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Joys of jazz and making meaningful medicines

May 27 2018 07:35


Working tip: I never say I can’t do something – I give it a chance.

Mentors: Sheila Sisulu and Lindiwe Mabuza.

Inspiration: My wise mother.

Favourite book: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Wow! moment: Learning I had a scholarship to study medicine.

Life lesson: You need focus and determination to forge ahead.

The words hospital administrator, ambassador, jazz and medical drugs reflect the various avenues Dr Konji Sebati has walked down on her life’s journey into her mid-sixties.

Assured, almost regal in her elegance, she ushers me into her office and takes a chair alongside me.

She heads a voluntary association of 27 leading research-based international and local pharmaceutical companies that are dedicated to making South Africa a healthier place by helping, inter alia, to develop more effective, convenient and safer drug therapies.

Konji Sebati

Some of the companies are carrying out research on immune cells that can search for and kill cancer cells directly. This will hopefully result in precision medicines tailored to an individual patient without destroying other cells in the body.

“The pharmaceutical industry is targeted as a money-making one, yet research and development (R&D) require enormous amounts of time and finance,” emphasises Sebati.

She says that even after decades of research for cures for HIV/Aids, cancer and other diseases, they remain elusive.

“Pharmaceutical companies such as Roche and Pfizer are now seeking ways of partnering on R&D. Pooling their resources will accelerate development,” she adds.

Resistance to antibiotics is another worldwide worrying trend, “so we’re working on medicines that will reduce that resistance”.

Sebati stepped down in 2014 from the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation.

“But I wasn’t yet ready for retirement.”

When the doctor met the chairman of the Innovative Pharmaceutical Association SA four years ago, he told Sebati the association was looking for a chief executive, and that she fitted the bill perfectly. A lifetime in medicine combined with diplomatic skills was a powerful combination.

Sebati had been appointed in 2004 as South African ambassador to Switzerland by then President Thabo Mbeki.

It might seem an extraordinary move for a doctor and scientist. But Sebati was a senior executive in medical and corporate affairs at Pfizer, based in New York, and was travelling the world for the pharmaceutical company.

“At the time I knew nearly every minister of health in Africa,” she recalls.

Some people might believe Sebati’s life has been a series of serendipitous occurrences.

However, it is her determination, vision and courage that have created the “chances”.

She was only six years old when criminals murdered her father in Soweto, leaving her pregnant mother, a Baragwanath Hospital nurse, to raise three children.

Her dreams of becoming a doctor were thwarted because under the apartheid regime, there was only one medical school for black students. So she did a BSc instead, majoring in physiology and zoology, and after graduating joined Adcock Ingram Pharmaceuticals in Johannesburg.

By sheer coincidence her mother had mentioned Sebati’s medical ambitions to a Kenyan patient of hers at Baragwanath Hospital.

He put Sebati in touch with the dean of the University of Nairobi’s Medical School, and the UN funded her studies at a time it was determined to help young South Africans in the wake of the 1976 student uprising.

The downside was police harassment of her family after she left for Kenya.

“They were often woken around 4am and asked if I was helping ANC exiles,” says Sebati.

This so frightened her mother that she wouldn’t allow Sebati to return home for more than six years. Her brother’s death in 1983 saw her return to Soweto.

Sebati subsequently settled in Bophuthatswana, where she became the first black woman in South Africa to become the administrator of a hospital – in Ga-Rankua.

After many years of working for the government she resigned to take up the position of medical director at Roche, then at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals in 1994.

Six years later the company sent her to its headquarters in New York, from where she travelled the world for the company. In 2004 Mbeki asked her to be an ambassador.

Along her busy career trajectory Sebati has seized every opportunity to learn. She has studied subjects ranging from finance to health management and planning at universities that include Columbia, Wits and Harvard Business School.

Her love of jazz is one of the reasons her life has turned out the way it has.

She applied for a passport in 1976 to attend the Montreux Jazz Festival with jazz fans, and Lufthansa offered to fly them there. But the tour was cancelled and when she received a UN scholarship to study medicine in Kenya, Lufthansa offered to fund her airfare there instead.

The busy doctor with two adult daughters relaxes by listening to jazz and classical music – in her pyjamas. Today, aged 67, she still has no plans to retire.

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