Maverick Citizen

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Mosa Moshabela’s partnership with his grandmother took him from rural Limpopo all the way to the top at UCT

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Prof Tinyiko Maluleke is the vice-chancellor and principal of the Tshwane University of Technology.

Prof Matlagolo Mosa ‘Moloto’ Moshabela has had an incredible academic journey, from the threadbare schooling system of rural Mapatjakeng – where English was taught in Sepedi – to becoming the new principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

It is almost midnight in the little-known, poverty-stricken village of Mapatjakeng in Zebediela, Limpopo. As if propelled by a hurricane, 12-year-old Matlagolo Mosa “Moloto” Moshabela darts out of the hut of his maternal grandmother – Elizabeth Ramadimetja Madisha, neé Mphahlele. 

He plunges headlong into the thick blanket of darkness that characterised the Mapatjakeng nights back then. Quite literally, he hits the ground running.

“Wait for me, grandma. Everything is going to be alright,” he chants, to the rhythm of the footfalls of his running feet, as he fluently executes the 20-minute sprint along the winding footpath that slices through Mapatjakeng, towards the home of his uncle in the neighbouring village of Magatle on the other side of the river.

This was no ordinary sprint; it was a mercy mission. Arriving at his uncle’s home, he bangs the door while shouting at the top of his voice: “Malome John (Uncle John)! Malome John! Koko-Mma (which is how the grandchildren referred to their grandmother) is very sick! Wake up! We must take her to hospital now!”

Grandma-grandson partnership

His grandmother was having yet another cardiovascular failure. Not that young Moshabela knew anything about that. What he did do, meticulously and consistently, was make sure that his grandmother took her daily dose of prescribed medications.

Every time his grandma suffered shortness of breath, he would do everything he had seen the adults do to elevate her so she could breathe easier. If this did not help, he would do what he always did, roughly every other year; sprint across the bridge straddling the Nkumpi River – a tributary of the Lepelle River – until he reached his uncle’s home. Once Koko-Mma was hospitalised, Moshabela would begin to worry that she might never make it out alive.

Mosa Moshabela

Incoming vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town Professor Mosa Moshabela, during a UCT media briefing. 24 May 2024. (Photo: Suné Payne)

The first of four siblings, Mosa Moshabela was born in Mapatjakeng, Zebediela. He spent his first few years in Ga-Kgapane township outside Duiwelskloof, where his parents, Esther Maphei Moshabela (neé Madisha) and Ngwako Eleazer Moshabela (who passed away in 2010), had set up their home.

But in what was then Standard 2, Mosa moved back to Mapatjakeng. Apart from the primary school and the high school, the other landmarks of the nondescript village were a windmill, the Nkumpi River and the mopatjaka trees after which the village is named.

Unfortunately, just before young Mosa returned to Mapatjakeng, grandma Elizabeth Ramadimetja “Meta” Madisha –had a severe stroke which left her paralysed, stricken with cardiovascular complications and bedridden. 

Nevertheless, Mosa and his grandmother proceeded to constitute one of the most formidable and impactful partnerships I have ever heard of, reminiscent of the 1999 Hollywood film, The Bone Collector, based on Jeffery Deaver’s 1997 novel of the same title.

In this film, two partner cops – one, a bedridden quadriplegic played by Denzel Washington and the other, a rookie cop played by Angelina Jolie – collaborate in detective work where, though bedridden, Washington was the leader, strategist and thinker while Jolie was the implementer. 

In the 25th anniversary edition of his book, Deaver pens a short letter to the reader in which he suggests that the quadriplegic character demonstrates that “we really are our minds and hearts and spirits before we’re our bodies”.

Young Mosa drank voraciously from the resilient spirit, the loving heart and the beautiful mind of his bedridden grandma.

For eight years, Mosa saw his grandmother taking charge of business from the vantage point of the bed in which she lay incapacitated. From that horizontal position, she taught him how to herd her goats and cattle, milk the cows, cook, think, love, laugh, persevere and do life in general. And she guided him through school until he matriculated at Tubake Senior Secondary School.

Truly, Grandma Madisha has redefined leadership. Hers is the enactment of the type of leadership invoked in Reul Khoza’s latest book, The Spirit of Leadership

Because Grandma Madisha had absolute confidence in her grandson’s academic ability, she urged him to study medicine so he could come back and care for her. Is there a nobler reason for studying to become a medical doctor?

Summoned from the margins

Moshabela belongs to the cohort of young medical doctors who entered the field when South Africa was moving out of the era of HIV denialism – an era decried by Malegapuru Makgoba in his recent book, Leadership for Transformation since the Dawn of South Africa’s Democracy.

