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Smiles all round at launch of Zola Wits Dental Clinic

- Wits University

The Zola Wits Dental Clinic is a refurbished and re-equipped 15-chair, state-of the-art facility for community-based training and clinical services in Zola.

Officially launched by the Gauteng Department of Health with Wits University and the Zola community on 15 September 2023, the dental clinic is now operational.

The clinic has a staff complement of at least two dentists, as well as oral hygienists, dental assistants, and specialist dentists on a rotational basis, supervising around 12 students per rotation.

Community-based learning

Speaking at the launch, Professor Joy Shackleton, Acting Head of the School of Oral Health Sciences at Wits University said:

“This partnership between Zola, and Gauteng Health with Wits, happened as a result of the University realising that it’s not an ivory tower and that it needs to be part of the people and part of the community.

And so, as we need to get more dentists, oral hygienists, and oral therapists, we need to have more space to train the students, but it doesn’t make sense to keep making a bigger university, which is still far away for everybody to get to.

So, the philosophy changed towards community-based learning, where the students will come to the community – they will serve the community and, at the same time, the staff who are coming with them will be able to give education to the other members of the team here at Zola.”

Prof Joy Shackleton at the Wits Zola Dental Clinic launch

Plans for the clinic were formalised in 2019 but stymied by the pandemic and the need to repair the building. “As we’ve been hearing from the community, the buildings were not in a good state, so the building was almost rebuilt before it was equipped, and that happened at the end of 2022,” says Shackleton. “We’ve been preparing until recently for our students to come for the first time, and the first group came [last] week to be of assistance and also to learn.”

Dental demands

Oral healthcare is a national priority with September designated as National Oral Health Month. This acknowledges that two of the world’s most common health problems affect the mouth; these being cavities and gum disease. Gum disease ranks second only to the common cold in terms of prevalence, with an estimated 90% of South Africans experiencing this problem at some point (

Furthermore, there is a need in this community for oral healthcare, since the now-refurbished facility, originally constructed from toxic asbestos, proved a health-hazard, and had to be closed. 

Delivering the keynote address at the launch, Ms Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, Gauteng MEC Health and Wellness, said, “This important occasion specifies a new chapter in our commitment to provide top-notch oral health services to our communities.”  

State-of-the-art facility and expanded services

The MEC said that she is happy to unveil the remarkable transformation that has taken place – “what once stood as a prefabricated asbestos structure has now emerged as a solid, state-of-art building” – and added that the physical transformation is just the beginning and that the heart of this clinic lies in the important services it offers.

“We are committed to provide comprehensive oral healthcare, ranging from thorough oral health examinations to the most delicate procedures,” she said.

The Zola community and surrounding communities in Soweto now have access to an expanded range of services “akin to the Wits Oral Health Centres”, said the MEC.

The facility boasts seven consulting rooms, an additional eight supervision consulting areas, an expanded waiting area, a classroom, a sterile equipment storeroom, a laboratory, ablution facilities for patients and staff (as well as for the disabled), a secure backup water supply, and sophisticated Xray and radiology equipment to enhance patient diagnostics.

“In line with our commitment to excellence, we have expanded our team of dedicated staff members from Wits. Their perspectives and their experience will not only strengthen the services we offer but also enrich the learning environment of students [as] this facility will serve as an extended training platform for Wits students, providing them with hands-on experience in clinical settings,” said the MEC.

Gauteng Health MEC Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehok and Wits' Prof Joy Shackleton cutting ribbon to Wits Zola Dental Clinic

Transcending philanthropy

The Zola Wits Dental Clinic was made possible by a multi-year, multi-million-rand gift donation from the Stanley, Marion, Paul and Edward Bergman Family Foundation to Wits University’s Centenary campaign.

The donation follows extensive and in-depth consultations between the Bergman family and Wits University on how best to support the work of the School of Oral Health Sciences, especially in expanding its footprint of service to high-density, low-service areas.

“This donor, who is our partner, whose identity we hold with high esteem, has shown extraordinary dedication to our community’s oral health,” said the MEC. “Their vision and support have transcended mere philanthropy. It has been an investment in the health and wellbeing of our community.”

The MEC said, “This refurbishment represents a substantial stride forward providing comprehensive, high-quality oral healthcare to our community. The clinic now stands as proof of an accessible top-tier healthcare for all. With the enhanced capabilities of this clinic, we are poised to make a lasting impact on the oral health of our community.”  She appealed to the community to protect the clinic.

Shackleton envisages that eventually doctors who are studying to be specialists will be trained at the Zola Wits Dental Clinic. “It’s my hope that we won’t just be healing dental disease, we’re also going to be helping prevent oral disease so that children no longer have to have tooth ache, and parents don’t have to see the agony that their children go through.”