There is nothing ambivalent or ambiguous about Dr Zola Ntshona. She waits outside the hospital gate, puffing furiously at a cigarette before stubbing it out and striding into the building.
‘I am Nokuzola Ntshona. N-o-k-u-z-o-l-a,’ she spells, without prompting, her gravelly voice conjuring images of strong, back coffee or a double bourbon, neat.
The 52-year-old Dr Ntshona’s gaze is unwavering. She carries her slight frame like a ballet dancer or a gymnast.The doctor’s coat she wears over a dress is a crisp white and freshly ironed. Her name tag is pinned neatly to the lapel. An incongruous detail that completes the picture is the black leather handbag that dangles nonchalantly from her forearm much the same way the Queen of England carries hers.
Dr Ntshona laughs easily and jokes endlessly, whether it be with colleagues or patients.
The first noticeable thing about Dr Nokuzola Ntshona is her infectious energy. As she walks through the corridors and wards of the enormous Polokwane Hospital in Limpopo Province, she talks non-stop, greeting staff, summarizing the condition of a patient she operated on the night before and explaining the regimen of vitamins and supplements she is trying to get sponsored for the pregnant women in her unit.
An obstetrician at the Polokwane Hospital since August last year, Ntshona maps her life in a few quick sentences: ‘I was born in Johannesburg. My parents are both from the Cape. I did primary school in Soweto and my brother Vuyo and I went to boarding school in Lesotho for three years and then Swaziland for seven years, while my brother joined my father (Scrap Ntshona) in exile in Nigeria.’
As a member of the Unity Movement of South Africa, Scrap Ntshona was told by comrades in 1963 to go into exile when the political situation deteriorated. He left his then wife, Connie, behind in Soweto, where she continued to run the family business selling groceries. Connie rented out two other rooms, one as a small pharmacy and the other to a doctor.
While touring the corridors of Polokwane, Zola mentions in passing that she is leaving for Johannesburg to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela’s first wife, Evelyn.
‘I was a flower girl at his wedding to Winnie while my father was the master of ceremonies,’ she adds.
After completing her schooling, the young Zola went to London where she completed a Bachelor of Science degree. Shortly afterwards she ‘Americanised’ her British degree at Connecticut University in the United States, moving on to Howard University Medical School in Washington DC and graduated as a doctor in 1982.
‘My mother Connie is still in New York, but I came in 2000 looking for a job. I was told I was overqualified and I flew back,’ she recalls.
Ntshona had ‘applied everywhere’ at the time and had left her CV with a number of agencies.
She returned to the United States where her mother, an experienced midwife and now divorced from Scrap Ntshona, had retired.
Later in 2002, with 18 years of specialist experience, Dr Ntshona returned to South Africa.
Her first job was at the University of Transkei.
‘It was too far from my hometown, Johannesburg, so I continued applying to Gauteng.’
But a moratorium on new appointments saw Ntshona traveling further north to Polokwane where she joined the Medical University of Southern Africa faculty, lecturing and practising medicine in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology.
Ntshona pauses when asked whether she has considered the lucrative world of private practice. ‘Of course I have. Who knows what the future will bring,’ she smiles.
‘During my interview (at Polokwane Hospital) I told them that I had been so frustrated and so angry at Umtata Hospital. Two patients in one bed is something I have not seen and I have been a doctor since 1982,’ Dr Ntshona exclaims.
‘They immediately assured me that I will never find two patients in one bed in this institution and they were right, I haven’t,’ she adds.
Ntshona believes that there is a lack of capacity to spend allocated funds in the Eastern Cape, but she hastens to add that Limpopo has it’s own problems, perhaps not as serious.
With ambitions of entering politics, Ntshona is passionate about the need to treat the huge number of people living with HIV/AIDS, in fact she doesn’t think twice about pronouncing her plans to become the next health minister.
‘We need to bring the anti-retrovirals yesterday, not next month, not next year,’ she says adding, ‘Yes, people are worried about the side-effects, but what can you do? That is the reality of taking any medicine,’ says Ntshona.
‘But let’s do it and then deal with the side-effects.’
Asked what she thought the odds were of her becoming a member of Cabinet in the foreseeable future, the doctor smiles, then giggles.
‘I don’t know, I don’t know. I don’t think there is a doctor in the public health service who writes as many letters to the president as I do in this country. I tell him everything I’m telling you know,’ she says.
Dr Ntshona does not seem troubled at the odds that are stacked against her entering the upper echelons of Government.
A member of Patricia de Lillie’s Independent Democrats, Ntshona is gearing herself towards winning a seat in next year’s municipal elections.
But Dr Ntshona’s interim plan is to open a jazz and blues club in Johannesburg later this year. It is a dream, she says, encouraged by her long friendship with internationally renowned jazz musician Jonas Gwangwa.
‘He (Gwangwa) always tells me I’m such a very good singer when he accompanies me on the piano. I’ve told him I’m willing to kick this nonsense any day. Damn I’ll give it up any day,’ she grins.
But it is in the interaction with her patients that Dr Nthsona’s real commitment is revealed.
Convincing pregnant women to have HIV tests is a part of her desire to ensure that the epidemic is brought under control and that those who are positive realise that it does not mean the end of their lives.
‘Most of them tell me that they have enough problems already, that they don’t need the added burden of knowing their HIV status,’ she says.
Does she ever consider returning to the United States?
‘Almost every day. I’m too scared to get on a plane to America because I’m scared I won’t come back. But I am tied to this country, it’s my home. Half my life was outside this country. I’m used to doing things differently, but then the biggest reason I’m back is because this president is now the president.
‘But I still think his Minister of Health needs a lot of help,’ she grins, an unmistakable twinkle in the eye.
E-mail Anso Thom