A seat down with Soweto born SAHPRA CEO

Call me Tumi says Boitumelo Semete-Makototlela . This follows an awkward question “Do we shake hands these days or not? “on the threshold of her Centurion residence. Unexpected winter rain had delayed the school run and blocked the roads, placing Tumi, who was casually clad in a grey workout tracksuit, a little behind schedule.

“I drop the two of them off at school myself every morning because it’s important to me that we use that time to connect,” she says and adjusts her stylish spectacles.

In preparation for a week with their paternal grandparents, the son, and daughter of Semete-Makokotlela, ages 7 and 11, have left partially packed suitcases in the den. “I’m leaving with Khotso,” she said, referring to her husband, a civil engineer. We would quickly become strangers if we didn’t plan time away together. Of course, the youngsters are demanding that we set up WiFi at Gogo’s,” Semete-Makototlela chuckles.

At a critical juncture, three months before the Covid-19 epidemic struck South Africa in 2020 their mother, 43, was given the responsibility of leading the nation’s medical regulatory body, the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (Sahpra).

Semete-Makokotlela was confronted with the rather minor public entity she was leading becoming nearly overnight into a household figure in the thick of a political maelstrom at the age of 39, which was far younger than many of her predecessors.

Within a year of her appointment, SARS-CoV-2, the quickly evolving virus that causes Covid-19, sparked a clamorous scramble for the approval of Covid tests, jabs, and treatments, leaving the relatively young scientist with the difficult task of reducing Sahpra’s approval processes from years to months while also dealing with intense political pressure from groups like the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) to approve the use of jabs from nations like China and Russia, whose vaccines

No medication or health item may be used in South Africa unless the producer has submitted data for Sahpra to examine. The information is then examined by Sahpra to determine whether it truly reflects the product’s effectiveness (or lack thereof) and safety for users.

Julius Malema, the leader of the EFF party, threatened Semete-Makokotlela in June of last year, saying that if Sahpra didn’t accept the Russian and Chinese jabs within seven days, there would be overnight at her house and “militant mass action.”

But Semete-Makokotlela did everything but crack. “I was worried about the safety of my children and husband, but I wasn’t scared. I was going to stand up against improper influences. To me it was clear we were going to make decisions based on science, and no movement or political party was going to change that.”

Benjamin and Sheila Semete’s eldest child

Semete-Makokotlela, the first child of Benjamin and Sheila Semete, was born in Soweto in 1979. Her parents lived and worked (and largely worked) with the single-minded objective of giving excellent education to their three children. She starts to remark it was a typical childhood but stops herself and says: “Well, South Africa’s an intriguing country, it was even then.”

“To enable their work, I was sent to live with my aunt in Orlando, sleeping on the kitchen floor because the house was small and very full. I laugh about this all the time with my cousins, and we can laugh because it was a joyful time.”

Moving to Zone 2, Diepkloof, was the event that put a stop to Semete-carefree Makokotlela’s childhood, and the word “joyful time” frequently comes before the narration of less joyous days.

“My mom wanted to move us to a better school, a Catholic school.”She liked the school  “I loved what the nuns were about, the order and the cleanliness” but Diepkloof not so much.“The area was largely Tsonga-speaking but I didn’t speak Tsonga. And being from this prim and proper school we were given a hard time by kids from less privileged schools.”

Semete-parents Makokotlela’s were forced to enroll their three children in suburban schools closer to central Johannesburg due to political upheaval in the late 1980s, which resulted in numerous school closures and stay away. With her sports bag in hand and her Northview High blazer on, Tumi’s isolation grew as leaving for school at dawn and getting home at dusk became the norm.

‘A woman with unparalleled focus’

Semete-father Makokotlela’s instilled in her a work ethic that would benefit her when she applied to the University of Pretoria to study biomedical technology. She was inspired to make this decision by “the most fantastic standard eight (grade 10) biology teacher, who introduced the subject of genetics.”

However, Tuks represented independence to this self-described “girl from Soweto” in an almost tragic way. “I loved the diversity of the place and the fact that I was side by side with the [prestigious] St Mary’s girls I’d envied from a distance at high school. I loved partying in Hatfield, too, and failed the first semester.”

Semete-main Makokotlela’s concern is becoming a household name. It is “unparalleled,” according to Olckers. Tumi smiles when her supervisor for her doctoral thesis and masters thesis is mentioned. “Wooh, that woman! She made us work, hey. When you submitted a thesis chapter you just knew it was coming back with red marks all over, to the point where, today, I use a blue pen when critiquing students’ work!”

If her father set an example of hard work, Olckers’ lab was where she learned about uncompromising standards.

Tumi says: “Sometimes we would sleep in the lab, rush home in the morning to shower and come back whatever it took to avoid disappointing Antonel. She was very firm, but you knew it was well intended, she really wanted all of us to succeed. And we have.”

Olckers has a photo of Tumi during her graduation ceremony with classmates Wayne Towers, who currently serves as the chair of Northwest University’s ethics committee, and Marco Alessandrini, who is the chief technical officer of a biosciences company in Switzerland.

‘Only a few have what it takes to lead’

Semete-Makokotlela joined the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) as a researcher after earning her doctorate in biochemistry, and she was then accepted as a postdoctoral research scholar at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

She recalls: “Man, it was a massive confidence boost for me to realize that we are on par in South Africa. The equipment was the same, they just had more of it, and from a knowledge perspective I found I knew the same things, and some things I knew better.”

“Switzerland, for all its virtues, is a terribly lonely place — people keep to themselves. I missed being in a taxi, with people chatting away.”

In 2011, Semete-Makokotlela returned to South Africa with the knowledge that Olckers frequently emphasized that most pupils will always be followers and that only a select few possess the necessary leadership skills.

“I have never felt that I am innately a leader,” she says, explaining that her confidence in this regard was built gradually “with tenure”.

“Teachable, a wonderful listener, but also someone with strong opinions all good attributes for any leader in a fast-moving sector,” Sibanda said of Tumi. He wasn’t shocked to find that the CSIR wanted Tumi back after two years, this time in an executive capacity as the department’s head of biosciences. It was, in many respects, a preview of the scrutiny Tumi would experience at Sahpra.

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