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S Mag Women of the Year issue | Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng - The fight for the right to sexual pleasure

The influential Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng is our Woman of the Year in health

Karabo Ledwaba Journalist
The influential Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng is our Woman of the Year in health.
The influential Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng is our Woman of the Year in health.
Image: Lwazi Mashiya, Mash Studios

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng’s indominable spirit has made her a heavy hitter who is at the forefront of the battle to secure people’s rights to sexual and reproductive healthcare. 

The 40-year-old doctor from Phuthaditjhaba (formerly known as Qwaqwa) grew up in apartheid South Africa, where she saw the need to advocate the right to healthcare. 

We meet for tea and biscuits on a warm winter’s day at her homey practice in Sandton. Mofokeng is booked and busy — her calendar will see her travel in and out of the country over the weeks that follow. Our meeting place is where the jetsetter does all her planning. 

“I never had any other career options, and not because of a lack of exposure. Even when I was exposed to whatever else, I still came back to medicine,” she says.

Growing up as an inquisitive young girl towards the end of apartheid she witnessed a lot of violence, which sparked her interest in healthcare.

“During apartheid there was a lot of violence in our communities and lots of marches and people who got injured, and my parents helped a lot. People needed to be taken care of when they were hurt,” she says.

Fondly known as Dr T, she grew up in a Catholic family and helped out at a local monastery, which looked after the sick and elderly. She ended up studying medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and graduated in 2007, finishing her community service in 2010.

“I used to go to the monastery, where there were a hospice and a clinic, and I would hang around. I would count pills for old people and do all of those silly jobs, but I think that encouraged this passion I would have for medicine,” she remembers.

This passion has led to Mofokeng’s becoming one of the most recognisable faces in South African medicine. She is the author of best-selling book Dr T: A Guide to Sexual Health and Pleasure, which takes an informative look at sex and bodily autonomy. She is also the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, a doctor at a sex and reproductive practice called DISA Healthcare, and the founder of a new informative sexual and reproductive app called Sentebale.

Image: Lwazi Mashiya, Mash Studios

Through her work at DISA she creates a safe space for patients, particularly women and queer patients.

“I practise as a general practitioner, but with a focus on sexual reproductive health. I wanted time with patients to sit and talk to them, because a lot of the time patients with issues with reproductive health are not physically ill… Weirdly, medicine only ever talks about women and girls’ bodies in the context of disease,” she says.

One such issue that is common but often swept under the carpet is vaginismus — a condition that makes it difficult for women to have penetrative sex owing to an involuntary muscle spasm. Some patients develop this condition after a sexual assault trauma. 

“This is why I think there needs to be a focus on pleasure, because to have pleasurable sex you need to understand that sex by definition has to be consensual, and there is no pleasure without consent. Consent is a human right — you have a right to consent to what happens to your body and you have a right to say who touches you when or not,” she adds. 

Mofokeng brings this immediate experience as a doctor to her work as a special rapporteur at the UN, where she is particularly concerned with the restoration of dignity in healthcare.

“I don’t think they have ever had a practicing clinician or a doctor in this role. They have had professors of law and psychiatry, but to have doctor who is still seeing patients is lovely because there is something to be said about being closer to the patients,” she says. 

She wrote her book and launched the Sentebale app to ensure that people have access to information about health and their rights. 

“The book is an extension of the work that I have been doing [writing about sexual health in the media], but there are people who will not get the book. So I had to bridge the digital divide on how to get the information on the internet in languages we can easily access, such as English, IsiZulu, and Sesotho. The layout mimics the book in a way — we have people who for the first time can get information in private and don’t have to go asking around in their clinic.”

Mofokeng originally wanted to specialise in gynaecology, but after learning about the traumatic history of the specialisation she decided to instead focus on sex and reproductive health. 

“The man deemed the father of gynaecology, J Marion Sims, used to practise his surgical skills on enslaved women without anaesthesia and he would do these surgeries on them over and over again because he believed Black women could not feel pain and that they were property. And so, being aware of that history of medicine, I found it hard to get over it and specialise in it,” she says.

Mofokeng admits that she has always had a rebellious streak, which cemented itself during her education at UKZN.

“I think being rebellious has always just been something in me, even at medical school — UKZN, where Steve Biko went to, is a very politically aware and conscious university. And so I had to think what that activism would look like,” she says.

“I knew that if the politics of medicine and the economy of health were left where they were, Black women and girls and queer people would not thrive. Our very existence is often questioned, and… our decisions to be loud as women and be autonomous to have an abortion... or queer or trans are always questioned and met with violence.”

Mofokeng says young women who want to emulate her must find the best version of themselves.

“I am trying to create a world where any girl, any woman can thrive and be who they truly want to be. That’s why I’m working so hard. But you must take time to figure out who you are and you will know where your place in the world is. You need to know your strengths and what you want to develop inside of you.”