19 May 2017 Read: 698
Mona Runkel (67) moved to Haenertsburg nine years ago. She ran the Stanford Lake College tuck shop together with her older sister. Now they live in the village Garden Cottages and are house sitters to homes in the area preferably with pets.
Mona, born in Langlaagte, Johannesburg, was involved in laboratory work and began her career at the blood transfusion division of SANBS in Johannesburg at the age of 25. She then moved to the cytology section of the SAIMR (South African Institute for Medical Research) in Hillbrow which involved preparing cells for analysis. This led to a position in cytology at the Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital near Soweto.
The 16th June 1976 seemed like any normal work day to Mona. She recalls, “At about 11:00 we heard a noise that sounded like waves breaking at the sea. We went to look at casualty and they told us students are storming the hospital. Security told us to return to the labs. By 13:00 the noise was intolerable. I snuck back to casualty and saw shot children being wheeled in. It was so traumatic and upsetting. We were given a police escort out of there. We drove alongside Soweto. There were thousands of students on either side of the road with pyramids of rocks, shouting and screaming. My colleagues who had school-going siblings were even more traumatized. If these siblings didn’t want to take part in the riots, they were forced to do so. We couldn’t return to work for three days. When we did, we had to go around the back which was an army camp called Diepkloof, a suburb of Soweto.”
Twenty three people died on that first day in Soweto. It heralded major changes in the landscape of South Africa, and 16 June is now a national holiday called Youth Day. Among the dead was Hector Peterson (13) immortalised in Sam Nzima’s iconic photograph. It’s become a symbol of the Soweto uprising and stands as a memorial now on the famous Vilakazi Street in Soweto.
Mona’s biggest achievement came in 1984 when a pathologist offered her a post in histopathology, the study of tissue, in Durban. With it came much more responsibility and a bigger staff complement. What began in a servant’s quarter has progressed to one of the most competitive and successful laboratories in Durban. The most rewarding part of this job was going to theatre with the pathologists. Sometimes she worked in theatre for a straight 11 hours.
Mona says, “The pathologist analyses the tissue immediately and it has to be done super fast as they can’t keep the patient under anaesthetic for too long. I’d prepare the slides for a decision to be made, for example, whether a patient should undergo a mastectomy or lumpectomy. I’ve also been involved in brain biopsies. The most valuable learning curve for me was being taught how the body works.”