OUR lives continue from day to day and most people tend not to think about their health, their most precious possession.
The naked eye may convince us that all is well, that nothing is untoward. Social life, friends, family, work – for the most part, these are the things we think about.
But all may not be well with one’s health. We turn away from the thought that a headache could actually be the symptom of a brain tumour; a stomach ache could indicate cancer; a small cough might be the first sign of tuberculosis.
But suddenly an individual may have to face the fact that their life is hanging by a thread, and that they are in desperate need of care from medical professionals, nurses and doctors alike, dedicated to saving our lives.
This was the cause to which Cecilia Makiwane, the first registered black nurse in South Africa – born and raised in the Eastern Cape town of Alice in 1880 – dedicated her life.
Makiwane became a beacon of light for the people of Alice, after passing her Colonial Medical Council examination on January 7 1908.
Soon after, and for a number of years – though, tragically, all too few – she applied her skills as a nurse at Victoria Hospital, Lovedale Mission, serving the people of Alice and the surrounding villages.
It was an area of widespread poverty where there was a profound need for medical treatment.
As the first professionally qualified black nurse, her skills were much in demand.
She could easily have chosen to move to one of the mushrooming metropolitan areas of South Africa, where mining and other economic activities generated an intense demand for medical and other services. No doubt this would have afforded her many professional and economic opportunities.
But she chose to continue to work in Alice.
And Alice, for all its socio-economic difficulties, was also a Christian mission environment. Though not free of colonial paternalism, it resisted the extreme racism that characterised many parts of South Africa.
Again, considering her place and time, Makiwane was a well educated black woman. She was armed with a teacher’s certificate from Lovedale prior to undertaking her nursing studies.
She could have gone into the teaching profession. Nothing was stopping her.
It would in fact, have been the logical thing to do at the time – it was a “safe option”, a path followed by most educated black women.
However, with humility but also with distinction, she chose to serve people as a nurse and registered for a three-year nursing course at Lovedale College in 1903.
And people placed their lives in her hands.
Makiwane, however, was not just a nurse. She was politically conscious, a torchbearer for women’s emancipation in South Africa.
Her participation in the women’s anti-pass campaign in March 1912 is a case in point.
She was, after all, a daughter of Lovedale, an institution that symbolised a non-racial society, albeit with some racial undertones characteristic of the time.
The religious ideal of a world where men and women, black and white were equal in the sight of the Lord encouraged the likes of Makiwane to struggle for a more equal, just and humane society.
Perhaps in the context of the time this was a Utopian dream. South Africa was characterised by racial oppression and the subjugation of black people.
However, people such as Makiwane pointed towards a better world, one for which later generations were to continue to struggle.
Sadly, her untimely death in 1919, at the tender age of 39, robbed the country and her community of a remarkable pioneer.
The irony is that while Cecilia Makiwane was altruistically caring for others, her own health failed her.
This resulted in her early death.
She was indeed a wounded healer who embodied selflessness and ubuntu.
The people of the Eastern Cape have produced leaders from all walks of life including the health profession.
Makiwane is prominent among them.
A major hospital in Mdantsane, East London, is named after her. The nurses serving at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital today should model themselves on Makiwane. They should hold their heads high and take pride in their profession.
They should remain mindful that they are serving in a healthcare institution named after South Africa’s dedicated first black professional nurse.
Such nurses should be aware that the lives of their patients, as was the case with Makiwane in her time, are firmly in their hands.
The government’s slogan of Batho Pele speaks directly to them.
On the other hand, our country’s citizens ought to respect our nurses, as they work tirelessly to ensure that we are in good health.
This is crucial as we struggle to shed the legacy of apartheid characterised by a segregated health system, and transform it into a non-racial one, accessible to all.
This is a vision which Makiwane, without doubt, would have embraced.
As the nation celebrates Heritage Month, we should commemorate the life and times of Cecilia Makiwane and her outstanding contribution to humanity.
Her statue at Victoria Hospital, Lovedale, continues to remind our people of her indelible legacy.
She is also commemorated by a statue at the Cecilia Makiwane Hospital.
These memorials are worthy to form part of the network of heritage and tourism sites of which the Eastern Cape is so rich.
Beyond this, Makiwane’s deeds should be etched into the minds of our children, and to paraphrase Sindiswa Magona, their children and their children’s children.
The history of heroines such as Makiwane should also form part of the school curriculum.
There is no better time to do this than now, when government is calling for all our history to be placed squarely in the school curriculum.
We must ensure that Cecilia Makiwane, and others like her, are never erased from our national memory.
Sonwabile Mancotywa is the CEO of the National Heritage Council