Intended for healthcare professionals


The long road to the top

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 10 November 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:1104
  1. Pat Sidley
  1. Johannesburg

    A black South African doctor is taking over as presidentof the World Medical Association. Kgosi Letlape spoke to Pat Sidley about overcoming the odds to make it to the top

    Ophthalmologist Kgosi Letlape tells a tortuous tale to explain why he gained his specialist degree in Edinburgh as opposed to Johannesburg. The new president of the World Medical Association was well enough qualified academically to have gained the degree in his home country of South Africa.

    But it was well known among black doctors at the time that the white medical establishment would often unfairly fail black candidates in order to favour white candidates. Despite excellent grades and the likelihood of passing well if all things had been equal, Letlape decided that getting his fellowship in Edinburgh and following it up with the local qualification would make it much harder for white examiners to fail him. So he took that slightly longer route to becoming South Africa's first black ophthalmologist. Notwithstanding this, white colleagues on the wards expressed their resentment at his presence, taking the job of white doctors who were “serving their country” in the army, brutally enforcing the apartheid regime.

    Letlape's story is common among black South African doctors. Fellow medic Dr Saadiq Kariem, who is a public health specialist and chief operating officer of Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, says that it takes “tremendous sacrifice” on the part of the whole family to see to it that an intellectually gifted son or daughter manages to survive both the …

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