Michelle Loewenstein
4 minute read
15 Nov 2013
9:00 am

Ngema-Zuma shares her diabetes battle

Michelle Loewenstein

First Lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma walks into the boardroom of the Bongi-Ngema Zuma Foundation wearing a bright blue dress and an even brighter smile.

Bongi Ngema-Zuma speaks to The Citizen in an interview at her office in Sandton, Joahnnesburg, 8 November 2013. Picture: Tracy Lee Stark

After a warm greeting, she gets down to business. Having grown up with a mother who suffered from diabetes, and losing other family members to the disease, she has started the foundation to raise awareness about the illness.

“There is a void in the diabetes space. There is a lack of awareness, and it hasn’t been given enough attention,” Ngema-Zuma says.

“When HIV/Aids was evolving, we all went into a panic, which was needed at the time. This didn’t mean that there wasn’t a new diagnosis of diabetes every day. Now that we have covered HIV/Aids positively, we shouldn’t wait for another catastrophe.

Diabetes is slowly swallowing people. Through my research I have found that 366 million people were living with diabetes in 2010. That number has risen to 371 million. The worldwide scenario is that 15% of sufferers don’t know that they have diabetes. In South Africa, 81.2 people don’t know that they are sufferers. This is due to lack of awareness and poverty.”

In a country where starchy foods like pap and rice are often all that people can afford, and where many people go hungry, diet is a huge problem when linked to health.

“We encourage people to plant vegetable gardens. That way they can also be sure that the vegetables are 100% organic. I love beetroot, but I love the beetroot from my own garden even more,” Ngema-Zuma says with an infectious laugh.

“People talk about food security – government can’t feed all of us. Yes, there are grants for those who are truly poor, but people don’t use them correctly. There needs to be education for everyone. We need a lot more NGOs. Look at the Treatment Action Campaign TAC; I always say that they made an irritating noise until they were heard. We need to be as much of an irritation,” she says with another characteristic chuckle.

“When you visit your doctor, they automatically check your blood pressure. It should be like that with diabetes testing. The problem lies quietly in your body, but this doesn’t mean that it isn’t damaging your vital organs. My wish would be that everyone who visits a clinic is tested, regardless of their age. The problem is, younger people end up going into dramatic comas because they are not checked.”

Behind Ngema-Zuma’s bubbly personality is a pragmatic thinker who sees diabetes from every angle. She points out that a symptom of diabetes is often fatigue. Tired employees would mean a lack of productively, which would then negatively affect a company’s profits.

“The International Diabetes Forum projects that if nothing is done, in 20 years the number of people with diabetes will double,” she says.

“If the figure doubles, imagine how much money would be spent. It is eating away at our economy. As a foundation, we are saying that people must be screened. They must modify their lives accordingly. They must exercise and eat correctly, and they mustn’t smoke. When people go to gym, they just do this,” Ngema-Zuma imitates a person making small, sedate moves then laughs.

“You must gym until you sweat! If you can’t afford to go to gym, then walk around the block. If you don’t like walking, then put on your favourite CD and dance to it. Make your heart beat faster.”

Ngema-Zuma practices what she preaches. Her schedule makes it difficult to go to gym religiously, but when she has the time, no one is safe.

“I drag my nieces to gym with me, and sometimes my son joins us,” she says.

When Ngema-Zuma decided to start her foundation, she had to do a lot of research in order to make sure that she had all of the facts and figures needed to make an impact. As a child she dreamed of becoming a teacher, and through her work she is now playing the role of an educator.

“It just seemed to happen naturally. I wish I had more time to study further. My aunt is a person who still inspires me to this day, even though she has passed. She was the principal of a school, and got her Honours and Masters after she had retired. When she did her PhD, she couldn’t see properly due to her diabetes, and due to her age, but she would get us to read to her.

“You’re never too old to study,” she says emphatically.

Ngema-Zuma’s timing for starting the foundation wasn’t co-incidental. Now that she is married to President Jacob Zuma, people are more inclined to sit up and take note of her cause.

“I looked at the platform I was given, and the amount of attention I was getting, and decided to use that focus to positively influence my space. I don’t claim to be an expert on doing that,” she says with a smile.

“But rather than focusing on what I’m doing or where I shop, let’s talk about something that will help everyone.”