Can't stay, I must meet the Queen
NOT even the myriad attractions that Hong Kong inevitably holds for the first-time visitor could get Ben Ngubane, Minister of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology in the post-apartheid South African Government, to extend his stay.
But he had an excellent excuse for hurrying back home last night, barely 24 hours after flying in from Taiwan to bang the drum for the now internationally sanitised republic.
For a gilt-edged invitation to dine with Her Majesty the Queen on board the royal yacht Britannia awaited him back in Cape Town - and one could hardly blame Ngubane for not wanting to miss out on that.
'The presence of the Queen in South Africa is the signal that we are back as a fully fledged member of the international community,' he commented with justifiable pride.
Ngubane added with a chuckle: 'I'm particularly thrilled about the royal visit because I come from Natal. And that's the last outpost, as it were, of the British Empire.' The minister was in our neck of the woods to encourage investors to, as he put it, 'come take a look at the new gateway to Africa that is opening up in my country'.
Gazing out of the bay window of his Ritz-Carlton suite at the harbour below, and taking in the massive reclamation projects going on all around, Ngubane exclaimed: 'Given the surface area of Hong Kong, what has taken place here is quite phenomenal. It gives us South Africans a perfect lesson on the spirit and drive of the Hong Kong people.
'Which is why we want to get businessmen here to come and help rejuvenate our economy, and in the process take advantage of the investor-friendly conditions that now prevail in South Africa.' A member of the Inkatha Freedom Party, and one of the four Inkatha members in the Cabinet, Ngubane, a medical doctor, was in 1991 appointed health minister of KwaZulu, then run under the homeland system.
His current ministry covers a diverse brief - from scientific and industrial research to arts councils, archives, museums and even zoos.
And if that isn't a full enough portfolio to keep the stress factor high, he has as his deputy minister the controversial Winnie Mandela.
But if there are growing pains at his fledgling ministry they are borne well. He explained: 'It all comes down to working with people. As minister, my main task is to co-ordinate the efforts of my team. Difficulties do arise, of course, but we manage to deal with them.' The name of President Nelson Mandela is then introduced to the conversation and Ngubane can hardly contain his admiration.
'That man is out of this world,' he said. 'There is hardly another living human being, apart from Mother Teresa, perhaps, who is so developed as a human being, and who can rise above the distractions that concern the rest of us.
'I met him for the first time in 1991 at a meeting between [Inkatha] and the African National Congress held in Durban. Of course, one revered him, so it was quite an awe-inspiring experience.' Does that then mean that Cabinet meetings presided over by Mandela are reverential affairs? 'Yes and no,' Ngubane replied. 'When you are in the presence of someone who is held in awe it does make free expression somewhat difficult. But Nelson always puts us at ease and creates an atmosphere in which we are free to express ourselves. The amazing thing about him is that he has power, but he doesn't act powerful.' Of the Mandela-inspired new South Africa, Ngubane said: 'For those of us who grew up under apartheid the situation is difficult to comprehend.
'I was involved in the multi-party negotiations with the previous government. And as I went up and down the corridors of power in Pretoria I never thought that one day I would be part of the machinations of democratic government.
'It's like a dream that has really come true.'