Mkhabela’s mission: Operation children’s hospital

Seven years after it was first mooted by the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust’s cherished Children’s Hospital in Johannesburg has taken a huge step forward.

By Susan Miller

Sibongile Mkhabela, CEO of Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust is nothing if not determined, yet even her tummy ‘is in knots’ when she thinks about the mountain that has to be climbed before the Trust’s cherished Children’s Hospital opens its doors in Johannesburg.

The project is finally on its way, seven years after it was first mooted by the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. Its Parktown location has been chosen ‘not too far from Wits Medical School and Johannesburg General Hospital’, KPMG has signed off on the business case and the government is on board to cover operational costs from 2014.

But as Bongi tells South Africa Magazine, “we have collected about R200million and it’s an R1billion project.”

I asked her about the passion she and Mr Mandela feel for the project.

“Well, that’s hard because it’s not purely academic. My five-year-old son Lindokuhle was in hospital suffering terrible burns after an accident. While I sat at his bedside in the ICU I noticed how children were together with adults in wards. I also spoke paediatricians who were tired out by fighting for their patients rights.

“Children after all are not simply little adults. They have their own needs. In the 30 days that Lindo was in ICU I camped in the hospital, using toilets to freshen up. No-one had thought there would be mothers in a ward. It’s a mess!”

Tragically Bongi lost her son and said by the time she left the hospital she knew “how badly we were failing our children”.

And she was not alone in this feeling because many of the NMCF Trustees and Nelson Mandela too had been on the ward, watching over her son.

They were shocked to learn that there are only four children’s hospitals across the whole of Africa – two in Cairo, one in Kenya and, one in Cape Town serving nearly 450 million children.

As the then CEO of the NMCF, (a role she will return to when the Hospital is operational) Bongi was seconded to head up the NMCH Trust and says there was a ‘big push’ from Nelson Mandela to get the project going. “The old man was pushing for something that would be his legacy for children”.

She’s passionate about making it happen. “It’s a chance for us all to make a contribution towards the welfare of our children and also for us to contribute towards something that a man who has never wanted anything for himself, wants so badly”.

A wonderfully warm person with an infectious laugh, Bongi has fond memories of working with Mr Mandela.

“I came to the children’s fund in 1999 when he was stepping down from being President. In 2001 I took over as CEO and got to work with him and account to him. He had amazing energy. I would get a call on Sunday morning at 8am and think ‘Oh God, what now?’

Long an advocate of children’s rights, she says the bond between Mandela and children is remarkable. “We have donors of seven who come to give because they love him, Lindo used to call him the ‘children’s president’.

Working closely with him you got used to being asked ‘but what do the children think?’”

So what is the dream?

“‘No child will be turned away due to inability to pay’. 80 percent will be public patients and 20 percent will be private patients. Ten percent of the 20 percent will be from SADC countries paid for by their governments on the basis of bi-lateral agreements. The other ten percent will be children who are on medical aid schemes like my daughter and my granddaughter,” she says.

Determination and passion have played their part throughout Bongi’s life. A Sowetan ‘through and through’, she played a leading role in the 1976 Soweto uprising as a student activist.

In hindsight what does she think it meant?

“It was a defining moment. The response of the government was defining because even when we were planning the protest we never thought they would kill and that by the end of the day we would have Hector Pieterson and others dead. For me there was no turning back...”

The only female activist on trial for ‘sedition’ along with ten others, Bongi was among five activists sent to prison. “As I was sent down (she laughs at the expression), I thought to myself I can stay here physically but I don’t have to be here mentally or emotionally. It was a daily struggle to break you ...”

Sent initially to Kroonstad Women’s Prison, the “female equivalent of Robben Island” she ended her sentence in Pretoria Central in solitude.

“They described me as unmanageable,” she laughs.

The strength needed to get through her prison stay is on display when she talks about the ongoing work on the hospital project.

“We will be judged by the number of children helped and the number of personnel we have trained and also how we have changed the ethos of how our children are dealt with in all our facilities”.

I left our interview feeling uplifted and sure this would be so!

To find out more about the hospital or donate towards it please visit




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