In his own way, in his own field, Professor Thandinkosi Madiba has excelled and enhanced countless lives in much the same way as his more famous namesake. By GREG ARDÉ. Photography Val Adamson
He has kind eyes, a shy smile and a marvellous mind.
Professor Thandinkosi Madiba, a world authority on diseases of the colon, rectum and anus, has lived and worked in Durban most of his life. The 65-year-old is head of surgery at Nelson R Mandela Medical School at the University of KZN and established the first colorectal unit in the province.
As a schoolboy, Madiba showed great promise. His mother, a domestic worker, worked for a Rotary Ann who arranged for him to move from his home in Umkomaas to school at Adams College, near Amanzimtoti.
He matriculated in the top 10 students countrywide and enrolled at UKZN, where he qualified as a doctor in 1976. After an internship at Edendale Hospital, Madiba did two years in private practice in Ntuzuma. He joined the university in 1978 and nine years later graduated as a specialist surgeon.
“I wanted to study the theory, but I also liked the patient evaluation and I wanted to learn how to operate … later on I also learnt how to become an administrator, a researcher and a teacher.”
By the time he qualified as a surgeon, Madiba had performed more than 400 supervised operations. He has since done thousands.
“It is intricate work with a minimum margin of error. I have honed my fine motor skills, but most importantly I have learnt to respect tissue. I learnt that from my two predecessors, the late Mr (Fred) Luvuno and Professor (Ariff) Haffejee. How you cut is an art. It’s not a smash and grab. You are solving problems and you have to pay attention to detail.”
Madiba became head of surgery in 2010, though he’s quick to say he does not want to be remembered as the first African professor of surgery.
“I don’t want to be labelled. I am among many surgeons who have held the position and I’m here because of merit and many trials and tribulations.”
He scoffs at racial quotas in transformation.
“They’re patronising. I like transformation in as much as it encourages work and gives everyone the chance to reach their highest potential, so they can compete on their own recognisance.
“Other than that, quotas defeat transformation and are an insult to anyone involved. I have seen attempts to sabotage transformation, but at the end of the day transformation is not about a face and you can’t do it by numbers.”
Madiba says he’s always strived to improve himself. He trained as a colorectal surgeon at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He is a fellow of the College of Surgeons of South Africa and the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons. He obtained the latter fellowship after being awarded a scholarship to study in the US.
Madiba has undertaken exhaustive research, particularly in the field of sigmoid volvulus, a condition in which the large bowel twists on itself.
Research and academia have helped him immeasurably, he says.
“In order to succeed, you need to be learned, and that’s not always just about going to school, it’s about learning from your colleagues and being able to present your research to them for their scrutiny.
“We are not just consumers of knowledge, we learn if we are prepared to do things over and above our job description. There is satisfaction in that. I am rewarded when I see the animation in the eyes of my students when I teach them.”
After he qualified, Madiba says, he was “big and arrogant” and didn’t think he could learn from the nurses. Age and experience have taught him empathy and humility.
“I don’t know everything and I’m prepared to hear from my juniors. I would rather be challenged than miss something. As medicine has advanced I have seen the change to more collaborative treatment of cancers, for example, and the approach is much more successful.”
Madiba says problems in public health care could be solved if the bureaucracy wasn’t politicised. “The people at the top mean well, they have a vision and are aware of the priorities, but things get jumbled because of political appointments. People who are employed because of who they know will always have a feeling of entitlement. They will keep people waiting for two hours while they read a magazine.
“If this job is given to you, and you haven’t sweated for it, you will never work hard. If you have worked hard to become a doctor or a nurse you will have a good work ethic and will appreciate the job you have. That’s my pet hate: people who don’t want to fulfil their responsibility.”
In 2010, Madiba was selected by the city as a “living legend”, which he counts as one of his fondest memories.
Madiba’s wife is a retired schoolteacher and they have two sons and three grandchildren. He says he likes walking through the tree-lined streets of La Lucia, where he lives. Other than that he relaxes by reading research papers and watching wrestling. He giggles at this, saying it intrigues his wife no end because it is so at odds with his gentle nature.
Professor Haffejee described Madiba as a quiet man who played down his achievements. “He is very hard-working and his work is of an outstanding quality. He sees things through to completion. He has excelled and is most accomplished.”
(This story first appeared in The Sunday Times SPICE magazine.)