, that urgently needs attention so that it can develop.

“I have called an indaba in January for all stakeholders to see where we can support and grow community broadcasters.”

Her answers are reasonable, at times even convincing.

But, then again, they should be – she’s the minister of communications, after all.

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