December 03, 2012 was a day marking not only the commemoration of the world’s first heart transplant in Cape Town in 1967, but also the life and times of self-taught medical assistant, Mr Hamilton Naki, whose rare skills and excellence gave birth to Netcare’s Hamilton Naki Clinical Symposium and Awards Dinner held in Durban this year.

Attended by members of the Naki family, the dinner paid tribute to the man who advanced from being a gardener to a principal surgical assistant at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) research laboratory and chosen by Dr Christiaan Barnard to assist with research and experimental work preceding and following the historic  heart transplant.

The scholarship, named after Naki, was introduced in 2007 in response to the shortage of qualified academic leaders in South African medical schools, especially for those from previously disadvantaged backgrounds.

Professor Bongani Mayosi, UKZN alumnus and Head of UCT’s Department of Medicine, said the pioneering heart transplant in 1967 captured the imagination of the world. ‘It put the country on the magical map of the world.’  Mayosi challenged Hamilton Naki scholars to do even greater things than the transplant.

Recipients of the scholarship dating from its inception in 2007 have been Dr Carol Hlela, Dr Bonga Chiliza, Dr Mushi Matjila, Dr Deliwe Ngwezi and Dr Rudzani Moloiwa – all alumni of UKZN.

While Hlela is a Cape Town-based dermatologist who completed her PhD in immunology at the University of Oxford’s Green Templeton College in the United Kingdom, Chiliza is finalising his doctoral thesis in Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University. Matjila continues with his doctorate in Obstetrics at UCT and Ngwezi is overseas conducting her doctoral research in Paediatric Cardiology in Canada.

Moloiwa’s is busy with a paediatric doctoral study into the epidemiology of pertussis – the highly contagious bacterial disease that causes whooping cough.

The 2012 recipients of the scholarship were Dr Liesl Zuhlke and Dr Itumeleng Taunyene who were honoured at the dinner.

One of Zuhlke’s on-going research projects focuses on rheumatic heart disease. Zuhlke said early detection of the disease was critical and in her study 3 000 school children had already been screened. In another study, Zuhlke is investigating disease progression at 26 sites in Africa, the Middle East and India.

Taunyene is a cardiothoracic surgeon from UCT who developed a strong interest in heart surgery from his second year of medical study. He said his research interests were into neurological reverse following cardiac arrest.

A moving keynote address was delivered by Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, Vice-Chancellor of UKZN, who said the time had come for South Africa to recognise talent and make sure none of it was wasted.

Makgoba said, like Naki, many unsung heroes existed but were not presented with the relevant opportunities to hone their skills into something that could ‘change the world as we know it’. He said Naki’s talent would take registrars years to perfect.

Through the scholarship, Netcare was lauded for making great strides towards producing academics of a high calibre who demonstrated a capacity and commitment to make a difference to academic health care in South Africa.

author email : memelal@ukzn.ac.za