Harriet Ngubane was born in 1929 at Inchanga, a rural area near Pietermaritzburg, kwaZulu-Natal (KZN). She was brought up as a Roman Catholic 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 attended St Francis College in Mariannhill, Durban, where she later taught in 1947 while also doing a Bachelor of Arts and later a Master of Arts at the University of Natal's (now University of KwaZulu-Natal  - UKZN) Durban campus.

She was the third eldest in a family of six that included South Africa's former ambassador to Japan and senior Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) leader Dr. Ben Ngubane. She was married to fellow educationist Jethro Sibisi, Ngubane worked hard at keeping her family of seven children intact while studying. One of her children is Dr. Sibusiso Sibisi, the CEO of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in Pretoria.

In 1966 she joined the Institute for Social Research at the University of Natal as research assistant and in 1973 became a research fellow at this institute. In that same year she was a William Paton lecturer at Selly Oaks College in Birmingham, England, and the year thereafter an Ioma Evans-Pritchard fellow at St Anne’s College at the University of Oxford. In 1975 she lectured in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland and in 1976 joined the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London as a Ford Foundation research fellow. She was also the first African woman from South Africa to receive a doctorate from Cambridge University.

She was also a technical co-operation officer and overseas aid adviser to the United Kingdom Ministry of Overseas Development (which was attached to the Swaziland Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives) between 1978 and 1984. In 1985 she was elected as adviser to the International Labour Office (United Nations) on policy issues in Lesotho in relation to the development of the Bureau for Women’s Affairs. In 1988 Ngubane became a professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and special assistant to the vice-chancellor. Since 1994 she has been a member of Parliament.

Ngubane has held numerous positions. In 1991 she was appointed a member of the Advisory Commission on Land Allocation by the State President. She was also appointed as member of the selection panel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission by the State President in 1995. In 1994 Ngubane joined Parliament as an IFP member. She was the chairperson of the study group on Water Affairs and Forestry of the IFP and a member of the Land Affairs Portfolio Committee and the Portfolio Committee on the Status of Women. In addition, Ngubane has been a research consultant since 1964, was elected as a board member of the Independent Development Trust in 1990 and a member of the review panel for the Environmental Impact Assessment of the proposed mining at Lake St Lucia in northern KwaZulu-Natal. She has been on the board of directors of the KwaZulu Finance and Development Corporation since 1991. Between 1991 and 1993 she was a member of the Council of the Transvaal Museum. For the same period, she was a trustee of the Cape Town Business and Development Trust.

The author of many books, reports and papers,  Ngubane’s notable books include Urban Bantu Housing (1960), Body and Mind in Zulu Medicine (1977) and Zulus of Southern Africa (1986). She has also been a member of the Executive Council of the International African Institute. 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. Ngubane's work also formed part of English literary studies on matters relating to folklore and the body.

Ngubane is a member of numerous organisations, such as the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, the International African Institute, the Association of Social Anthropologists of South Africa, and the African Studies Association of the United States of America. She earned the Edgar Brookes Award in 1993 from the University of Natal. She was part of the five-women delegation of Parliament who participated in the international conference on women in New York.

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. Prof. Harriet Ngubane died at the age of 78 after a long illness in 2007.


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