When Covid-19 interfered with the graduation ceremonies of University of the Witwatersrand's prestigious medical school in December 2021, Sithembiso Madlala took the change of plans in stride. Madlala had come too far in his journey from a neglected child in a rural township to a graduate from one of South Africa's top schools to let a cancelled trip across the stage dampen his spirits.
Madlala's story reads like a fairy tale or an improbable feel-good movie about a boy who worked hard to rise above his difficult circumstances. And Madlala has worked hard and overcome more difficulties than most people ever encounter. But he will tell you that his success is not just the result of luck or his hard work and determination. Instead, Madlala firmly believes he has made it this far with Christ's protection, provision, and power in his life.
Born on March 1, 1997, Sithembiso Madlala spent his early years in Mariannhill, a cluster of suburbs and townships in eThekwini Municipality in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. He was the third of his mother's five children—all from different fathers. Madlala grew up mostly alone as the rest of his mother's children were being raised by their fathers' families. His mother, Bongi, had almost no interaction with anyone in her extended family, a highly unusual dynamic in the tight-knit Zulu culture.
Bongi was unemployed for much of Madlala's childhood, and she would often leave him alone for days at a time while she went on drinking binges.
"I learned how to cook very early so I could eat," he recalls. "Eggs, for instance, were easy to make. I just didn't understand where she was or when she was going to come home, so I did the best I could."
When Bongi was drunk, she would become violent. Once she pierced Madlala's eye while beating him with a stick, and he had to go to the emergency room. During another beating, a neighbour called social services, who came and took Madlala away for a while. However, he was returned to Bongi when she apologized and promised to do better. She came home drunk one night when Madlala was six and demanded that he wash the dishes. When he fumbled through his chore, Bongi threw a knife and hit Madlala in the shoulder. Social services took him away for a longer period.
By the time attempts were made to return Madlala to his mom, Bongi had contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and was too sick to look after him and his younger sister. So the two were taken to orphanages near Durban and then placed at one permanently in 2007.
Getting away from his mother brought new challenges and hardships for Madlala. In his new environment, "I didn't speak English, and everyone spoke English there. I couldn't understand people,'' he says. "There was a lot of bullying at the orphanage. My first week there I was tied to a tree and urine was poured all over me. It was like an initiation ritual."
Not surprisingly, Madlala did not do well in school. He almost had to repeat third grade and came close to failing the fifth grade. But he kept trying and quickly learned English by plowing through books that had been left at his orphanage by short-term mission teams who visited from countries such as America and England, as well as teams issued from churches in South Africa itself.
Wanting to catch up with his peers, Madlala threw himself into his studies. Although the nearby rural schools lacked resources and were severely overcrowded, caring teachers did their best to encourage students who were particularly curious and motivated.
"Mr Ndlovu was one who gave me a lot of extra care, which was pivotal for me. He taught physics and chemistry—both of which I loved," Madlala said. "And he would host classes on the weekends and give individual attention to those of us who really wanted to learn. My English teacher would challenge us to think about the future and what we wanted to do. That also inspired me to dream that I could be someone and do something in this world."
Madlala also found inspiration and help from long-term volunteers who came from around the world to work at the orphanage. Some stayed for only a few days, while others stayed for months at a time. Madlala was especially drawn to the medical volunteers.
"A German neonatal nurse had dedicated her whole life to helping others as a healthcare worker. She spent a lot of time with the very sick kids at the orphanage—kids everyone had written off because we all thought they wouldn't make it."
He spent time getting to know the nurse and watching her work, even translating some medical documents from English to Zulu.
Another visiting nurse gave young Madlala a child's stethoscope, which he treasured. "It meant a lot to see all the volunteers take time out of their lives to come and be with us and love on the ones suffering the most. It was so inspiring to me."
When Madlala was 12, the orphanage hired a youth pastor named Warren Holland who would conduct devotionals with the boys every morning before they went to school.
"It was the first time I'd ever heard someone explain the gospel to me," Madlala says. "I wanted to learn more about this God that Warren was speaking about."
One day, Holland read Romans 6:23 and Madlala "realized that I needed Christ in my life. When you're a kid, it's hard to think that you're a sinner. I knew I could be naughty, but it's hard to think of yourself as intrinsically bad. Jesus died because my sins put him there. It sunk into me. Yes: I needed salvation."
