At the age of 29, Mthatha-born Dr Ncumisa Jilata has become Africa’s youngest neurosurgeon following her Fellowship graduation in Durban on 18 May 2017. Her milestone achievement was highlighted by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in an address to the National Assembly on 31 May.
Dr Ncumisa Jilata completed her Bachelor of Medicine Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB) degree at Mthatha’s Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in 2009. Her completed fellowship for the Council of Neurosurgeons of South Africa in 2017 means she is now the youngest neurosurgeon in Africa, and one of only five black female brain surgeons in South Africa.
Jilata joins 150 other female doctors and medical residents working in the neurosurgical field across Africa, according to the most recent survey by the World Federation of Neurological Societies.
She hopes that her landmark achievement will inspire more female medical students to add to much-needed surgical expertise on the continent. Jilata was inspired while still in high school to follow her dream of becoming a brain surgeon.
“I was already in Grade 11 [at Mthatha High School] when I decided I wanted to be a doctor, but at the time I wasn’t doing biology, so when I got to matric I had to do three years of biology in one year, in addition to the subjects I had already selected from Grade 10,” Jilata told the Eastern Cape Daily Dispatch newspaper following her graduation.
“During that period I discovered the concept of a neuron, which is amazing. The fact that society as a whole was influenced and controlled solely by the existence of this structure, intrigued me… that’s when I knew I wanted to be a neurosurgeon.”
She had to work hard to prove herself in the male-dominated field of medicine, Jilata said. “It was common to be second-guessed as a woman, but one’s work ethic will always speak volumes.” She hopes to become a worthy standard for young girls, to give them the courage to “break through the barriers of patriarchy” in medical science.
Another pioneering female and Eastern Cape-born neurosurgeon, Dr Coceka Mfundisi, inspired Jilata. “[My mentor] Dr Mfundisi… broke most of the barriers for me [to get where I am today].”
Born in rural Engcobo, Mfundisi was one of the first black South African woman to qualify in the neurology field.
“[Jilata] had heard about me because I had worked in Mthatha for about a year while I was still training as a neurosurgeon at the University of Pretoria,” Mfundisi told the Daily Dispatch. “I was the only woman among men and when she told me she wanted to be a neurosurgeon I could already see her working with me at the University of Pretoria, where she later joined me… [Her] success is a proud moment for the impoverished community of the Eastern Cape and a victory for every woman, especially because she did everything in record time, at a very young age.”
WSU spokesperson Yonela Tukwayo said the university was proud of Jilata’s accomplishment. “She and many other WSU alumni, who are leaders across different fields of medicine and other professions, represent the true spirit of our university namesake, Walter Sisulu.”
During his address at the Presidency Budget Vote in Parliament’s National Assembly on 31 May 2017, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa made special mention of Jilata’s achievement. Including her story in an overview of several South African women breaking barriers in a number of social development and medical fields, Ramaphosa thanked Jilata “for inspiring us, motivating us and challenging us with your [life] and your determination… demonstrating what is possible with perseverance, courage, collaboration and partnership”.