Dr Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti is one of the towering women who come to mind whenever one encounters Oprah Winfrey’s infamous quote, “The world’s most prominent women leaders show the importance of honesty, courage, impact, and decisive action in leadership.”
The first woman elected as the Regional Director for Africa for the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr Matshidiso was born in the late ‘50s in Johannesburg, South Africa, and spent a better part of her formative years in Botswana. The move to Botswana was triggered by the National Party of South Africa’s enactment of the Bantu Education Act as part of its anti-Black segregationist apartheid system, a development designed to disadvantage Black South Africans. Aware that Bantu education would limit his children’s future options, Dr Matshidiso’s father – who aspired for his children to have a better education than he did – elected to relocate the family to Botswana when Dr Matshidiso was nine years old. It was both a selfless and well-intentioned selfish act.
For such a move to be made for both her betterment and a possibility of a brighter future, a young Dr Matshidiso made studying and excelling in school her focus. From her parents’ determination stemmed her own, and with time this blossomed into an independent desire to scale the highest echelons of academia. Success presented itself in many forms, and was within reach. Unfortunately, at the time of Dr Matshidiso’s transition from secondary school to university, there were no medical schools in Botswana. This prompted her to apply for university abroad.
The first leg of Dr Matshidiso’s journey was when she enrolled at the University of London’s Royal Free Hospital School to pursue a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS). She had initially wanted to study Physics, but as she told The Lancet Infectious Diseases team, some of her Physics teachers were not very inspiring. Six years later, in 1978, she obtained her degree and joined the list of graduated, budding women health professionals from Africa.
A little short of ten years after this feat, Dr Matshidiso added a Master of Science in Community Health for Developing Countries (MSc (CHDC)) to her academic credentials. This she obtained from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Dr Matshidiso thereafter returned to Botswana, hoping to work in paediatrics, but instead joined the country’s Ministry of Health, working in the Occupational Health unit. This role cemented Dr Matshidiso’s understanding of public health, simultaneously giving her practical experience in health systems development. She was soon asked to take over Botswana’s HIV AIDS programme at a time when HIV cases in Botswana had shot up. This role would later be considered fundamental for the much larger roles that awaited her.
In 1997, Dr Matshidiso relocated to Geneva, where she joined the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) as a Team Leader for the Africa and Middle East Desk. Concurrently, she worked as the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF)’s Regional Health Advisor for East and Southern Africa. An advocate for better health in Africa seemed like the best way to describe her at the time. This would continue to be so two years later when she crossed over to the World Health Organization (WHO), joining the regional office in Africa that was at the time working on HIV/AIDS.
Between 2005 and 2007, Dr Matshidiso served as the WHO’s Country Representative in Malawi, and in 2008 – nine years after joining the WHO – she rose to the position of Assistant Regional Director and Director of Noncommunicable Diseases, where she served until 2011. As a global health professional, both experienced and dedicated, it was only a matter of time before Dr Matshidiso was appointed Coordinator of the Intercountry Support Team for WHO’s South and East African Countries.
After 20 years of working as a public health specialist and medical administrator, Dr. Matshidiso was eventually nominated and appointed Regional Director (Africa) for WHO in November 2014, taking over from Dr Luís Gomes Sambo. This appointment was a milestone not just for her but other women in leadership as she became the first woman to head this office since its establishment.
To effectively undertake her role, Dr Matshidiso relocated once again, this time to Brazzaville in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the WHO’s Regional Office for Africa is located. But while her promotion was widely celebrated, it was also a daunting time as her appointment happened when Africa was in the throes of the Ebola outbreak, with Guinea, Libera and Sierra Leone as the affected countries. Dr Matshidiso visited these countries, mobilising resources and coordinating support from international partners, her mission from the start having been to “build a responsive, effective and result-driven regional secretariat that can advance efforts towards universal health coverage and accelerate progress toward global development goals, while tackling emerging threats.”
By the end of 2015, the Ebola outbreak had subsided.
In August 2019, during the 69th session of the Regional Committee for Africa, Dr Matshidiso was nominated by the 47 States of the WHO’s Africa Region to serve a second term as Regional Director for Africa. In her acceptance speech, Dr Matshidiso affirmed that “During the past five years, I have worked to transform the WHO Secretariat so that we can better respond to the health needs of millions of Africans. I intend for us to scale more mountains together over the next five years.”
Between 2016 and 2019, Dr Matshidiso supported the momentum for universal health coverage across Africa, and upon her re-election, championed the WHO’s ‘3 by 5’ Initiative in Africa which resulted in a significant increase in the number of HIV–positive individuals’ access to antiretroviral therapy. Furthermore, she spearheaded the development of the WHO’s regional strategies for public health priority areas, including communicable and non-communicable diseases, immunisation, maternal and child health, and the health systems strengthening.
All of this done with grace, courage and decisive action.