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SA’s first black female doctor was a Witsie

- Deborah Minors

When apartheid became law in 1948, a black woman from Limpopo had already achieved a series of firsts …

Mary Susan Makobatjatji Malahlela © Adler Museum of Medicine | Curiosity 13: #Gender ©

Mary Susan Makobatjatji Malahlela (pictured alongside) was born in Polokwane (then Pietersburg) on 2 May 1916. Her parents, Thadeus Chweu and Susan Mautswane Malahlela, fled the village after they refused to kill the twin boys born after Mary – the BaPedi tribe traditionally considered twins a curse.

The eldest daughter attended the Methodist Primary School in the former Roodepoort West Location, where her father was the principal. She completed the Native Primary Lower Teachers Course at the Kilnerton Institution in 1933 and then enrolled at the Lovedale Institution for the Junior Certificate Examination at UNISA. In 1936, she registered for the Medical Aid Course and her pre-medical course at Fort Hare University, which at the time was the only programme available to black people interested in practising medicine.

In 1941, Malahlela made history as the first beneficiary of the Native Trust Fund. This scholarship for academic achievement enabled her to enrol to study medicine at Wits. On 21 June 1947, she took the Hippocratic Oath at the graduation ceremony where she became the first black woman in SA to qualify as a medical doctor. She completed her internship at McCords Hospital in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, and remained there as a doctor until 1949.

Dr Malahlela married Wallie Tamsanqa Xakana in 1948 and the couple had two daughters and a son. The family lived in Kliptown, Soweto, where Malahlela established her first surgery, on Beacon Road, followed by a second at Cross Roads in Mofolo South. She had to close her Kliptown practice due to the Group Areas Act’s forced removals, which relocated Roodepoort West families to Dobsonville.

Malahlela dedicated 34 years in service to her community. She was the first black doctor at the Heinsbeek Community Clinic in Dobsonville and a member of the first Baragwanath Medical Advisory Board. She was chairperson of the first Roodepoort Bantu School Board in 1970 and served on the Fort Hare University Council. She was a founding member of the YWCA, the Women’s Peace Movement and the Balebowa Women’s League.

On 8 May 1981, Malahlela collapsed while attending to a patient at the rural Oppenheimer Witkoppen Clinic where she volunteered. She passed away the same day at Parklane Hospital. She was 65.

The South African Presidency awarded Malahlela the Order of Baobab (silver), posthumously, for her “excellent contribution in the provision of medical services to the oppressed majority of South Africans during the apartheid era”.

Malahlela was memorialised at Wits in 2015 in a plaque erected by the University to redress historical discrimination against black alumni. In 1992, just 37 9 women enrolled in the Wits Faculty of Health Sciences, constituting 11.3% of total enrolments. Now in 2021, women make up 27.4% of enrolments with 1 955 women registered in the Faculty.

  • Deborah Minors is Senior Communications Officer for Wits University.
  • This article first appeared in Curiositya research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office.
  • Read more in the 13th issue, themed: #Gender. We feature research across disciplines that relates to gender, feminism, masculinity, sex, sexual identity and sexual health.