Ben Ngubane: an angry man
‘You know, I watch this all unfolding, the allegations of corruption, the leaks, and I am perplexed. I really didn’t think Ben [Ngubane] was like that,” says someone who once worked on the board of a state-owned entity chaired by the former arts minister and KwaZulu-Natal premier.
“As a man, he is awkward and defensive – and he’s got reason to be these days … But I always had sympathy for this peacemaker, who must have worked hard to become a medical doctor during apartheid, who struggled to achieve what he did,” the person says in the course of a lengthy phone call.
“I thought he was close to [President Jacob] Zuma, but I never thought there was financial motivation.”
Another former member of a board Ngubane chaired is more brazen when we discuss him and his dramatic resignation as chair of the Eskom board, announced late on Monday by the increasingly harangued Public Enterprises Minister Lynne Brown as Parliament prepares for an investigation into the Gupta-tainted doings of the state power utility.
“You don’t challenge Ben Ngubane and if you do, he will resign. He comes from KwaZulu-Natal and he was a leader, and so he comes with a combination of autocracy and Zulu masculinity. And he’s 75,” says the former colleague. “How do I put this? His leadership style on our board was that of a chief making decisions, like he was presiding over his kraal.”
The first board member recalls watching on TV as former finance minister Pravin Gordhan denounced Eskom in Parliament late last month: “I’m guessing it’s been a bitter realisation for Pravin as well. They go way back. Since Codesa.”
Gordhan took the microphone as an ordinary MP and portfolio committee member at Brown’s briefing on former Eskom chief executive officer Brian Molefe’s proposed R30 million payout. Both Molefe and Ngubane were implicated in the former public protector’s State of Capture report last year.
“You are abusing state property and state resources,” Gordhan said into the microphone. “Capturing Eskom for the benefit of a few ... This is part of a pattern.”
His final words were pointed: “And, with great respect, I’ve known Dr Ngubane, for example, for a long time, but I don’t think that the board has served South Africa well.”
Ngubane was not pleased. He challenged the committee to investigate Eskom “not next year, but tomorrow”. On Talk Radio 702 that evening, reporter Lindsay Dentlinger said: “Ben Ngubane is coming across like a very angry man in the past few weeks. He’s just had enough.”
On Tuesday, Ngubane hit back at Gordhan when he was interviewed at length on ANN7, the Gupta-owned TV news channel that had announced his resignation with grave concern with the words: “And what was feared, has happened…”
Ngubane launched into what could cynically be regarded as the Bell Pottinger defence. That white monopoly capital was getting away with murder, but he was the one being interrogated. That people like Trevor Manuel didn’t understand what the struggle meant. He icily accused Gordhan of releasing funds for the “hatchet job” State of Capture report by former public protector Thuli Madonsela, which made damning findings of the Gupta family’s hold over the Zuma state. Hurt, Ngubane said serving his country had been a thankless job. He was not asked, by the fawning interviewer, about a criminal complaint opened against him and his wife Sheila involving alleged fraud over a R50 million loan from the provincial government-funded Ithala Development Finance Corporation.
Ngubane is an angry man. But it wasn’t always this way. The hawk was once a dove.
The humble origins of Dr Baldwin Sipho “Ben” Ngubane are traced to Inchanga Roman Catholic Mission in Camperdown outside Pietermaritzburg, where he was born in 1941. He matriculated from a mission school and studied medicine in his beloved KwaZulu-Natal. In his time in student politics, he worked with Steve Biko before joining the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) in 1976. By 1991, he was health minister in the KwaZulu-Natal Bantustan and, as the transition to democracy took root in 1992, was appointed to the Codesa committee tasked with drafting the Constitution. Gordhan was on the steering committee responsible for organising Codesa 1.
“I watched him in Durban at the World Economic Forum last month,” says a political analyst who knows the politics of KwaZulu-Natal intimately. “He was lashing out at his critics publicly, he was angry about the land, white monopoly capital, a lack of justice for the past … It was a new line for him … When he was in the IFP, he was considered to be one of the good guys. His time as premier was quite conciliatory. Then came his fall-out with Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Ngubane wanted a better working relationship with the ANC in the province. Buthelezi wanted a more adversarial one,” said an insider at the time.
“Ngubane was an important player in stemming the violence in KwaZulu-Natal. Bringing him into the fold was more Thabo Mbeki’s role than Nelson Mandela’s. It was a way of diluting the IFP’s influence.”
Ngubane was rewarded with a premiership and two terms as minister of arts, culture, science and technology. A former senior insider sums up these years: “He’s not flamboyant. He’s not charismatic. He’s a plodder, he plodded away. He was interested in making things work, but more interested in satisfying political loyalties.”
The science and technology community held him in better stead, seeing him as quite progressive. The arts community did not, as funds were cut, along with consultation.
“The road we have travelled is lined with wreaths marking the death of any relationship between government and the larger arts and culture community. Knocked down by non-communication. Driven over by arrogance. The hit and runs of careless officialdom,” wrote cultural activist Mike van Graan in The Cultural Weapon in 2001.
“The big question for me is, when did he change? Why did he change? I feel like I don’t know him,” says the more sympathetic board colleague.
“When Jacob Zuma rose,” is a tart response from a fellow journalist. Ngubane was made ambassador to Japan, where he was, by most accounts, well-liked. It was a way of paving the floor he would cross, in 2006, to an ANC with Zuma on the ascendancy. Ngubane has not hidden his relationship with Zuma. His daughter, Nokuthula Ngubane, works as CEO of the Jacob G Zuma RDP Education Trust.
At Eskom, where he was appointed to the board in December 2014 and as its chairperson the following year, Ngubane presided over a board stacked with Gupta family acolytes. During his tenure, Eskom, under CEO Brian Molefe, effectively turned the screws on Glencore’s Optimum coal mine, forcing it into business rescure and onward to the eventual sale of the mine to Tegeta Exploration and Resources, owned by the Guptas and Zuma’s son, Duduzane. Another link between him and the controversial family was alleged this week by Business Day, which reported on Tuesday that the #GuptaLeaks emails contain one in which Ngubane sent his passport to Rajesh “Tony” Gupta in October 2013, along with invoices for a charter flight to travel to the Central African Republic. Ngubane responded saying there was “something funny going on” and that he had neither sent a passport copy to Gupta nor had he travelled to the Central African Republic.
This week’s Eskom drama was not the first time Ngubane would make headlines for resigning from a board or be tainted by a Public Protector report. It happened at the SABC in 2013, after he had served as chair for four years.
Wracked by resignations over Ngubane’s unprocedural appointment of news boss Phil Molefe, it was the nowdisgraced Hlaudi Motsoeneng that brought the roof down. The board refused to appoint him as permanent chief operating officer (COO) and the resignations of Ngubane and his deputy, Thami ka Plaatjie, saw the collapse of the board and, with it, the rise of Motsoeneng to absolute power under the protection of successive communications ministers Dina Pule and Faith Muthambi.
To this day, Ngubane defends Motsoeneng, who would preside over the second financial collapse of the public broadcaster.
Gordhan is correct, there is a pattern when it comes to Ngubane.
“He doesn’t understand democracy. He thought he was the board,” says a former insider during the SABC years.
“His assumption was that he would make his decision and everybody else would automatically follow suit. It’s his blind spot. He comes from the bad days. He was not bred in a democracy, but now he is expected to lead a democracy.
“He resigned because he could no longer control the CEO. Hlaudi basically made the COO position one of CEO. A board of a state-owned entity is not that powerful. They can only do anything through the CEO … On all his boards, the CEO has to be his person and he will run roughshod over the board. That’s what happened at Eskom too.”
At 75, Ngubane shows no sign of letting go of his anger or of retiring. He told ANN7 that he was going to focus now on his business interests.
“I’ve given all to working for the people of this country … When you are in public service, there are no thank yous ... But I decided this time that Ngubane and family come first.”
Ngubane did not respond to City Press’ request for an interview this week.
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TIPPING POINT Former Eskom chairperson Ben Ngubane