Do you guys know I’m still a student?” Bongeka Zuma laughs in response to being told she has been nominated as a change-making South African woman.
She is no run-of-the-mill student, though. Born and raised in Nkwezela in KwaZulu-Natal —where she attended “a resource-limited primary school” — Zuma has gone on to graduate summa cum laude, the highest honour from Spelman College in Atlanta with a bachelor of science degree in biology. In 2017, she went on to graduate from the University of Oxford with a master’s in medical anthropology.
Currently a doctor of medicine candidate at California’s Stanford University, the former Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls pupil (where she was named the Dux Scholar, the student with the highest average), she realised her need to enter the field of medicine while growing up in Nkwezela.
“I saw first-hand the devastating effects of poor health resources — people around me constantly died, and they died from easily preventable or treatable conditions. When I was in grade six, I came home to find my grandmother dead on the sofa. She was sick and our neighbour had been taking care of her and I just never understood why our neighbors and family members assume the role of being doctors to people who should be taken care of by professionals. I came to the conclusion that it’s because they had no other option, no choice. And this was because of the poor health resources. Witnessing this injustice sparked an interest in the healthcare field for me,”she says.
But her decision has come with its fair share of challenges.
“The one challenge I’m constantly faced with is being undermined and underestimated as a woman and also as a black African woman. I find myself constantly having to work extra hard to prove that I’m smart [and] having to prove that I’m a capable student just like everyone,” she says.
Still, being the not-so-average student, she persists. Why?
“Because being a black, African woman in spaces like Stanford (and Oxford) is absolutely necessary. These spaces need better representation, the patients we encounter deserve better representation. The same thing goes for South Africa — South African women and people across the socioeconomic spectrum need to be better represented. We as women deserve to be seated at the tables where decisions are being made about our health, where research is being done about our own health. We need to be part of the conversations. Women patients who prefer other women as doctors deserve the right to have that. Little girls who want to grow up to be doctors deserve role models who look like them. Womanising health is an absolute necessity.”
A young woman working her way towards this womanising of healthcare, Zuma appears to be making peace with the fact that, although “still a student”, she is slowly effecting change ﾑ eventually conceding that “change can mean so many different things”.
“I’m the first person in my community who had studied in the UK and in the US. I’ve had a lot of firsts and that in itself is, I suppose, bringing change to South Africa. Even those tucked away in the depths of poorly resourced parts of our country deserve the same opportunities as everyone else. There are little girls back in rural areas of KZN who now dare to dream bigger because of my achievements. I’m not trying to change the world really, or the entirety of South Africa just yet, but if I can change one person’s world, that’ll be enough for me.”