[JOHANNESBURG] South Africa's minister of arts, culture, science and technology, Ben Ngubane, has resigned to become South Africa's ambassador to Japan.
Ngubane has been the country's science minister since the advent of democracy in 1994, apart from two-and-a-half years as premier of his home province of KwaZulu-Natal between 1996 and 1999.
His post has been filled by the minister of minerals and energy affairs, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who will oversee both ministries until the expected cabinet reshuffle after the general election on 14 April.
In a statement issued last week, South African President Thabo Mbeki thanked Ngubane for having been an "outstanding minister" who "has positioned South Africa as a major and influential contributor to the development of arts, culture, science and technology".
Media reports suggest that party politics may have been behind Ngubane's decision to leave.
Ngubane is a member of the opposition Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which until last week had three cabinet posts in the government. But relationships between IFP leader Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) have becoming increasingly strained, and it appears unlikely that any IFP cabinet positions will remain following the elections.
Indeed, Ngubane has not been replaced, as would normally be the case, with a member of parliament from his own party — Mlambo-Ngcuka is a member of the ANC.
Ngubane's departure appears to have barely ruffled the surface of the Department of Science and Technology, even though he chaired both the Commonwealth Science Council and the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) science initiative.
Both NEPAD and ministry sources say that the turnaround of political leaders is nothing unusual, and that Ngubane had set up structures to cope with his departure, including a 10-year departmental plan.
Deputy minister Buyelwa Sonjica has taken over many of the department's day-to-day functions. Meanwhile, preparations continue in South America for the joint South-South cooperation agreement between Brazil, India and South Africa scheduled to be signed in March (see South-South cooperation picks up steam).
And it appears that Ngubane will not be completely lost to the world of science. Last year, he signed a science-related programme of cooperation with Japan, and when he takes up his new post next month, he is expected to place science and technology high on his list of priorities.