While growing up in the tight-knit community of Mpunzana in Mthatha, times were tough for Dr Mthembeni Tebelele, but the spirit of ubuntu played a huge role in his success as a doctor.
Tebelele is based in Gqeberha, and is a general practitioner with more that 20 years of experience in family medicine. He is also a certified life coach and leadership facilitator, and an MBA graduate.
Tebelele is the fourth of seven children. His father, Nikisi, worked as a municipal worker in Gauteng, while his mother, Kiti, was a housewife. In 1981 he began his education at Mpunzana Junior Secondary School, which is now currently called Dumalisile Junior Secondary School. From 1989 to 1991, he attended Dalindyebo Senior High School.
“Like some other families in our time, we relied on our family’s basic farming to make things better. We would sell a sheep or a goat for survival, so we could purchase some necessities at home to supplement my father’s wage.”
Tebelele studied mathematics and physics in high school and says he was inspired by Professor Sithembiso Velaphi, the first doctor in his village, and close neighbour.
“Kiti [my mother] was a good first-aid and traditional birth helper in our community, where she assisted moms during childbirth. My mother’s commitment to community service ignited my desire to become a doctor.”
When he passed matric, his father was ecstatic and saw no need for him to pursue additional education.
“Back then, passing Standard 7 was a major accomplishment; it allowed one to become a police officer. But my mother saw my ability and recognised the necessity for me to continue my education.”
‘It takes a village to raise a child’
Usually, back then, test results right through from elementary to secondary school, would be displayed on the classroom walls for everyone to see.
Tebelele explains that this prompted them to compete and work hard since everyone would know if they weren’t putting in the effort, which was comparable to the matric results.
“In other words, I was handsomely taken care of. Again, in 1991 after our matric results, I was amazed when Mrs Toni, another teacher, came to our house to inform us that I had passed with (BM) grade point average and that I was now eligible for government assistance.”
“Tat’uBloem, who was Mrs Toni’s husband, guided me to Botha Sigcawu via the public service commission (a government-supported programme), to finalise my application procedures.”
Groomed for leadership
The transition from high school to university was not easy. He says that he only got 15% for his first physical exam, which was unusual for him.
Tebelele eventually became active in university student activities such as class rep, medical student counsel, and the university SRC, as well as being involved in other organisations that assisted students with bursaries and other pressing concerns.
“I began to be groomed for leadership as a result of my family situation. So, everything that puts me in a position of leadership, came naturally to me.
“I took on a leadership position voluntarily, so in university I got more involved in activities that impacted other people’s lives.”
He graduated in 1997 and began his internship at Livingstone Hospital in Gqeberha in 1998. Tebelele says that after the internship programme, they were legally required to work at remote community hospitals.
“There was this notion that South African physicians don’t want to work in rural hospitals. I was sent to Frontier Hospital in Queenstown for six months before being transferred to Mlamli and Mpilisweni Hospitals on the border of Sterkspruit and Lesotho for another six months.”
Back then, doctors were paid a rural stipend, and like his father, he was responsible for caring for his family.
Forging his own path
Tebelele obtained his certificate to practise independently in 2000, after completing his community service.
“I quit and went private because I wanted to earn more money. I had to resurface my family’s three rondavels in order to construct my home.”
He continued his studies after receiving his MB CHB degree from Unitra, [now WSU] by studying privately. Tebelele also obtained a diploma in HIV from the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa in 2004, followed by an MBA from the University of Liverpool and a diploma in life coaching from the SA Blackford Institute in 2017.
Soon after he obtained his MBA, Umhlobo Wenene FM often asked Tebelele to talk about different medical issues on Saturdays.
“I’d be given five minutes, and I wouldn’t mind going to the studio for those five minutes,” he says. “I like being cognitively challenged and answering random questions from listeners.”
The five minutes earned him a spot as a content contributor on other shows such as Khanya Gqiyazana, and every Wednesday, primarily discussing sexual reproductive health issues, and on Tuesdays at trufm on the show set.
“The exposure led me to public speaking. I’ve been invited to speak on so many platforms as an emcee, guest speaker and facilitator. I’ve also spoken at university convocations, religious conferences, gala dinners, and I’ve even attended doctor’s conferences.”
Contributing to the community
Tebelele has educated a large number of students, both personally and with the assistance of others. He believes that since he was assisted by others in becoming a doctor, he would continue to do so as long as there is a need.
“I hope that by doing all of these presentations, my activism via social media and my work for the public, I influence others and leave a legacy, so that even if I were to depart this world, people may continue to benefit from my work.”
He is also the secretary general of Mpunzana Youth Development, a non-profit organisation, which he co-founded with his mentor, Prof Velaphi. They also manage various campaigns in the Mpunzana village which benefit the community in a variety of ways.