How STEM is Inspiring Local and Youth-Led Community Flourishing

“I was 15 years old when I watched a programme on TV where someone was being operated on. The doctor removed the patient’s heart and held it. I wanted to know how that felt,” says 29-year-old medical doctor Bhekisisa Maduna.

Bhekisisa was one of the first students to join the Motsepe Foundation bursary programme. While he may not be holding patient’s hearts, he has worked his way into the surgical theatre as an anaesthetist.

“There are people who are still paying their student loans. We’re lucky because after school, I could just focus on my family and myself.”

Bhekisisa grew up in a rural town 2-hours outside of Mthatha. At the local hospital, near to where he lived, he saw long queues of people waiting for assistance. The difficult working conditions within public healthcare didn’t deter his passion and he went on to become the first medical doctor in his family.

“I like helping people and doing it to the best of my ability, even when the circumstances don’t allow,” he says. Having worked in rural hospitals, and while currently working in a public hospital in the Eastern Cape, Bhekisisa is familiar with doing more with less. “The equipment is not always there. We are short staffed because there are a lot of patients, and we’re overstretched to the point of burnout.”

People who want to study medicine – don’t be a loner because you will find it very hard

MD Bhekisisa Maduna

For Bhekisisa, travelling locally and abroad, and spending time with friends and family, helps him to cope. “Medical professionals lack people to talk to,” he says, referencing the times in theatre when patients don’t make it.

This experience of burnout is common, with medical students reporting disproportionately elevated levels of mental ill-health. “People who want to study medicine – don’t be a loner because you will find it very hard,” he advises.

While Bhekisisa plans to become a specialist in the near future, he also sees himself returning to university as a professor to improve the learning experience of medical students. “At university, the lecturers were very harsh. We dealt with pressure to study, pressure in our hospital work and additional pressure from lecturers. I just want to create a very safe and calm environment for students because it was very difficult for me.”

Bhekisisa has come a long way since medical school and is now planning a holiday in Zanzibar. He is very adamant in separating his work and personal lives for his wellbeing, and he explains that when his friends ask for medical advice, “One thing I tell them, I don’t know.”  

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When I was younger, I didn’t know any civil engineers. I see them on social media, and I get motivated by their lives

Xolile Ngcobo

Growing up in Pietermaritzburg, Xolile Ngcobo struggled to find people who could answer her technical questions about engineering. “There is only one school and creche in the whole area and not many amenities. Cows and goats herd in the community centre.”

Since primary school, Xolile was intrigued by construction and the creation of buildings and bridges, even though her own community had limited infrastructure. While her parents are supportive of her dreams, they didn’t further their studies after Matric and she put a lot of pressure on herself to succeed. “I was putting pressure on myself to get good marks for university, especially in maths,” she says.

Now, Xolile is a first-year civil engineering student, and she continues to find her own way. “When I was younger, I didn’t know any civil engineers. I see them on social media, and I get motivated by their lives, but I still don’t see many women. This makes me work harder so that I can become one of those women.”

Civil engineers design and maintain buildings and other infrastructure. For Xolile, her dream job would involve, “designing and calculating elements that make sure materials can withstand climate change and any pressure, especially floods.”

Following the flooding in Durban during April 2022, one of the most catastrophic natural disasters recorded in KwaZulu-Natal, the cost of infrastructure and business losses amounted to an estimated US$2 billion. In the aftermath, and as climate disasters become more frequent, civil engineers will play a crucial role in ensuring infrastructure is designed and maintained to withstand pressures and prevent the loss of life. 

In her future, Xolile hopes to support her family and others in her area with infrastructure that will contribute to development and improved standards of living. She says, if she could do anything once she graduates it would be “To build a community hall, another primary school, and a centre for free education for children from poor families.”

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I wasn’t prepared for the studying and the amount of catching up I had to do

Phemelo Matsepe

“My friends have started to graduate. They’re working and buying cars. But I’m not jealous because I’m studying my passion and I wouldn’t want to do anything else,” says Phemelo Matsepe, a 5th year medical student.

Phemelo grew up in Tafelkop, Limpopo with his mother, a pre-school teacher. If either him or his mother were ill, it would require a 45-minute drive to the nearest clinic and an entire day waiting for a doctor to be available. 

Rural healthcare is characterised by shortages of staff and limited resources, which restricts the level of care provided to patients. This is something Xolile feels enthusiastic about changing.

According to the department of health, only 3% of medical graduates in South Africa end up working in rural areas 10 to 20 years after graduating. “If I work hard and become competent enough, I can give quality services, similar to that offered in the city,” he says.

Since he was young, Phemelo had a passion for people. When considering his career choices in high school, he deliberated between teaching and medicine. Fortunately, when he moved schools in grade 10, he made friends with learners who were comfortable in maths and science. Their guidance unlocked his own math and science ability and propelled him towards medical school.

His friends have become a staunch support structure for him as he navigates medical school. “In my first year, I had a lot of excitement. I was excited to wear a lab coat and tell people that I was in medical school. But I wasn’t prepared for the studying and the amount of catching up I had to do”.

In the last 5-years, Phemelo has discovered new pathways within the medical profession that he would like to explore. “While interning, I found a new interest in plastic surgery. It was nice to see how this kind of work can impact the way people see themselves and improve their confidence.”

One of his reasons for studying medicine is to earn enough money to become financially independent. But this isn’t the main reason. He insists on being one of the few who choose to return to rural hospitals after graduation to make an impact and improve access to care.