Zaakir Nakhwa

A medical investment for society

After his baby brother was born with a severe form of Down’s syndrome in 1997, the young schoolboy Zaakir Nakhwa realised his future was mapped out for him. As he witnessed his parents’ helplessness, and that of other hospital patients, he knew his calling was to become a doctor and help save lives.

And when he witnessed his father go to university in late adulthood, he learnt the lesson of never giving up. “My father defined determination and perseverance for me,” he says.

Today, as a medical intern at Tygerberg Hospital in the Western Cape, this 24-year-old’s goal is to work at a government hospital where he can “help strengthen the medical system to improve the quality of life nationally”.  He is now in his final year and working hard towards those last exams that will determine his future as a doctor.

Looking back, Zaakir says, “My life was hectic as a child and we were very unsettled as a family.” He was born in Zimbabwe but as a baby moved with his family to Cape Town because his parents believed South Africa offered better opportunities.  His father battled financially, with well-paying work hard to come by. “He went from door to door selling cold meats for a living.” His mother was unable to help with the bills because his younger brother needed full-time care.

 “Despite not earning well, with support from family and friends, our family managed to survive month in month out. I learnt a great deal by accepting that at times we had no food on the table …” Zaakir says.

His older brother by just five years helped bring him up. “Most of my teenage years I was guided and influenced by him. He was my role model and the one who educated me most of the time.” 

Until Grade 11 Zaakir went to government schools where the standard of education was poor. Then his mother managed to secure a scholarship for him at Abbotts College, a top-ranked private school, for his last two years of school. “There I was able to reach my potential and achieve my goals,” he says.

“Throughout my schooling I shuffled between personal, or rather domestic, issues and academic demands,” says Zaakir. “This was tough but I decided to make the most of my schooling and use it to escape my circumstances. I gave it my all.” He became a student representative and motivational speaker at his new school. “I felt I needed to motivate younger pupils and explain the importance of making the right choices and pursuing a career they loved.”

By the end of Grade 9 he had decided he wanted to be “an investment to society” and applied to study medicine at Stellenbosch University. He was accepted for the 2010 intake.

Unable to finance his degree any other way, he applied for many bursaries. But one he couldn’t apply for – the Moshal Scholarship Program – answered his prayers. He so clearly recalls the day Stellenbosch University’s bursary office called his home and his mother sent him out of the room while she spoke.

“I was storming up and down the passage anxiously waiting for news. She put down the phone and burst into tears before putting her arms around me and congratulating me. I couldn’t believe or understand how or why I was deserving of such a lifetime opportunity.”

Still today he finds it difficult to believe that one man granted him this opportunity. “Martin Moshal believed and invested in my abilities. He sacrifices so much for so many, allowing so many students to fulfil their life goals.”

Although he was one of the first group of Moshal Scholars, Zaakir immediately bought into the “paying it forward” philosophy. It made absolute sense to him because, he says, “my love for humanity drives me and I live for the success and happiness of others”.

He got involved in primary health care projects at remote government primary schools and basic health training for home-based caregivers. Last year, he took part in a charity drive that fed and clothed 300 homeless people in Cape Town. This year, he intends to do the same for at least 500 people.  “Paying it forward is extremely important to me as I believe that the more you give to society the more you will receive.”

Zaakir’s sense of giving back fits in with his intended career path. “I believe so many of our great doctors are going abroad for better opportunities. I understand that in today’s time our health system is not the best compared with the rest of the world. But we are the future and we have the responsibility of changing and strengthening our medical system to improve the quality of life in the country,” he says.

“I hope that the opportunities the Moshal family have given me will be an investment to continue their legacy, as well as enable me to offer similar opportunities to other less fortunate people.”