The young Dr Moshabela threw himself into the “war” against HIV/Aids. He headed anti-HIV programmes in Sekhukhuneland, North West and Mpumalanga, among others. His interest in public health was born out of his lived experience and empirical research.

Mosa Moshabela

Incoming Vice Chancellor Professor Mosa Moshabela (left) with UCT Council Chair Norman Arendse during a UCT media briefing. 24 May 2024. (Photo: Sune Payne)

Having been in the eye of the HIV storm, and having served and studied in countries including Britain, the US and Mali, where he survived a military coup in 2012, Moshabela was well prepared to help his native country navigate the stormy waters of Covid when it hit our shores.

Grandma Madisha lived to see Mosa begin his medical school studies in 1996. But while Moshabela was writing his final exams that year, the old woman bowed out. I guess she had accomplished her mission. 

Of her seven children, one was a postmaster, another a teacher, and Moshabela’s mother, who was the youngest, was a qualified professional nurse. These achievements were no small feat for an illiterate black woman whose offspring were supposed to become hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Most importantly, she provided her grandson with enough love, affirmation and inspiration to last a lifetime. Without her powerful and compassionate presence in his life, Moshabela wouldn’t be half the man he is today.

Prof Matlagolo Mosa “Moloto” Moshabela has had an incredible academic journey. He has risen from the threadbare schooling system of rural Mapatjakeng – where English was taught in Sepedi – to attend medical school at the University of Natal in Durban. After completing his medical qualification, he specialised in family medicine and then proceeded to do a PhD in public health.

Here is a South African who was summoned from the margins and thrust into the vibrant centres of knowledge-creation in his own country and abroad.

Mosa Moshabela’s family has every reason to be proud of him. He has crowned them and the Mapatjakeng village with glory. The chests of his high school maths and physics teachers, Mr Chokoe and Mr Nchabeleng, as well as his school principal, Mr Seete, must be swollen with pride.

I imagine Koko-Mma suspended high in the sky, flanked by Mosa’s father, Ngwako Moshabela, Mosa’s paternal grandmother, Sewela Moshabela, Mosa’s paternal grandfather, Mashao Absalom Moshabela, and her husband, Ezekiel Madisha – all smiling down upon their child.

As the beloved son of Mapatjakeng prepares to take up his position as principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, the country is reaping the fruits of the partnership between Moshabela and his grandmother, Elizabeth Ramadimetja Madisha, ‘Meta’ ngwan’aMphahlele. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Thug Nificent says:

    Great article, all the best to the prof, it’s not everyday we read of such an acvomplished black South Africa.

    I wish we had more happy ending stories like this for black children. This is a brilliant one.

  • Thug Nificent says:

    The article actually brings me to tears, it’s half the story of all black South Africans, the other half is the story of a tiny drop of black South Africans and that is what pains me.

  • Tumelo Tumelo says:

    One thinks of the motto Fortitudine Vincimus ( through endurance, we conquer) when celebrating such brilliance. Once again, congratulations Prof Matlagolo Mosa “Moloto” Moshabela.

  • Tshepang Moloi says:

    What an incredible article, a well structured narrative piece about Prof Mosa, I am inspired by his formidable and humble beginnings. Wish him nothing but all of the best in his new trajectory.

  • Tshangisa Mhlatyana says:

    Excellent article. Congratulations to you both, esteemed professors. One large family. Two brilliant academics. Both of you make us all proud to be sharing this universe with you. It takes a brilliant mind to notice that there is nothing that can beat a mind determined, resilient, and believing.

  • Lesiba Langa says:

    A great piece Prof Maluleka. With determination and God on your side, anything is possible. Prof Moshabela is us. Congratulations Prof Moshabela on your appointment. We are immensely proud of you. Cheers!

  • graham hendricks says:

    What a truly inspiring story.

  • Jayce Moodley says:

    An amazingly proud moment. Well done Sir. You have truly made grandma proud and I as a South African and absolutely proud of your achievements. Go and fly higher.

  • Niek Joubert says:

    Well done to the professor. I would like to point out that it seems that his school education under the apartheid bantu education seems to have prepared students better than the stooges produced by the current ANC school education under Angie Motshekga

  • Marie Venn Venn says:

    Thank you, Prof Maluleke, for this beautifully written account of your colleague’s rise.
    I especially appreciate your reverence and honour given to names.
    I sincerely hope Prof Moshabela’s journey is sufficient anchorage for the challenging leadership role at UCT.

  • Fiona Ronquest-Ross Ronquest-Ross says:

    Beautiful heartening story. Thank you for the inspiration.

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