Dr. Tlaleng, tell us more about what made you become a doctor, and was your family supportive about it?
I do not remember wanting to be anything else other than a doctor. I remember when growing up and we were playing with friends, whenever anyone was hurt, I would be the one to offer first aid and, in fact, I had a kit that I stocked up and my mother had to replenish for me regularly.
Becoming a doctor, as you once said, was not easy at all. You have witnessed many heartbreaking situations with hurt and abused children. How do you escape from it, after coming back home from work? Does your work „follow“ you wherever you go?
My work is my life, and absolutely work follows me home. Where would one begin to separate the human suffering and experiences at work from who you are. Every day, people let you in and share very personal stories, and I do find myself thinking of a person I met that day, or wondering how another’s recovering, etc. The trick is to be cognisant and respectful of one’s time and not let work interfere. For as long as you don’t feel pressure or feel compelled to keep working even when away from work, I think it is natural to have work spill into home life and home life spill into work life. The importance of time-out, a debrief, is important to recharge in order to do this work for long and still enjoy it.
How would you describe the current situation regarding access to reproductive health care services in South Africa, and has anything changed for the better since you started working in this field?
South Africa has laws and a constitution whose basis is human rights. This means that to an extent, our policies tend to be more liberal compared to other African countries, but globally as well. The issue and the biggest challenge remains translating the policies and Health Acts into literal access to services. Where the service is available, the complaints are around long waiting times, poor administration, and inadequate referral network system in between health facilities but also inter-departmental. I work in Sexual and Reproductive health, and unfortunately in some areas we have seen regression regarding clinics’ and hospitals’ abilty to meet the needs of people. We have pockets of excellence, but the entire system is strained, and the stewardship could be better and resources better managed. The state run facilities have poor management of Transgender clients, for example, the waiting list for affirming surgery is more than 10 years at one facility, people still die from unsafe abortions due to poor access in the state sector, many people depend on the state to provide most of their care.
Africa Youth Awards has released its second annual list of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans of 2017 – and you are one of them. How can this recognition help you in what you do and your future plans to help South African youth?
I am not really big or focused on awards. However, when one is recognised by their peers for work they do and one’s cause is deemed meaningful, it really does make one feel good. It is great to be recognised at home, because those are your people, it feels good.
What is the hardest and the most rewarding aspect of your job?
Hardest part is getting messages on social media from people who are desperate for reproductive health services and are facing stigma or discrimination and they end up not receiving services. I cannot, ever, be able to assist every single person who reaches out to me, and that is really hard. Knowing that people could be helped, they could have better options or quality methods of contraceptives for example, or that they are having procedures done without analgesia as a result of stock-outs, poor training for example.
The most rewarding is when you get that thank you from a patient, or someone hugs you when words fail, but you can appreciate what a difference you have made in their life. Often people will detail how their faith is renewed in that they can get better, or simply exclaiming at how the health information and time taken to explain to them is appreciated.
Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng
You are a founding member of the Sexual Reproductive Rights & Justice Coalition. Can you tell us more about the purpose and role of this movement?
A future of sexual and reproductive justice informed by an intersectional perspective in which all people, irrespective of class, race, gender, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability, age, religion, or any other factor can enjoy their sexuality, make reproductive decisions and access high quality services in ways that enhance their dignity, bodily integrity and wellbeing.
To provide a platform through which individuals and organisations produce and use evidence to foster informed public debate and consensus building, working towards holding policy makers and implementers accountable for progress towards realising sexual and reproductive justice for all.
Is the Government of South Africa trying to help or cooperate regarding the matter of reproductive health care education in any way; and if not, how can this change in the future?
The government launched the national policy on comprehensive sexuality education, and this is meant to be the guiding document that schools and educators draw from regarding CSE. The implementation will remain the biggest area of impact, the manner in which learners are engaged and the level to which educators are able to engage and offer comprehensive, non-judgemental and affirming CSE will determine the success. Many within the education system still think that abstinence only education is the way to go, yet research shows the benefit of CSE.
Do you think it is possible to be a great medical professional and a dedicated parent at the same time?
Of course, yes, with the right support one can have a fulfiling work or career life and be engaged and present for family. The obsession with balance and perfection is what can make people feel inadequate and often ends in a vicious cycle of playing catch up and not being fully present either at work or in social spaces.
Since you have become what you always dreamed about, and that is a doctor and someone who helps others, it seems like you have found your purpose in life. Still, how do you perceive happiness?
Happiness for me is a place I am when I am fulfilled by family, work, personal relationships. When I am watching series and spend the whole weekend binging on reality tv. I have never been one to seek balance in life but rather enriched experiences and authenticity. I feel the happiest when I get tucked into bed and not have to set the alarm.
Dr Tlaleng currently runs a reproductive clinic, DISA Clinic, in Sandton which serves women of all ages. She supports many civil society organisations and serves as the vice-chairperson of the Sexual and Reproductive Justice Coalition.
Photo credits: David Alexandr / FP Voices