Cape Town - The day after the State of the Nation address, the last person you might have expected to walk into the Cape Argus newsroom was Bongi Ngema-Zuma, fourth wife of the most powerful man in the country.
But there she was, accompanied only by her personal assistant and a security person. The visit had nothing to do with the state of the nation or politics – her great passion is the fight against diabetes, one of the country’s leading causes of death.
Losing two “phenomenal women” to the disease has changed her outlook on life and has inspired the Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation that educates and raises awareness about diabetes.
Ngema-Zuma was surprisingly humble. She sat down with the Cape Argus and opened up about her son, role models and being in the public eye.
“Diabetes is a personal story for me. I lost two most phenomenal women to it, my mother and aunt, women who shaped the person that I am today,” she said.
The foundation, established in 2010, addresses social issues including health and non-communicable diseases with a special focus on diabetes, educational issues and rural development.
“We have outdone ourselves. The amount of work we have done is more than we anticipated… considering that the demand out there.”
Ngema-Zuma lives in the official presidential residence in Pretoria with her nine-year-old son. She recently received an honorary doctorate from Shaw University in North Carolina in the US. Her foundation has trained young nurses in how to care for diabetic patients, made several donations to school feeding schemes, created job opportunities for rural women and has sponsored schools with computers. Her dream is to open a diabetes centre of excellence.
“Our vision is to see a South Africa where diabetes ceases to be a killer as a result of lack of awareness. My mother lived with diabetes for more than 20 years. The way she handled diabetes… she is my idol when it comes to diabetes,” she said
Ngema-Zuma’s mother, Prisca Ngema, a housewife, died at 64. Her aunt, Victoria Mkhize, died from diabetes in her 30s.
“First my mother was treated for hypertension and then later she started medication for diabetes. We all grew up knowing her story, although we did not understand what it meant,” she said. “One day she went to the clinic, came back and said, ‘my sugar levels are high and I have to go on a salt-free diet’… we started eating boiled food from then. My mother loved apricot jam and she could make it at home. At the time, there were no diabetes-friendly jams or jellies. To this day, I still don’t like food without vegetables because that is what I grew up eating. Her experience taught me that diabetes is something that you can live with and is not a death sentence. Many people go into panic mode when they are diagnosed with a chronic disease.”
Ngema-Zuma will turn 50 on January 1. “I’ll celebrate the whole year. I’ve lived every year, I don’t wish that I was 35. I am 49 and I think I have experienced a healthy and effective life,” she said.
When she can, she exercises, and encourages others to do the same, even if it is just using the stairs instead of the lift at work.
“Exercise does not mean paying a subscription to a gym, do just enough to make yourself sweat, like power walking around the block.” she said.
She and her son regularly took part in long-distance walks. Exercise was key fighting diabetes, she said.
Ngema-Zuma often accompanies the president on international trips. While he was busy with official commitments, she visited wellness centres or diabetic hospitals to learn what other countries were doing She said even her son knew that too much junk food and sweets was bad for you. “He is so aware, this whole thing of talking about diabetes is contagious. My helpers also walk with me… everyone is involved,” said Ngema-Zuma.
Not diabetic herself, she could be predisposed to the condition as it has manifested on both sides of her family. “I am not scared of it because I have the knowledge. I’m putting the interventions in now,” she said.
“Diabetes has no age limit – I see teenagers developing type-two diabetes because of their lifestyle. Back in the day we used to play outside, now kids sit alone at home in front of TV with a large pizza to themselves. No government, no private sector, can single-handedly manage and combat this disease.”
She said 382 million people around the world had diabetes. “They say 50 percent of the people with diabetes are not aware that they have the disease because it sits quietly in your body while working on your important organs.”
But she is optimistic. “I believe in South Africans, we have done very well with HIV and Aids. We have to now take whatever good efforts we have put into HIV/Aids, and apply them to non-communicative diseases.”
Ngema-Zuma said that her new hobby was making clothes.
“I’ve never been a big shopper. My body does not permit me to buy clothes off the shelf most of the time. I’ve made a few for myself and for people around the house. I took a few lessons to understand the machine, and I buy patterns and I cut. I’ve always liked designing and I draw what I like to wear and people make it for me.”
She enjoyed some of the fame that came with her position, but not all of it. “I love being out of the house, but now and again it gets too much with people wanting to greet you, wanting to take a photo... I can’t even enjoy Woolworths shopping.
“If I can hide away, I do just that. Some do not have manners when they approach you. There will be a person standing in front of you taking a picture on their cellphone without even asking.”
As for role models, Ngema-Zuma cited her husband’s ex-wife, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. “She is so approachable, when you talk with her you gain so much knowledge from her, she is selfless and she works where you put her,” she said.
Ngema-Zuma used to work for corporate giants such as IBM and Deloitte & Touche before she got married. “The experience, the expertise that I got, I am applying it now… I never imagined I would marry into such a powerful family. It wasn’t planned,” she said.