Madlala accepted Christ into his life, although he waited to be baptized until he was older. A pastor named Thatu helped to disciple Madlala, putting him in charge of teaching Sunday School.
As Madlala progressed through high school, he earned better and better grades, astonishing his teachers and caretakers. They encouraged him to think seriously about his future. "I loved physics and math and chemistry, and I wondered what would combine all this," he recalls. "At one point I shadowed a doctor who worked at a hospital as an anesthesiologist. I was able to witness a surgery, which was really special. I noticed that all the doctors were Indian except for one Black guy. I'd never seen a Black doctor before."
After the surgery, Madlala was able to speak to the Black doctor, who kindly gave him information about different specializations and the training required for working in the healthcare field. That conversation planted the dream of becoming a doctor into Madlala's heart, and he cultivated that dream in part because of his own life experience.
"My mom passed away at age 42. What she died of was curable. It only takes about six months of treatment to overcome what she had," he explains. "I was angry at how she treated me when I was growing up, but I was also very interested in how and why she passed away. Why did she die from something treatable?"
Madlala set his sights on Witwatersrand, one of the best medical schools in South Africa, although his chances of getting in there seemed slim. No one from his school had ever applied to Witwatersrand—his high school wasn't even in the university's database! "Wits receives about 50,000 applications each year for incoming freshmen, and there are only around 300 slots in the medical school. Everyone wanted me to find something to fall back on if I didn't get accepted," he explains. "I only applied to do medicine, however. It was what God was calling me towards."
When he learned that he had been accepted and had received a full scholarship, Madlala was amazed. "I had only told a few people how things were progressing so I wouldn't get my hopes up—I mean, people in the best high schools in the country get turned down! I was so happy when I knew I'd made it."
Madlala started classes at the University of Witwatersrand in January 2015, and he struggled to adjust to a big, sophisticated school in a large city after growing up in an orphanage in the rural countryside. "Township schools don't have white classmates, and I'd never interfaced with white kids in this capacity. Many of them were rich and had attended expensive private schools. I didn't feel like I fit in."
He struggled in campus computer labs until a former short-term mission acquaintance provided him with a laptop. He struggled with other decisions too. "In the orphanages, I'd never had to manage money, and there wasn't much personal freedom. Now I had all this freedom, and I needed to manage spending money. There were temptations like alcohol and drugs I had to navigate," Madlala said. "It was like I had stepped onto another planet."
His faith became his grounding element.
Madlala chose to be baptized in a local church, feeling that it was time he publicly acknowledge his belief in the gospel message that had transformed his life. "If I hadn't become a Christian, I wouldn't have headed in this direction. When I became a Christian, my priorities changed. It's what helped me through the tougher trials in university."
The verse that has sustained him is Psalm 199:9: "How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping your word."
He says, "When I am sad or in trouble and don't know what to do and feeling down and just working too hard. It grounds me in what's important."
Madlala is currently working as a resident in three hospitals in Pietermaritzburg (a major urban area in the province of KwaZulu Natal), working with senior doctors to gain experience until he can choose his specialty, a decision he has already made. "I have known all along I wanted to go into trauma surgery," he says. "Poor areas tend to have issues like stabbings and shootings and a lot of alcohol is consumed, so accidents and trauma happen often. It's where I feel like I can make a lot of difference."
Madlala is also envisioning starting a charitable organization to nurture kids as he was nurtured. "I want more kids to know what opportunities are out there for them, basically give career guidance and teach kids about different careers. I just think a lot of kids don't hear in township schools about all the things they can do in life."
Madlala gives all the credit to God for sending the right people into his life. "I think so much about God's provision. If I hadn't lived in orphanages, I wouldn't have learned how to speak English, and English is so, so important to be successful in exams. The volunteers at the orphanage, the people who paid for living expenses during my university years, the laptop—God put everyone in my path. God provided through people. I wouldn't be here if it weren't for other people taking the time out of their lives to go help and serve others. And in turn, I now get to serve others."
Madlala never did make that trip across the stage because he couldn't take time off work to attend the rescheduled graduation ceremonies in Johannesburg. But he doesn't mind. He has his certificate of graduation that records his success in school. And he has a child's stethoscope to remind him of the people God brought into his life to sustain him and support him in his improbable journey.