So, who is South Africa’s new Minister of Science and Technology?

South Africa’s new Minister of Science and Technology, Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, likes things to be done on time. She’s solution-driven and prefers preparing properly for briefings and other commitments by working through all necessary documentation herself. She likes things to be in order and believes in accountability. And she hates being rushed and being given last-minute jobs.

“I think my team is struggling with that,” she says smilingly while looking over to where some of her aids are patiently glued to their screens a few meters away.

 

We’re in the VIP suite at the Kigali Conference Centre. Next door is the media room set up for journalists from across Africa, Europe and the US who are reporting on the 2018 Next Einstein Forum. More than 1600 delegates are gathering in Rwanda for what is billed as Africa’s imminent forum for science.

I’ve just mentioned what I’ve read in a recent article on News24 by Charl Blignaut: that in parliamentary circles she’s known as quite a stickler for procedure.

“Look, I’m quite easy, approachable, but firm in my work. I don’t want mistakes; I want things to be done correctly. I’m solution-driven and get frustrated when I do not find solutions. I’m firm in following channels correctly.”

Then South Africa’s youngest minister hastens to add in her very assertive way that she’s not “the protocol type”, but simply firm in the terms of the governance structures that are in place. “Let me put it this way: certain rules are there for a reason; we have to follow them.”

“I see myself as a professional, hence I worry about my credibility,” the 39-year old career politician explains her take on accountability. “That’s why I like people to give me space to apply my mind properly and process things. There must be a reason why I do something, and I must be able to explain why I did something.”

Clearly, she’s also not a person who easily says no to a challenge. It’s almost as if you can hear her say: “Bring it on!”

She became a cabinet minister while still on maternity leave. Within a matter of 12 months she’s had to sink her teeth into three different portfolios. All the while she’s also getting her head around her PhD, for which she hopes to enrol at the University of Johannesburg by May.

Previously, she was a lesser-known MP who caught some media attention when she defended former president Jacob Zuma in the Nkandla saga. She started off as an ANC proportional representative in the City of Johannesburg municipality from 2006 to 2009. Later she would serve as whip of the Parliamentary Committee on Basic and Higher Education and Training, and in the Standing Committee on Appropriations. Kubayi-Ngubane held a leadership position with the ANC Youth League in Gauteng and was a parliamentary counsellor to then deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.

She was chairperson of the Portfolio Committee of Telecommunications and Postal Services when Zuma called her late night in March 2017 with the news that she was becoming the next Minister of Energy, in the same cabinet reshuffle that saw Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan being axed. She was in the post for just over five months before being reassigned as Minister of Communications on 17 October 2017.

Then, on 27 February 2018 President Cyril Ramaphosa appointed her as the new Minister of Science and Technology, in the place of Dr Naledi Pandor who moved on to Higher Education.

Career politician

Before we met in the VIP room, Kubayi-Ngubane had already done duty as a panel member of the first breakfast session of the Next Einstein Forum. The topic discussed was women leadership in science.

While the audience sipped their cups of Rwandese coffee, she told how she was politically active from a young age, but never really planned her political career.

“My party literally had to sit down with me and say, look, you must come into public office,” relayed Kubayi-Ngubane, who added that this move came about after a conscious decision from the ANC to have younger people in leadership positions.

“I don’t regret it, because being here has helped both the government, my party and my country,” she adds.

She acknowledged that being a woman in authority places on her the responsibility of being a champion for women’s issues.

“I was raised by a single parent. When you come from such a background and have seen your mother suffer… I also had a child at the age of 17,” she mentions. “I understand the challenges that women face, so when I discuss and approach these things, I tend to be more sympathetic towards women.”

These experiences have made her ever on the lookout for ways to support others. “What can I do differently for another woman, and how can I help somebody not to get into my situation? Or if they have similar situations, how do I help them so that their situation can be bearable?”

Her mother insisted she finish school after Kubayi-Ngubane gave birth to her first son at the beginning of Grade 12. She went on to finish top of the Class of ’97 at Thusa-Setjhaba Secondary School in Soweto, with maths and science as her favourite subjects.

Thereafter, her plan was do something in the engineering field, but finances had the final say and she enrolled for a BA in Psychology and Sociology at Vista University.

The conversation returns to the doctorate that she wants to pursue. She’d like to focus on whether public private partnership can really provide a financially sustainable solution to state owned agencies. To this end, she hopes her oversight role in committees looking into matters related to the Post Office and Eskom will come in handy.

