More than 22 million people in Africa have diabetes; equivalent to the population of Angola. It’s a startling enough statistic, and South Africa’s First Lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma is championing the fight against this silent killer, through the Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation.
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon in Waterkloof Ridge, east of Pretoria in South Africa, when we meet Ngema-Zuma in her mansion. She settles in her lounge singing a church song and wearing a black dress and beaded necklace.
Diabetes has been close to home for Ngema-Zuma; she lost her mother and aunt to the disease. This led her to start a foundation in her mother’s memory; she had battled with diabetes for nearly three decades.
“I come from a family that is highly affected by this disease. When my mother gave birth to my younger sister, she had gestational diabetes. But it went away. And then in 1973, when I was in grade one, she was diagnosed with type two.
“At the time I did not know what diabetes was or to read the correct glucose levels. But I observed how she changed her lifestyle. She had the disease for so many years, and was never on insulin because she was active and [watched] what she ate,” says Ngema-Zuma.
In 1982, her mother’s condition got worse, she went blind in a way, and the disease also led to a sore between her toes; and the doctors had to amputate a toe.
“They had to cut off her foot as well… we knew she wasn’t going to make it. She said the day they start cutting her body, we should allow her to rest in peace.”
The Bongi Ngema-Zuma Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2010, the same year she took to the spousal office, aims to fight diabetes.
“Before I started the foundation, no one was speaking about diabetes, I had never seen an advert about it which meant there was not much being done about it, so I thought it was the right time,” says Ngema-Zuma.
The foundation encourages people to test early.
“By the time you start seeing symptoms it means that the disease has been in your blood for a long time, now the signs are indicating that your body is deteriorating. And if complications start to show, it might be too late. People should test so that they can prevent it from progressing, and adopt a healthy lifestyle,” she says.
Considering her family history, Ngema-Zuma acknowledges she is not prone to the disease, which is why she is an advocate for it.
Ngema-Zuma is the fourth of five wives married to South African president Jacob Zuma, a role that is not easy.
“As the first lady I had to understand that the public voted for my husband to be president, not me. Thing is, nobody trains you for what people expect from you, and sometimes expectations can be too much. The best is to know who you are, what you want to achieve and just focus.”
She uses her office to empower women and children, and for rural development.
“It is sad that in more than 50 countries, I’m the only first lady who speaks about diabetes.
“I know that while I’m in this office, I have a little amount of influence to say something and make change,” says Ngema-Zuma.
Ngema-Zuma is also a member of the International Diabetes Federation. When not buried under paperwork in her office, she travels overseas, in the United States, to give talks on education and healthcare development.
Her dream is to open a diabetes center of excellence.