Speaking to Professor Gubela Mji about her life's work is like speaking to someone on the cusp of a brand-new adventure. Over two decades after she joined the Centre for Disability and Rehabilitation Studies in May 2002, when it was in its infant shoes, she still sounds as passionate as ever on the eve of her retirement as head of the centre.
“When I joined the unit, I was the only staff member back then, and I gradually saw the unit expand into a division with around 11 people," she says.
A first order of business when she started teaching the programme was inclusivity. “The model back then meant only students from Cape Town could be catered for. So, I shifted the programme to block weeks every six months, which meant we could expand and include students from the rest of the country.
“But I also wanted to reach students in the African region. While collaborating with the Division of Family Medicine I saw they used internet-based programmes for their master's, and so in 2006, I introduced internet-based programmes for our structured master's."
Along the way she saw the need to expand again to include a PhD programme within disability and rehabilitation studies, which was approved.
Mji explains that disability is transdisciplinary and should therefore include students from other disciplines, such as from education, psychology, finance, and engineering.
“These students were in their respective departments, but they also wanted to understand disability. We saw a need to develop a postgraduate diploma in disability and rehabilitation studies. This one-year diploma would assist these students coming from other disciplines with regard to disability and rehabilitation studies.
“By the end we had a postgraduate diploma and both a structured and research master's in Disability and Rehabilitation Studies, as well as a PhD in Health Science rehabilitation."
Mji has a PhD in Family Medicine: Indigenous Health Knowledge, which she obtained from Stellenbosch University in 2013; an MSc in Physiotherapy: Disability and Homelessness from the University of Cape Town; and a BSc in Physiotherapy.
But she is not a woman who rests on her laurels. One burning question kept her striving for even more: What happens with all this disability research?
“I had this perception that they just keep it in their cupboards and nothing eventually comes from it, so I felt there was a need to develop a network – which includes persons with disabilities, researchers, government, businesses and civil society – with a core goal of translating disability research into evidence-based practice to effect policies for the realization of the rights of persons with disabilities."
Professor Lieketseng Ned has worked with Mji since 2014, first having her as line manager when she joined the university as a lecturer and later Mji became her PhD supervisor. “She has taught me how to be a rigorous and principled disability scholar, as well as the importance of being patient with the process of growth and being committed to the disability agenda," she says.
Ned says the highlight of working with Mji was her inclusive and empowering leadership style. “She excels in bringing people with the same interest together. This is why she has built a successful disability network (AfriNEAD) which later gave birth to an accredited African Journal of Disability (AJOD)."
Mji was born in the Eastern Cape and counts herself fortunate to have had her grandmother as one of her early mentors. “My grandmother really had this vision about the African continent and taught us about its best qualities and its challenges. I can remember as a young person we were very much aware of what was going on in Uganda and the women's struggle. She taught me about Indira Gandhi, who was the first female prime minister of India.
“She had a small radio and every morning, she listened to the news, and we were also listening and learning a lot. So those were my humble beginnings. I was just really very fortunate having mentors that really were guiding me through the process."
Mji plans to divide her time between Cape Town and the Eastern Cape upon her retirement and to continue advocacy work.
Asked about any challenges in her career, she says: “I always just tried to face the day with a sincere heart, and just continued to try and solve each problem and find solutions. I will miss the academic space and mentors who were part of my education process. They were able to see the potential in me and they really wanted me to have a voice. They helped me understand even though there's mass of voices, my voice is important too."
Mji has continued what her grandmother started – by having a sincere interest in the world and making it better. “Our network has linked with about 23 countries, and they are now starting to produce their own disability research. I have been exploring the concept of Ubuntu with students – some of these indigenous concepts and principles are important to bring to the fore. We are integrating both the new and the old and you will end up with a colourful blanket of combined knowledge systems.
“You will have a far more balanced future if you have these values on one side and technology on the other side. Technology itself will be enhanced and balanced by these values."
Photo caption: Prof Gubela Mji
Photo credit: Damien Schumann