Harriet Ngubane: Formidable Social Scientist and Scholar


Sandile Ngidi

Harriet Ngubane, who died this week at the age of 78 after a long illness, was one of the country's most formidable social anthropologists and a world-renowned social scientist.

She was brought up with Roman Catholic beliefs, but grew to embrace African-centred belief systems, including notions of how humanity and the world came into being.

Ngubane was particularly fascinated with the centrality of the female figure, Nomkhubulwane, the goddess of fertility in Zulu cosmology.

She believed that Nomkhubulwane's name was undoubtedly female, based on the female linguistic indicator “No” as a prefix in her name and constant references by Zulus to this divine being as inkosazane yezulu , the princess of the godly heavens.

Ngubane's book on “pollution”, Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine, remains a seminal work in studies that seek to understand the meeting points of bodily, psychological and spiritual health in traditional African belief systems.

The study was a worthy successor to a previous work, Zulu Transformations, by fellow social anthropologist and University of Natal PhD graduate Absolom Vilakazi. Ngu bane 's work also formed part of English literary studies on matters relating to folklore and the body.

A formidable scholar, Ngubane held a PhD from Cambridge University and filled various senior academic posts at prestigious universities including Oxford , Yale, Edinburgh and the University of Cape Town .

Born in 1929 at Inchanga, a rural area near Pietermaritzburg, she attended St Francis College in Mariannhill, where she later taught while also doing a BA and later an MA at the University of Natal 's Durban campus. She was the third eldest in a family of six that included South Africa 's ambassador to Japan and senior IFP leader Ben Ngubane.

Married to fellow educationist Jethro Sibisi, Ngubane worked hard at keeping her family of seven children intact while studying. One of these children is Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, the CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in Pretoria .

Thanks to a visit to the country by an eminent Cambridge professor in 1968, she obtained a scholarship to Cambridge , where she later obtained a PhD in Social Anthropology.

Her thesis was later published as Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine .

This week Ngubane's family described her as an “indomitable spirit” and someone who had risen above challenges and had, despite her deteriorating health, stuck to her passion for research and writing.

At the time of her death, Ngubane was closely associated with Freedom Park and was working on a book on, among other things, key universal themes in African belief systems.

Her family saluted her larger-than- life spirit and her commitment to education and rigorous scholarship.

A consummate gardener throughout her life, possibly through her training by German missionaries at Mariannhill, Ngubane was also knowledgeable about indigenous African food crops. She would often blend her bed of roses with pumpkin and amadumbe (African potato) to great artistic effect.

At the dawn of the new South Africa in 1994, Ngubane served in South Africa 's first nonracial Parliament as an IFP MP.

She will be laid to rest in Durban on Saturday.

The Times , October 28, 2007.