Dr Vanessa Naidoo’s international career in medicine was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the health and wellbeing of South Africans. She reflects on her choice to serve as a healthcare practitioner and the importance of Mandela opening up about his son’s death as a result of Aids-related complications.
As the world quiets down after commemorating International Mandela Day 2014 and Service Month, as we now refer to July in South Africa, we are filled with sadness that our icon and the father of our democracy is no longer with us.
However, his vision and legacy of respect for human dignity, irrespective of race, class or creed, and for the holistic wellbeing of the people of our country, will serve to inspire generations of South Africans to come. I am one of those who has been encouraged by his vision, to use my passion for healthcare to serve the people of South Africa and beyond, hence my work with Doctors Without Borders (MSF).
I have been inspired by the vision that guided President Mandela – to see a South Africa that was free of oppression, want and disease. My work at MSF enables me to contribute to this vision and to make it a reality for the people we serve, in South Africa and abroad – like in South Sudan, where I recently worked with MSF for a few months in a vast refugee camp.
A REALISED VISION FOR FREE PRIMARY HEALTHCARE
When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President, his first task was to redress the social and economic injustices of the apartheid system, where the provision of quality healthcare was reserved for the white minority at the expense of the black majority.
Twenty years later, we can count the following amongst President Mandela’s most enduring legacies in the public healthcare system: on 24th May 1994, during his inaugural State of the Nation Address, Mandela announced the provision of free healthcare to children under six years, and pregnant and lactating women – a policy that was extended to all users from 1 April 2006 – as one of several programmes led by the Presidency.
These included an essential drugs programme, choice on termination of pregnancy, anti‐tobacco legislation, community service for graduating health professionals, greater parity in district expenditure, clinic expansion and improvement, a hospital revitalisation programme, an improved immunisation programme and improved malaria control.
Perhaps the finest example of Mandela’s conviction, courage and commitment to confronting the realities of public health emergencies was when he publicly revealed that his son, Makgatho, had died as a result of Aids-related complications in 2005. This was at a time when the leadership of the ANC-led government was in denial about the humanitarian crisis engulfing southern African.
For years, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) fought for South Africans to confront the stigma and shame associated with HIV, and to recognise the immense human toll the epidemic was taking. Mandela’s leadership made an invaluable contribution to removing this stigma.
The fact that South Africa today runs the world’s biggest ARV programme, where one of the largest number of HIV patients are alive and leading normal lives, can be attributed to the courageous stand taken by one of the greatest sons of our soil.
Last year when Mandela passed, my fellow MSF doctor, Eric Goemaere, described him as having donned his gloves to fight HIV publicly. I cannot imagine the unbearable pain of losing a son but I know that millions of people will thank Mandela for his courage to use his personal tragedy to make life better for those who would suffer from HIV. Like Mandela, we know that silence kills. But even before then Mandela had already inspired various sectors of society to come together for the greater good when he spoke eloquently at the close of the landmark 2000 Durban Aids conference.
As an MSF doctor I feel immense pride in knowing that we pursued Mandela’s vision and worked with the TAC and health authorities to make HIV and Aids treatment available for the first time, at a primary healthcare clinic in Khayelitsha back in 2002, thereby defying the status quo of the Mbeki-era denialism.
I did not have the privilege of meeting Mandela, but I have learned a great deal from his fearless leadership. The work I do now, in private and public healthcare, and as a volunteer aid worker, is inspired by his commitment to ensuring people are healthy and well, which would help them to live productive and meaningful lives.
I have worked with MSF in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Sudan. In these countries, despite the unbearable suffering I witnessed and the heartbreak of knowing that conflict and circumstance deal the cruellest fates to the vulnerable, I took courage from the fact that I was doing something tangible to make a difference. I was playing my part in helping someone by providing healthcare so that they might one day be able to help someone else.
Nelson Mandela was a son of South Africa, but his vision beats at the very heart of humanity and well beyond the borders of our country.