Wits Med School honours first black woman graduate from 1947

Johannesburg - Those who knew her say Mary Susan Malahlela, the first black woman to graduate as a qualified doctor in South Africa, was modest, humble, and hard working.

Malahlela was honoured by the University of the Witwatersrand's health sciences faculty on Thursday, during an unveiling of a plaque in her name. A number of medical students and staff at the event had never heard of her.

Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said the contributions of black people such as Malahlela's in institutions such as Wits had been ignored throughout history and the university was redressing this.

"While we unveil the plaque, wherever Mary is she'll smile from the heavens. It's on one hand saying to Mary we are sorry, and to every black student, that will never happen again. May our future never repeat what the past did," Habib said.

The call for her to get recognition was initiated by members of the Greater Dobsonville Heritage Foundation, who were planning to petition that the Itireleng Clinic in the township be renamed in her honour. Malahlela was a Dobsonville resident and house doctor and worked at the clinic.

Only black woman in her class

Malahlela's daughters, Linda Mandewo and Vuyelwa Tlhapi, who were both teary-eyed during the ceremony, said they were proud of the honour their mother was receiving. They hoped more youngsters would be inspired to follow their dreams.

"[During] the first graduation her classmates were white males. She was the only black female. And a newspaper came out that evening... and the caption of the picture was 'Die Swart Gevaar', that is what she went through," Linda told News24 after the ceremony.

She said when her mother's family and neighbours from Pietersburg, Limpopo heard about her graduating as a doctor, they assumed she was a traditional healer.

"They came all the way from Pietersburg bringing her herbs and plants and she said to them 'Ga ke ngaka eo. Ke ngaka ya sekgoa. Ke ngaka ya ditshipi, ke beya ditshipi mo sefubeng' [I'm not that kind of doctor, I'm a Western doctor. I'm a doctor who uses a stethoscope, I put it on people's chests]," she laughed.

"So yes, you see my other sister was tearful. It is emotional."

Malahlela suffered a heart attack while attending to a patient on May 8, 1981. She died moments later, at the age of 65.

Journey began in 1936

She began her medical journey at the University of Fort Hare in 1936, where she had registered as a medical aid and pre-medical student.

In 1941, she became the first beneficiary of the Native Trust Fund, which enabled her to register at Wits as a medical student. She graduated at the institution in 1947 under tough apartheid laws.

Assistant dean of the health sciences faculty, Professor Thakor Pharboo, who studied medicine at Wits in 1972, described what black medical students went through during those days.

He still has a consent letter from the then department of Indian affairs, granting him permission to study at the university.

Different buses for different races

A timeline of Malahlela's life as a doctor. (Mpho Raborife)

"We had to get a ministerial consent to attend this university," he said.

"As students we couldn't utilise any of the university's facilities, swimming pools, sporting facilities. We couldn't even go to white hospitals.

“And the transport that took us from medical school to the teaching hospitals, the white students travelled in a Wits University bus and the black students travelled in a Putco bus.

“Whether you were two students or 10 students, an entire Putco bus was hired for black students to transport us to the black teaching hospitals."

Even after graduating, salaries were graded based on race, with black women earning the least, he said.

"There was a discrepancy in salaries ranging from a white male or female earning R360 [a month] in those days, an Indian male or female R290, a black male R210, and a black female R180.

"These were all challenges that we had to endure, but we could only challenge the system by staying within the system."

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