Mary Susan Malahele-Xakana is remembered for her exceptional contribution to the medical sector. She grew up at a time when it was a distant dream for a black man, let alone a black woman, to become a medical doctor.
Born in Polokwane, Limpopo, on 2 May 1916, Mary Susan Malahele-Xakana defied all odds and became the first female doctor in South Africa in 1947. When she was a young girl, her Christian convert parents, Thadeus Chweu and Susan Mautswane Malahlela fled their village to Juliwe, West of Roodepoort, Johannesburg, after they refused to kill their twin boys who were born after her. They were from the BaPedi tribe, which traditionally considered twins a curse.
Malahlela attended the Methodist Primary School in the former Roodepoort West Location, where her father was the principal. In 1933, she completed the Native Primary Lower Teachers Course at the Kilnerton Institution 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, the only program available at that time to black people interested in practising medicine.
In 1941, Medical studies became open to black students. Malahlela became the first recipient of the Native Trust Fund scholarship which enabled her to enrol at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) that same year to study medicine. She was not only the first recipient but also the first African woman to receive that prestigious scholarship.
Career and Social life
On 21 June 1947, she graduated as the first black female medical doctor in South Africa. She did her internship at McCords Hospital in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal, and remained as a house doctor until 1949. In 1948, Dr Malahlela married Wallie Tamsanqa Xakana. Together they were blessed with two daughters and a son. She later established the first surgery centre in Kliptown, Soweto, where she lived with her family. She later opened a second practice in Khazamula stores, Soweto. These facilities provided accessible quality medical care for the people in Soweto, who, for a long time, had to travel long distances to acquire quality medical care. Unfortunately, she was forced to close her Kliptown practice due to the Group Areas Act’s forced removals, which moved Roodepoort West families to Dobsonville.
Malahlela is remembered for breaking structural inequalities in the medical field by becoming the first black South African female doctor. She was also the first black doctor at the Heinsbeek Community Clinic in Dobsonville and the first Baragwanath Medical Advisory Board member. She served as the chairperson of the first Roodepoort Bantu School Board in 1970 and on the Fort Hare University Council. She is also greatly remembered as one of the YWCA pioneers in South Africa and an activist in many peace and anti-apartheid movements. She dedicated 34 years in service to her community
On 8 May 1981, Malahlela met her untimely death when she collapsed while attending to a patient at her voluntary service job at the rural Oppenheimer Witkoppen Clinic, owned by Dr Nthato Motlana, who was an apartheid activist and Nelson Mandela family physician. She was 65 years old.
Today, Mary Susan Malahlela-Xakana is still honoured for her contribution to the medical field in South Africa. Regardless of the legal and cultural impediments she faced, she proved to be an exceptionally gifted woman, becoming one of the first black female medical doctors in South Africa. In 2015, Malahlela-Xakana posthumously received the Order of the Baobab award for her groundbreaking medical career.
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