Updated 20 February 2017

Bongi Ngema-Zuma: a heart for diabetes

Bongi Ngema-Zuma, fiancée of President Jacob Zuma, has first-hand experience with diabetes. It made such an impact on her life that she has made it her cause. Here's her story.

Gloria Bongi Ngema-Zuma may be the fiancée of President Jacob Zuma but she has always shied away from the limelight. She's a highly educated, astute businesswoman but surprisingly humble; and the cause of diabetes is one very close to her heart.

“Creating diabetes awareness has always been a passion of mine. I was first exposed to diabetes at a very young age, when my mother was diagnosed with it. My mother’s sisters also all had diabetes, as did my aunt on my father’s side. As you can see, I’m very much genetically predisposed to develop diabetes.”

Ngema-Zuma’s mother, Prisca Ngema, lived a normal life with diabetes for nearly three decades before she died. “I grew up with my three sisters and two brothers in Umlazi Township, Durban. My father was a plumber and my mother an ordinary housewife. She was not educated but she was a wise woman and disciplined - she followed the doctors’ advice and immediately changed her diet and lifestyle. The whole family had to change their lifestyle in the process.

"She had a wonderful garden full of healthy vegetables and flowers – people in the neighbourhood always admired it – and she never missed her check-ups at the clinic. During her entire life she only had to take tablets and never needed insulin injections. She continued with her life as normal and was a real inspiration to all of us.”

Ngema-Zuma has not forgotten her roots. She has been involved in community work for many years, especially in the rural areas. Her father comes from Ndundulu near Melmoth in KwaZulu-Natal, where she likes to return at the end of each year to “unwind and get away from it all”. 

'People die because they're not informed'

When asked whether she would like to continue charity work in her capacity as the President’s spouse, she needed no encouragement.

“Diabetes immediately came to my mind. It is a threat to everyone’s life and many people die unnecessarily simply because they were uninformed. If they had known about diabetes, they could have gone for treatment before the complications started, and they could have still been alive today. We need to educate our people on the disease and teach them to take control of diabetes.”

She laid the groundwork for her ambitious mission by establishing the Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation in the second half of 2010. “We are still in our infancy stage, but it is our vision that no person should die because of lack of awareness about diabetes. We want to drive the empowerment of women and children, rural development, education and health - primarily central to diabetes and associated diseases,” says Ngema-Zuma.

Diabetes is one of the biggest health concerns in the world. It is on the increase and experts predict the current number of people globally affected by the disease (285 million) to rise to 438 million by 2030. One of the main reasons for the large numbers of people affected by diabetes across the world is the lack of awareness and lack of knowledge. Initially there are no obvious symptoms and as a result the disease may not be diagnosed in time or at all.

Mercy Clinic in Winterveldt

The Ngema-Zuma Foundation launched their awareness programme at the Mercy Clinic in Winterveldt, near Pretoria in November 2010 to coincide with World Diabetes Day. “We held a fun walk, and counselled and tested community members for diabetes as well as hypertension and cholesterol. It was a great success. We will still do a formal launch later, but we first want to get the groundwork done,” says Ngema-Zuma.

(Pic: Bongi Ngema-Zuma and Dr Aaron Motsoaledi walk the talk in Winterveldt.)

Her foundation also recently formed a partnership with the Thebe Community Development Foundation to provide clean water to needy, rural communities. The first of their joint initiatives is a flagship water purification project that will be launched in villages across Northern KwaZulu-Natal.

Ngema-Zuma explains the importance of working closely with organisations with similar objectives, as well as with the Department of Health. “By working together we can achieve so much more - it’s no use we sing one song, and they sing another.”

She speaks highly of the Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi: “He is a wonderful man who is very enthusiastic about his work. He works tirelessly to improve healthcare for everyone in South Africa and supports my vision to educate more people around diabetes.”

Ngema-Zuma stresses the importance of working with local clinics to spread awareness, especially in the rural communities. “They are the forgotten people. It’s our duty to look after them. They should have access to health testing facilities in their immediate communities - they shouldn’t have to walk for miles. Mobile clinics would be the ideal solution, but for that we’ll need sponsorship from the corporate world.”

The Ngema-Zuma Foundation also aims to train home-based care workers who in turn can educate others in the community. “It’s important that the awareness programme becomes self-sustainable.”

Big plans from a very passionate woman, but they are do-able for someone who already has achieved so much. After matriculating at the Ohlange Institute in Inanda (a school founded by John Dube, the first president of the ANC), she studied business administration and marketing and worked at various companies in Johannesburg, including Deloitte & Touche; IBM and, since last year, JIC Mining Services. She is also busy with her MBA  and admits she has little spare time for her studies.
Role models

Ngema-Zuma is deeply religious and comes from a family of strong women who all shaped her to be the person that she is today. She names three role models: her mother, her aunt, and her grandmother. Collectively they gave her three rules that she lives by every day:

“My mother always said ‘happiness is a mindset, you must take a conscious decision to be happy’. It may feel silly when you try it the first time, but it really does work, after a few weeks it becomes a lifestyle.”

“My father’s sister Victoria Mkhize, who also later died of diabetes, was a great inspiration to me. She only educated herself late in life. She went back to school to complete matric and went on to study until she graduated with a Masters degree in Education and also lectured at University of Durban-Westville. She had plans to study towards a doctorate but she sadly passed away before she could achieve that. She inspired me to further my studies and she also taught me the following lesson: Every day at least one person should have said ‘thank you’ to you. You must be courteous and respectful always and if someone has not thanked you, you have not lived that day.”

Finally, her paternal grandmother, Kate Ngema, believed that you should always say goodbye.”You should always greet someone before you go. As children we could never understand that, but she insisted and explained that you should always leave someone with love. You never know if that is not perhaps the last time you might see them.”

Wedding bells?

Today, Ngema-Zuma is living with her six-year-old son, Singumo, in Pretoria - her son with President Jacob Zuma.

Will we hear any wedding bells in 2011? “You know, people have been speculating forever about when we will get married. I sometimes get phone calls from journalists telling me about my supposed wedding date and then it’s the first time I have heard of it. I cannot reveal when that big official wedding will be – it will happen when the time is right. In all honest truth, it’s not really important to me. We’ve already been married for years – we were traditionally married in 2005 and have a beautiful son who is already in Grade R,” she says with a proud smile.

(Health24, March 2011)

Read more:

Ngema-Zuma stands up for diabetes
Diabetes: the silent killer
Could you have pre-diabetes?


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