Change the world


When Nelson Mandela University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa welcomed 50 medical students at a small, internal Oath Taking ceremony in May 2021, it was the culmination of a dream dating back to 1946.

The idea for a medical school in Gqeberha (then Port Elizabeth), arose when Rhodes University suggested the possibility of a satellite campus in the city, with faculties of commerce, engineering and medicine.

At that stage the University of Port Elizabeth, which later became part of Nelson Mandela University, did not exist and, even after UPE opened in Summerstrand in 1965, it took decades of planning and hard work to make the dream a reality.

Although the official launch of the Medical School was delayed until November 30 for safety over the pandemic, the ground-breaking class of future doctors were immersed in their studies since March.

They pledged an oath then to create community-level and multi-stakeholder collaboration in solving healthcare and lifestyle challenges faced by the under-served communities in South Africa.

“As a university with a deliberate posture to be in the service of society, the Medical School makes a tangible contribution to our responsibility to take forward the legacy of Nelson Mandela by building skills and expanded capacity for pro-poor and accessible healthcare service delivery,” says Mandela University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa.

“We will strive to equip our graduates with the knowledge, skills and qualities to fully embrace the complex healthcare and lifestyle challenges facing our diverse communities, particularly the poor. We will aspire to promote a strong social accountability framework amongst both our students and staff members.

“Pedagogically, our approach is the training of future doctors as part of collaborative teams with other healthcare professionals and drawing on trans-disciplinary insights. Our teaching, learning and community practice model is firmly rooted in a holistic, bio-psycho-social approach to health and well-being – in which individuals are seen in the context of families, communities, inclusive of their rich and diverse cultural, social and linguistic bonds and traditions.

“Key to this is the use of indigenous knowledge systems working with frontier modern science to promote a holistic philosophy of health care and well-being.

“We see our diversity as a key source of strength to medical practice; and we want our graduates to have the adaptive expertise to work socially and spatially-diverse contexts in which to promote public healthcare goals.”

Beyond programme-specific training, the University will also deploy its research and innovation capabilities to search for new diagnostic, therapeutic and vaccine technologies in the fight against COVID-19 and future pandemics; legacy communicable diseases such as TB and HIV/AIDS, and climate-related health risks of the future.

The use of big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine and deep learning tools, together with Nelson Mandela University’s longstanding capabilities in mobile, remote sensing and robotic technologies will be crucial assets in communities to adapt and mitigate potential periods of disruptive change.

“Similarly, we hope to deploy these capabilities to enable effective interventions in response to future climate-driven health threats,” Prof Muthwa said.

In sharing her experience, Faculty of Health Sciences Deputy Dean Prof Dalena Van Rooyen praised all stakeholders who played a role in making the Medical School possible, across South Africa’s Higher Education landscape. 

“It was phenomenal to see the contributions from the other Medical Schools from all around the country to share words of encouragement and guidance along the way. Whenever we reached out to our fellow Health Sciences colleagues, they shared their expertise or referred us to the relevant staff members,” Prof Van Rooyen said.

“Part of the success of the establishment of the Medical School was that the support extended beyond that of the University and the Province. It came from all around the country.”

In addition to the  support received from the other Universities, Prof Van Rooyen expressed immense gratitude to the former Dean of the Faculty, Prof Vic Exner, the late Dean Prof Lungile Pepeta and new dean Prof Zukiswa Zingela for their impact in bringing the Medical School to fruition.

“There has also been tremendous guidance and assistance across the various Nelson Mandela University portfolios. The workstreams led by the Deputy Vice-Chancellors for People and Operations, Mr Lebogang Hashatse, and Learning and Teaching, Prof Cheryl Foxcroft, all come together to embrace the initiative, pull together, and make this major project a reality. Likewise, the Executive Director of Finances, Mike Monaghan and his team has given incredible support.”

The tragic death of the late Prof Lungile Pepeta in August 2020 propelled Prof Van Rooyen into the position of Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty to continue the work leading to the first group of students who commenced with their six-year Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB)  degree in 2021.

“Although the senior leadership changed, the Faculty of Health Sciences, and its leadership have taken real ownership with various collaborative efforts and that has been the golden thread in making this major undertaking possible,” said Prof Van Rooyen.

Dean of Students Luthando Jack highlighted the diversity of applicants drawn to the new programme.

“They are from all over the country and it’s been an exciting year as we learn their needs and how we can best assist them,” he said.

More than 5,500 applications were received or the first year of 50 places, and the same number were received for the second year intake of 80 places in 2022.

Jack said that from 2022, the University planned to place all Faculty of Health students in the same residence as their academic calendar differed from other fields of study. They would be housed in a new 500-bed residence on North Campus, part of the University’s infrastructure drive to add 1,800 student beds.

“Reliable transport is available and we have a shuttle service to take the students to Missionvale, and there are learning and teaching spaces on campus for those who stay in the city centre,” Jack said.

He also highlighted the work of the The Universal Accessibility and Disability Services (UADS) unit, saying “students with disabilities are not an afterthought, and UADS does fantastic work, for example with assistive devices where necessary”.

Prof Zukiswa Zingela joined Mandela University from  Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha, until now the only medical school in the province.

“Not having a second medical school was encouraging brain drain from the province but now we are increasing our chances of keeping our talent. So many who are from the Eastern Cape are heading different departments in other provinces, and doing incredibly well where they are, but we would have preferred them to be here!” Prof Zingela said.

Prof Van Rooyen concurred: “Everyone understood what this programme would mean, not only for the province, one of the poorest provinces in South Africa, but also for the country. We really have a dream team in the Faculty who believe that what matters is the health of the people we serve, and to provide a comprehensive health care system to the people in our communities.”

As the late Nelson Mandela said, “health cannot be a question of income; it is a fundamental human right”.

Medical students at their Oath Taking Ceremony in May 2021

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057