During South Africa’s apartheid era, having a child out of wedlock was considered a taboo. Such a child would thus face many roadblocks—particularly if she were black and female. This was what Thandeka Mazibuko had to overcome from a young age; her mother’s meager salary as a domestic worker made life even more challenging. “My village [Kwanyuswa] had not seen a medical doctor; therefore, I had no role models. I was that girl who came home and cooked for the whole family, [who] fetched water from the river and wood from the forest. We had no shoes at times, as my mother was struggling as a single parent,” explained Mazibuko, who is now an influential oncologist.
Because of a strong belief in education, Mazibuko’s mother enrolled her in school and encouraged her to choose a bold path through which she could set an example for all the young girls who came after her.
Mazibuko became the first in her family to be literate, but she did not stop there, becoming “the first indigenous Black to enter the field of radiation oncology in [KwaZulu-Natal Province], South Africa” She faced prejudice there, being called “a monkey [who] didn’t deserve an education.” She continued, “I was harassed by White and Indian doctors; they called me names daily.”
Her journey was often dark; for instance, Mazibuko was once denied access to a research program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. However, her resilience eventually paid off, as she is now one of the most celebrated medical practitioners in South Africa.
Mazibuko’s grandmother died due to limited access to basic health care; after this tragic event, Mazibuko vowed to dedicate her time and energy to preventing situations like this from happening. With this goal, she founded Sinomusa Nothando Community Development Inc., an organization that operates around the world, providing essential health care services to underrepresented populations in the Global South.
Through this organization, Mazibuko champions health care around the world, and her work has been quite impactful. She was honored as an Oprah Heroine in 2010, as a KwaZulu-Natal Business Woman of the Year in 2012, and as one of the Prominent Women of Africa in 2013. She was also a finalist in the 2014 Standard Bank Rising Star competition.
Mazibuko currently works in the Department of Radiation Oncology at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center. She is also seeking support to ensure the successful implementation of a rural hospital project. This project is inspired by her upbringing, when she saw the lack of a functional hospital in her village result in untold deaths of poor residents. She refuses to rest until everyone has access to high-quality health care.