She’s been wanting to do a PhD since completing a Masters’ degree, but she initially struggled to secure a supervisor. Why still pursue it amid all the new challenges she now has?

“I have seen what education has done for me. It has taken me out of poverty and I have become something better,” she explains.

“Look, I think the issue is that as a woman you can be good at what you do, but your qualification and your background most of the time speak for you,” she adds. “You can easily be undermined.”

“Most of the time I tell myself I can be more than just a young politician. But what differentiates me from the rest?” She pauses before answering. “It has to be my professionalism. It has to be my work, my academic background. That’s why I try.”

Moving South African science forward

Her first formal job serving her community came when she interned at the Interfaith Community Development Association (ICDA), an NGO set up by Ishmael Mkhabela, first chairperson of the Azanian People’s Organisation (AZAPO). She had to cultivate small-business skills among women to help them make the most of the social grants they received.

Since becoming Minister of Science and Technology, she’s been delving through reams of reading to gauge where South Africa is leading or lacking.

“It was a ‘wow’ for me to realise how much is happening in various areas,” acknowledges Kubiya-Ngubane, who sees the current partnerships with universities as a solid, sustainable footing on which to build.

She realises that the so-called fourth revolution and the future of the global economy will be all about science and technology. “No economy will survive without it,” emphasises Kubiya-Ngubane, who has the finalisation of the White Paper on Science and Technology on the agenda.

 

She’d therefore like to assist industries and entrepreneurs to do more with the discoveries that researchers in South Africa’s institutions and centres of excellence make. “And to create jobs in the process,” she adds.

To do so, she’d need the backing of some of her sister ministries and departments. In turn, she’d like to support ministries such as Basic Education, by helping to develop teachers.

“We have to make a point of helping those with a passion,” says the minister, who worries about the many maths teachers being lost to industry, but also about whether enough people will be available to fill positions in the sci-tech sector.

Jokingly she refers to herself as one of the “lost ones”, because her love for maths and science at school did not directly translate into studies in the field. It’s not something she wants to let happen to others.

A story she begins to tell about her niece portrays the small “bee in her bonnet” that she has about the way in which some schools chase higher pass rates and therefore steer learners towards taking maths literacy instead of mathematics.

“I have watched her. She is very good at maths. One day I wake up and ‘boom’, she has been sent to maths lit. I was livid. I had to go to her school and fight.”

“Let no child who has an interest in going into this field end up in a different career because there isn’t support. We really need them.

“I want them to at least have options,” she underlines firmly.

Taking conscious steps

Later in the day, Kubiya-Ngubane emphasizes the importance of forward planning and solid project management. She’s sharing the stage of the main hall of the Kigali Conference Centre during yet another panel discussion.

“If you want a particular result (for instance more women working as postdoctoral researchers), be conscious of what you do. You cannot want many women coming out of the system with PhDs when you’re not investing in them. Take conscious decisions to go look for them in universities, and to give them the support that will carry them through and see them out.”

“My passion is to get them young,” says the mother of a baby boy, who is grateful for the support system that allows her to meet the demands of her schedule.

“If you don’t start at primary school, you will find no one. You are going to look for them and they will not exist. Either that or we will be fighting among ourselves for the same people to fill the available fellowships.”

A few things you might not know about SA’s new Minister of Science and Technology:

  • She’s an avid reader who prefers biographies or books with a historic reference – factual rather than fiction.
  • She likes listening to music.
  • The sounds of birds and rain make her feel content.
  • Maths was her favourite subject at school, and she received an A for it in matric, along with a B for physics.
  • Her qualifications: a BA with Psychology and Sociology from Vista University (2000), a diploma in project management from Damelin (2002) and a Masters’ degree from the Wits School of Governance.
  • She is married to Joel Sihle Ngubane, and together they are raising three children – ranging from a baby boy to a teenage daughter and a son studying BCom Law.

 

 

Engela Duvenage

Co-founder of SciBraai.co.za. Day job: Science writer and science communicator who loves turning research papers into news stories. Claim to fame: mother of two daughters; winner of the Izethelo Award for Outstanding Journalism (2016) from the South African fruit industry, and winner of the best technical article award (2016) as presented by the South African Agricultural Writers' Association Background: MPhil (Journalism, specialising in science journalism) and HonsBA (Psychology).

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