Future of SA in good hands

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This week I attended a small dinner party honouring some of the amazing medical school graduates of Stellenbosch University. At the head of the table sat the venerable Edwin Cameron, former justice of the Constitutional Court and chancellor of the university.

At the other end, the dean of medicine and health sciences. Between these two leaders sat some of the most impressive South African students you would find anywhere. “If anyone here gets a heart attack tonight,” joked the dean, “you are in safe hands because there are more doctors per square inch in this room than anywhere else right now.”

One of the guests was a young black woman from Kuilsriver who had achieved her medical degree cum laude. What this means is that over a period of six long years she had averaged about 80% in each year.

Another woman also from a disadvantaged community from is a Rhodes scholar conducting medical research at the University of Oxford; she sat next to the more well-known Rhodes scholar, Justice Cameron.

As I surveyed this group of energetic, smart, warm and committed young South Africans there were miracles everywhere. The Dean gave each of the newest graduates a fancy pen “for writing your first prescriptions.”

One of them was a young man from rural KZN I had written about before in this column.

He got straight A’s from his township school, faced enormous hardships during the course of his studies, and more than once pondered dropping out of medical school to support the family back home.

His published story brought funds from strangers across the country and today, I am delighted to report he is finally a doctor. Thank you, SA.

He was not alone. Other students in this small group of 10 medical students also suffered enormous hardship in the course of their studies. The young white woman from the Strand spoke of her own financial struggles after her father died and the difficult decisions she had to make with her mother. The dean was there to hear her story and assure support. Goosebumps.

At the centre of this accumulation of miracles was the first black dean of the medical school, himself an accomplished Harvard and Oxford graduate, his PhD achieved in the study of diseases of the heart.

His family home still stands in Athlone on the Cape Flats. This was his final week as dean but he had accomplished something truly amazing over a decade: he brought together young South Africans from all four of those ridiculous racial categories into a community of high achievers and close friendships.

Not only had these new and upcoming doctors learnt to be competent in medicine (training), but they had also learnt to be decent human beings (education).

As I quizzed these impressive young medics from Kagiso (near Krugersdorp) to Bergville (the Drakensberg area), it hardly surprised that one of them was teaching reading to young children in Khayelitsha and another school mathematics in the same area.

In fact, many of these students were involved in community projects despite pursuing one of the most demanding qualifications on a university campus anywhere in the world.

This has been a really difficult year, reminded the chancellor in his speech. Many South Africans lost their jobs due to Covid and others, their lives.

For so many, a big part of this Christmas season will be the remembrance of loss. And yet our country has this remarkable ability to swing between the extremes of great loss and great joy on the same day.

For example, we lead and help the world in a medical science discovery the one day (isolating the omicron variant) only to be slapped in the face by travel bans from the West for that effort. Up and down.

The story of these medical students is an upper, one to lift the spirits in this festive season. But it also contains some pointed lessons for a country so often at war with itself.

That we do not have to choose between equity and excellence. That black and white can advance together. That the values of education and the skills of training make for a well-rounded graduate. That service and studies can be combined. That nothing comes without sacrifice.

That nobody achieves anything without the help of others. That we are much stronger and resilient than we think. That leadership matters in achieving all of these commitments.

After this evening with young medical students, I sleep easier at night. After 11 years of stellar service, the dean has handed over the baton to a new generation of leaders. Rest assured, the future of SA is in good hands.

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