Phetsile Kholekile Dlamini: Dialogue with the Swaziland Minister for Health and Social Welfare

Phetsile Kholekile Dlamini is a child of Adventism. Born second in a family of five, she grew within the embrace of a faithful Adventist family. Although her father was a simple farmer, he knew the value of Christian education and the worth of a strong religious commitment. Phetsile adopted both values as she began her formal education at the Mbukwane Seventh-day Adventist School—the first Adventist school in Swaziland. In 1970 she completed a B.Sc. degree at the University of Lesotho, and then proceeded to the University of Ghana to study medicine.

Armed with a medical degree, she went to Natal, South Africa, in 1975 to complete her internship. Her first official post came in 1976 at the Hlathikhulu Government Hospital, Swaziland, and soon after she became its director. She also directed 22 rural clinics.

Thereafter Dr. Dlamini continued her specialization and obtained a master’s degree in pediatrics in 1985 at the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa, and in 1986 a Fellowship Degree with the College of Physicians (pediatrics) in South Africa.

Following her return to Swaziland in 1987, she began a private rural practice, bringing health and healing to thousands of infants and children. Six years later, recognizing her professional stand and community service, the Parliament of Swaziland secondarily (i.e., without standing for election) elected her to this august body. In 1996 Dr. Dlamini was appointed as the Minister for Health and Social Welfare.

Dr. Dlamini, what motivated you to become a medical doctor?

My parents. My father had faith in me that I could be a doctor. When I was nine years old I already knew I wanted to be a doctor. Although poor, my home had a caring environment. Even today my 85-year-old mother spends a lot of her time helping others. She enjoys caring and sharing, and she has passed that trait on to her children.

What memories do you have of your formative years?

Many happy memories. Although my father died in 1963 when I was 16, we children had love and emotional security in our mother and grandparents. Family always meant to me a place of happiness. We were a close-knit family, and that’s an irreplaceable bond. Poverty became the biggest challenge as my mother worked very hard and long hours just so that we could have food and afford schooling.

She got up at three in the morning, cooked the morning porridge, and then walked 20 miles to buy vegetables, carry the load on her head, and sell them from place to place. She would return home at sundown with about US$2 as her earnings. During school holidays I worked in the farms in neighboring South Africa. That meant long hours, odd jobs, and little money. Life was tough, but we were never short of one thing—happiness and a confidence that God would see us through.

The beautiful thing is that all this hardship made me resolve to study hard so that I could have a profession of my own. Walking barefoot in winter or having only one pair of shoes with holes only served as motivation to finish school faster no matter what.

My mother was a great factor in my life. Her prayers always assured us that suffering is only temporary and being faithful to God is more important.

Tell us a little about your Adventist background.

I was born into a second-generation Adventist family. My grandfather allowed the first Seventh-day Adventist minister in Swaziland—Pastor Hlubi—to set up in 1920 a mission school in the family fields where the Mbukwane Mission is today. My mother was among the first students in that mission school. My grandmother used to tell me how, when they became Adventists, they had to shave off their Swazi globular hairstyles and exchange their skin aprons for Western clothes. As I think back, I feel Jesus loves us just as we are—with our national identity and in our poverty.

I was baptized in 1960. Jesus has been my constant friend in life’s ups and downs. Nothing can separate me from His love. I think it is important not just to belong to the church but to know Jesus in a very personal way.

Did you anticipate becoming the Minister of Health?

No. But I know that God has a plan for His children. I am convinced that God planned that I should serve Swaziland in this way at this time in history. My challenge is to do everything well, but in a humble and honest way.

Does your present position as a government minister cause tension with your Adventist beliefs?

I experience no conflict between my political office and my faith. We have freedom of worship in Swaziland, and I am fortunate that the Head of State grew up in an Adventist home, so he is very sympathetic to Adventists. The head of government and indeed all my colleagues know that the Sabbath is my day of worship. I have no problem in observing the Sabbath.

Do your cultural traditions conflict with your religious principles?

Some but not all our cultural practices clash with religious principles. I avoid those that do and keep the ones that enhance my beliefs. For example, one cultural habit in our country is the regimen system that encourages young boys and girls, under the guidance of older people, to learn to live a pure life before marriage and to have courtship without engaging in physical contact. Under this tradition, there was wholesome courtship and no teenage pregnancies and the moral degeneration we see now. Another aspect of Swazi culture is respect and care for the elderly. So I support aspects of our culture that do not clash with the demands of my faith.

What aspect of Adventism appeals to you the most?

Adventist emphasis of service to God and the community. This is the way of Jesus. He was there for the ill, hungry, and lonely, for the sophisticated and the simple. He attended to the needs of all. It is important that we emulate Him and serve with humility. To say that we love God while we remain indifferent toward the needs of our neighbors is not acceptable for a Christian. The vertical and the horizontal dimensions of the Ten Commandments need to govern our life’s worship and service.

What led you to choose a political career?

Actually, I did not choose a political career, but found myself in it by the people’s choice. In this I sense a call to public duty, and God has allowed me to serve the people in this particular way.

Dlamini is a name of royalty in Swaziland. Are you related to the royal family?

I am distantly related to the royal family. My great-grandfather (Makhahleleka) was brother to King Sobhuza II, father to the present King Mswati III. But more importantly, by God’s grace, we are all royal in that we are the children of the King of kings.

What does the Seventh-day Adventist Church mean to you?

The church is the body of Christ. That means that I am a part of that body, just as hands or mouth are part of a body. As parts, all of us need to work within the church in order for the body to function well. The Adventist Church means a lot to me, particularly in its nurturing and witnessing ministry. The family atmosphere within the church is always exhilarating. Wherever I am I feel at home with my brothers and sisters in the faith. The music, the singing, the Word—they all keep us united in worship, fellowship, and service.

New reports indicate that HIV/AIDS is widespread in Swaziland, and a recent survey revealed that an estimated 22 percent of the population is infected with this dreaded disease. How is your ministry dealing with this scourge?

Swaziland is one of the Southern African countries that is heavily affected by HIV/AIDS. We see many young adults die, leaving a lot of dependents and orphans. In my department we are teaching that people should live responsibly. Youth should not engage in premarital sex, and married couples should be faithful to one another. While moral responsibility is paramount in preventing the disease, we are faced with the issue of caring for those who are already ill. The sick and the orphans are placing an enormous strain on our health services. We hope the church’s youth ministry can intensify its work of motivating the youth to live a healthy and godly life, both before and after marriage. We also need the church to assist in providing spiritual and emotional support and health care to those affected or infected.

Can a young Christian achieve success without compromising his or her beliefs?

Why not? Daniel did it. Joseph did it. The important thing is to be well anchored in Christian principles and ask God to help guide the way even when it is difficult at times and even when one does not have all the answers.

What counsel would you give young people who face many challenges today?

My counsel is simple. Be strong in your faith. Be close to Jesus. Develop principles of living that would be in harmony with the ideal Jesus sets before you. Don’t let anything cheapen your body or mind. Listen to God’s call early in your life. Let Him mold you early. Sometimes the molding process may be painful, but the end result is an outstanding, fulfilled life of service to God and His church. Don’t follow your peers blindly. Follow Him who will not fail you; He knows and understands and cares for you at all times.

Interview by Percy Peters. Percy Peters is the education director of the South African Union of Seventh-day Adventists. His address: P.O. Box 468; Bloemfontein, 9300; South Africa. E-mail: Dr. Dlamini’s address: P.O. Box 1323; Matshapha; Swaziland. E-mail: