Ben Ngubane: an an­gry man

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‘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

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