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Another Letter from South Africa: A Young Man’s Journey Out of Poverty Lifts Others Along the Way

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

Themba Mngomezulu stood on a hillside on his family’s land, in Ingwavuma, in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province, not far from the border of Swaziland, and told us his story. Not far away, his grandmother sat on a straw mat on the floor of her one-room house near a crackling wood fire heating a pot of beans and taking some of the chill off the late autumn day. Themba proudly pointed to the first goat he ever bought, tethered nearby, while the goat’s progeny explored our minivan.

In my last Atlantic Currents column I wrote about the xenophobic violence that has swept South Africa in recent weeks, shocking the world and causing South Africans to ask what kind of country they are. While the violence continues, the overwhelming response of civil society, from protest rallies to relief efforts, has provided a more hopeful answer to that question: one in which a strong majority still believe in tolerance and the rule of law, and will work to expand the promise of the new South Africa to all.

I return to a focus on South Africa with another story from my recent visit, which captures better than anything else the hope that we all seek—the story of Themba, one of the most engaging, entrepreneurial and inspiring young men I’ve met anywhere. He works as a physiotherapist at Mosvold Hospital, 410 kilometres (255 miles) from Durban. Mosvold was founded in 1936 by Scandinavian missionaries. Most people in Umkhanyakude, the district in which Mosvold is located, eke out a living from subsistence farming, supplemented by old age pensions, child support or other modest government grants of the post-apartheid era. Most district residents have no piped water or electricity, little access to transportation and communication, and few opportunities for paid work outside the handful of government jobs. Schools are overcrowded and the standard of education is poor.

While there are five state hospitals, 45 clinics and 15 mobile services serving the 550,000 residents spread out in the sprawling district, the health problems are daunting: widespread HIV/AIDS—up to 40% of women who give birth are HIV positive—as well as malaria, tuberculosis, diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections.

Such severe health needs call for a virtual army of trained medical professionals, but as in much of rural South Africa, the gap in service is enormous: a 46% vacancy rate for nurses, and a 55% vacancy rate for senior medical officers. A combination of forces, including the reluctance of many medical professionals to move to or stay for long in remote rural areas, and a “brain drain” of South African doctors and nurses to England, Canada and other English-speaking countries, has widened the gap between the poor and those who can attend to their health needs. This critical problem is a central concern of Atlantic’s health programme in South Africa, which supports grantees who advocate for more effective and accessible public health care; for better, faster resource allocation; and who train and develop health care workers in their own communities.

This takes us back to Themba, and how he got to Mosvold Hospital. Themba is one of four children in his family—one sister is studying in a secretarial course in nearby Jozini; another is in 11th grade at Isicelosethu High School, which Themba attended, and to which he gave us a tour, where we could see how much pride the headmaster and students took in his all-too-rare accomplishments. A brother is also completing his high school studies, and Themba supports them all on his Mosvold salary, also assisting his mother by purchasing her groceries, since his father has taken a second wife.

Themba’s quest to make the most of his life, reaching high for education as the key to security for himself and his family, began in his final year of high school. “In my matric year,” he told us, “I wrote to a number of educational institutions for application forms. After completing the forms I needed to send R120 (about US$16) with the application. When I asked my father for the money he did not give it to me since he did not see the value of it—he believed that after school you get a job.”

Tensions at home followed, Themba said, and not only because of the differences in opinion about education. “One of my responsibilities was to ensure my father’s cows were in the kraal by 5 o’clock in the afternoon or else there would be trouble,” he said. “This motivated me to work hard and bring about change in my life.”

During his senior year Themba saw his way to a better future. He attended an open dayat the Mosvold Hospital, where he learned what a physiotherapist does for soccer teams—a crucial incentive, as soccer is at the centre of Themba’s life (in the picture above, he stands next to a house he built on his family’s property, with the logo of his favourite team carved into the foundation). Themba continues to play and coach soccer, and felt that a career as a physiotherapist would allow him to help soccer players with their injuries, and also help improve his own performance as a player.

After graduating from high school in 2000, and with no prospect of financial support from his father, Themba knew that if he was going to attend university he was going to have to earn the money for the registration process R1000 (about US$130) even at Mangosuthu Technikon (the least expensive of all tertiary institutions). He set that as a financial goal.

“I started doing part time work at the Women’s Cultural Centre in Ingwavuma, doing painting and building repairs for R35 (about US$4.50) a day,” he said. “While doing that job, I heard of opportunities to volunteer at Mosvold Hospital. I then heard that the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was reserving 10 places for disadvantaged students.”

Themba enquired about the opportunity, and applied to the Friends of Mosvold Trust’s Scholarship Scheme, a programme that helps expand the reach of high quality health services to the people of rural South Africa by identifying, training and supporting rural students who have the potential to become heath care professionals. He received a scholarship, and soon after learned that he had been accepted at Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg.

“The adaptation from Ingwavuma to Johannesburg was huge,” Themba told us. “I had never seen a lift before, let alone knew how it worked!” Themba completed his degree in 2006, and he has been working at Mosvold Hospital ever since.

Atlantic supports programmes like Friends of Mosvold because they build a cadre of trained health professionals grounded in local communities. But Themba’s story shows that the impact of such programmes is much wider, not only improving public health, but providing pathways out of poverty. With a sweep of his arm around his property, Themba told his visitors: “My family is here—I support my mother, and I have a soccer team which I coach and inspire and buy boots and kits for. I have been able to buy a pick-up, which I use to transport my soccer team. And I have also been able to build some new rooms at our homestead.”

Gara LaMarche

Links to organisations mentioned in this column: