Growing up in South Africa, Cathy Seakamela always dreamed of becoming a doctor. But circumstances, including the 1976 unrest that forced her family to relocate from Soweto to Limpopo province, prevented her from pursuing medicine at university. She went on to complete a four-year National Diploma in Nursing and then enrolled at the University of Johannesburg to study Primary Diagnosing and Treatment. “When I look back, I realize I achieved my dream in a different way because I can assess, diagnose and treat,” says Seakamela. “That is what I have always wanted to do.”
Today, Seakamela is the owner and director of Unjani Clinic Kagiso in Johannesburg, South Africa, part of a network of clinics owned and run by professional nurses that aims to empower Black women, improve healthcare quality and access, and create employment across communities in South Africa. Unjani Clinic Kagiso has grown from treating 250 patients monthly when it first opened its doors in 2017, to 1400 patients currently. “We are aiming for 2000 patients a month this year,” says Seakamela.
Introduced to Unjani Clinic through a friend, Seakamela's initial application to join the network in 2015 was declined, but she persisted and was successful in 2017.
Her determination to pursue a career in the medical field is rooted in a series of family tragedies. Seakamela's sister died at 22 from HIV-related complications and her aunt, an artist, suffered a stroke and became epileptic. She recalls watching her beautiful, talented aunt struggling to do what she loved and wishing someone could help her regain her speech and mobility.
Seakamela’s own personal health crisis struck at 23 when she was diagnosed with lupus. After losing three babies with congenital heart defects, she delivered her son prematurely by emergency C-section. Born with a low heart rate, the baby was fitted with a pacemaker and survived to live a normal life. "It was a miracle,” Seakamela says. “The experiences were painful at the time, but they have driven me to want to know more about these medical issues.”
Unjani Clinic Kagiso is one of 27 Unjani Clinics funded by Johnson & Johnson companies in South Africa and the Johnson & Johnson Foundation. Upon completion of a comprehensive five-year incubation program that trains, coaches and supports Unjani Clinic nurses in developing the business skills required to run a successful business, Seakamela graduated as the title owner of her clinic in 2022. Of the 27 clinics, seven nurses to date have graduated as owners.
“I have not been able to purchase property for most of my 28-year nursing career, but today I have a document that says: ‘this Unjani Clinic belongs to Mrs. Seakamela’. To Johnson & Johnson, I want to say ‘thank you’ for recognizing nurses, for helping us grow our businesses and for having confidence in us so that we can make an impact in our communities.”
A trusted health partner in the community
Unjani Clinic has empowered Seakamela with what she calls ‘equipment of the mind’—skills and tools to nurture her entrepreneurial and philanthropic drive, traits she says she inherited from her mother who, at 79, runs a small business that helps individuals within her community find employment.
Even in the face of difficulties such as severe electricity shortages that impact revenue and the day-to-day running of the facility, Seakamela believes she is exactly where she needs to be. “Being self-employed is a risk, but I choose to be open-minded and not be afraid to take risks. Even if I am experiencing a stressful situation, the minute I walk into my clinic, my mood lifts. I know I am going to help someone, and I go home each day knowing that has been accomplished.”
Unjani Clinic Kagiso has gained a strong reputation through the work it does, with patients traveling from afar to receive treatment at the clinic and referring each other through word-of-mouth.
“There are a group of ladies who travel a long distance to get their injections for arthritis here at our facility,” recounts Seakamela. “They came here limping and complaining of pain, but now they are up and about. There was one specific lady who could not walk, but eventually she could do everything. When neighbors asked how it happened, she said: ‘Unjani at Kagiso. Go there. You will get help’. This is the most rewarding part of my work.”
A person of deep faith, Seakamela says helping her patients is doing the work of God. “To serve is a beautiful thing. Helping others, especially with illness or social issues, is fulfilling. It will keep you young, it will keep you stable emotionally, it will make you happy.”
"For many of the challenges our community faces, we are coming up with solutions.”
The clinic has also helped alleviate many of the frustrations faced by the local community, who often stand in long queues at government facilities to receive medical care without the guarantee of seeing a healthcare professional. Unjani Clinic Kagiso now stocks medicines for chronic conditions, and provides immunizations for babies and scans for pregnant women—all of which lessens the burden on government facilities to provide these services.
Seakamela adds that in South Africa, a generally negative view—largely fueled by overburdened and under-resourced health facilities—discourages people from becoming nurses. Despite such challenges, Seakamela advocates strongly for the profession.
“Nursing is becoming broader, with more opportunities,” she explains. At 53, Seakamela has plans to further herself both personally and professionally. These include completing an honors degree in primary healthcare and a hydrotherapy course, and traveling.
“I am not planning to retire,” she says. “The fact that my mother has not retired means I do not see why I should. I want to establish more clinics like Unjani Kagiso and recruit more staff to run them.”