Apart from the IRS, is there any government agency as universally dreaded as the Department of Motor Vehicles?
In Connecticut, things at the DMV hit a notorious low point in 2015, when the department shut down for a week to install a new computer system, and snafus in the reboot triggered days of six- and seven-hourlong wait lines.
Such is the challenge facing the department’s new commissioner, former Aetna IT specialist and UConn alum Sibongile Magubane ’76 (CLAS).
The DMV’s massive brick headquarters sits amid stately houses in Old Wethersfield, south of Hartford. Magubane, who goes by the resonant nickname of Bongi, greeted me in her office, a large room with walls bereft of decoration. She hadn’t had time, she said — from day one, on April 1, she’d been working nonstop.
I noted that April Fools’ Day might not be the most auspicious date to begin running this state agency, and asked Magubane if she agreed that her new department is the one Connecticut residents spend the most time hating on.
“Absolutely,” she said. “And it doesn’t have to be like that. It is due to circumstances that are fixable.”
If anyone can fix it . . .
Magubane knows something about difficult circumstances. She was born in South Africa during the apartheid era. Forget about registering a vehicle, Magubane had no birth certificate — black babies weren’t issued them. She lived in a two-family house in a township outside Durban, with no electricity and 12 family members crowded into three rooms. Her father was a university student active in the anti-apartheid movement. “My grandmother washed laundry for white people,” Magubane recalled, then chuckled. “Rumor has it that she also brewed beer.”
Her family’s destiny swerved unexpectedly when her father, through a connection in the anti-apartheid movement, got offered a scholarship — to UCLA. And so in 1964, at age nine, Magubane boarded a plane to the United States.
“I left South Africa with my English name, Pelegrine. Africans couldn’t use African names when they went to school, so we were baptized with English names.” When the family landed in the U.S., they jettisoned the children’s English names. “My father, that was his first act of defiance. So when I landed in America, I was Sibongile. I was in a new country with a new name.”
Her father, the late Bernard Magubane, went on to get a doctorate in sociology and become a beloved professor at UConn. A celebrated scholar and activist, he was best known for his groundbreaking 1979 book, “The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa.”
Bongi spent the second half of her childhood in California and then in Connecticut, adjusting to being American, learning English by watching TV sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver.” Her father encouraged a love of reading.
“On Saturdays he would work all morning, come home at exactly 1 p.m., and pile us all in the car for a family day trip.” Bookstores were a frequent destination. “I knew every bookstore between Connecticut and Washington. If he came to my house today, he would see nothing but wall-to-wall books.”
In the fall of 1972, Bongi Magubane enrolled as a 17-year-old freshman at UConn, where she majored in math and formed lifelong friendships. One was with Elease Wright ’76 (ED) who, like Magubane, went on to enjoy a long career at Aetna, where she rose to become chief human resources officer.
“My first impression back then of Bongi was that she was very smart and thoughtful,” Wright recalls. “And straightforward. She’s not pretentious, and she always tells you the truth. She doesn’t sugarcoat.”
That trait should serve her well in the administration of a new governor who, when it comes to the DMV, clearly does not want to sugarcoat. Announcing Magubane’s appointment, Lamont called the department, with its 674 employees and $67 million budget, “overly bureaucratic and arduous,” and introduced Magubane as “a sharp, solutions-oriented thinker with a strong business acumen” who would innovate, cut red tape, and make the agency more user-friendly.
“You’re not going to recognize DMV in four years,” the governor promised.