A woman, a grandmother, an academic

2008-11-24 00:00

Last month Professor Philda Nzimande travelled to London to attend the fourth annual Dame Nita Barrow memorial lecture presented in her honour by the United Kingdom-based Confederation of Black and Ethnic Minority Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors (CBEN).

The award (see box) recognises Nzimande’s standing in the world of nursing, both locally and internationally. Nzimande was the first South African black nurse to be awarded a masters degree, the first to be awarded a doctorate and one of the first two black nurses to be awarded a professorship. She was also the first national chairperson of the Interim National Board of the Democratic Nursing Organisation (Denosa), which saw nurses unite under a single organisation after the divisive apartheid years. Nzimande is currently the third vice-president of the International Nursing Council.

Nzimande, who now lives in Kloof, was born at Ntukuso village near Camperdown. “It was a rural area, a farming area at a time when the farmers were very oppressive,” she says. “Black people worked on the farms and their children were not allowed to go to school. Both the parents and their children would work for the farmers.”

Nzimande’s father refused to buy into the prevailing system. “My father was not an educated man but he refused to do that. He said, ‘I’m not going to work on farms and my children are not going to work on farms — my children are going to be educated’.”

“He was a ‘kitchen boy’ at first and worked as a catechist for several Anglican churches,” Nzimande says. “He was also a small-scale farmer. “He grew vegetables and beans which he sold.”

Nzimande first attended the local primary school and then, when her family moved to Hammarsdale, went to secondary school there, eventually finishing her education at Ashdown Secondary School in Pietermaritzburg, then completing her matric via correspondence.

“My brothers and sisters all became teachers and I took up nursing,” she says. “I had wanted to study medicine but my father refused to let me do medicine but he did allow me to do nursing.”

Nzimande’s nursing career began at McCords Hospital in Durban doing general nursing and midwifery. “My love for teaching developed at McCords,” she says, and Nzimande went on to become a nurse educator at the medical school in Durban which opened in 1968.

By then she had married Siphindoda Victor. They have four children, Nontuthuko, Sithembiso, Bongiwe and Nolwazi. Her husband is a Roman Catholic and Nzimande, originally an Anglican, converted to her husband’s faith. “I am a strong believer in Christ,” she says.

Her husband was a social worker and when he obtained a post at the University of Zululand near Empangeni, Nzimande went with him and studied for a bachelor of arts. “I also studied a bit of sociology. I very nearly left nursing,” she recalls. “At the time, there was no university open for black nurses to do a degree, then Unisa offered a nursing degree.”

Nzimande did honours, masters and finally a doctorate, each focused on nursing administration. An emphasis that provided her with a career path.

“I became a transformer and a strong administrator,” she says. Her reputation saw her appointed to the chair of the Natal Museum in 1999 (until 2001) tasked with transforming the organisation. She is also a member of the Provincial Planning and Development Commission.

After obtaining her doctorate Nzimande was instrumental (with the late Professor Themba Mashaba) in creating the nursing science department at Unizul where today she still oversees the Open Learning Academy of Nursing Institute. She continues to teach three times a week at the Mangosuthu Technikon.

Nzimande is also a successful businesswoman. In 1988, a friend told her about a woman in Durban North who was publishing books from home and wanted to hand over her business to a black person. “She read about me and my friend took me to meet her. ‘I’m Mrs Kersner,’ she told me, ‘I’d like to sell my business to you,’ — just like that.”

More recently, Nzimande combined forces with her son Sithembiso to create the Alberts Nomandla Consultancy which deals with human resources consulting and training, as well as publishing and printing.

Nzimande has published two books, Communicable Diseases in the African Continent and Preventive and Promotive Healthcare Digest in the Changing Africa. She is hoping to have two more published next year to coincide with the International Council of Nurses 24th Quadrennial Congress to be held Durban. Both books deal with nursing in South Africa from 1985 to 2002 when the profession moved from division to unity.

“There was originally just one nursing association, the South African Nursing Association (Sana),” Nzimande explains. “But then along came the homelands system and we were just told we were no longer members of Sana. We were told we must form our own organisation. In KwaZulu, we initially refused but eventually we were forced to form it. Each homeland formed its own nursing assocation.”

The early nineties saw the beginning of a process of reform as nurses revolted against apartheid structures. This led to the creation of two progressive nursing organisations, the Democratic Association of South African Nurses (DASAN) and the Concerned Nurses of South Africa (Consa). Nzimande recalls tough times as negotiations with Sana progressed towards a single organisation to represent all nurses: Denosa, of which she was elected first national chair in 1996 and first president in 1997.

A decade later how does she feel about the situation of nursing in the country today? “It is not good at all,” she says. “The shortage of nurses, combined with HIV/Aids is terrible. It is difficult for nurses, for patients for nurse administrators, for everybody.”

Nzimande says poor standards of nursing are unacceptable. “Nurses must try their best — but all the same we need more nurses. To expect a nurse to look after 10 critically ill patients, or even 20, that is rather too much.

“When I got the Nita Barrow award I got the chance to meet nurses in the UK, many of whom are South Africans. I said to them, ‘Please come back home’. If they are given the opportunities they will come back. Those in the UK with families in South Africa want to come back. If salaries were improved, nurses would come back.”

Asked if there is anything she has not been asked about that she would have liked to be she responds: “My grandchildren.” She has four. “Yes, I’m a woman, a grandmother and an academic.”

Who was Dame nita barrow?

Dame Nita Barrow (1916-1995) was a nurse and humanitarian activist from Barbados. She was governor-general of Barbados from 1990 until her death in 1995. She visited South Africa in 1986 as a member of the Commonwealth Group of Eminent Persons mandated to investigate ways of ending apartheid.

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