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A Model Patient: Yusuf Osman And The Growth Of Africa’s Biggest Dental School

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Dentistry is an integral part of general health – and even after forty years of teaching, research and practice, the challenge of dental health brings a smile to recently-retired Dean of UWC Dentistry Yusuf Osman’s face.

(Published - 19 March 2020)

“Most patients coming to dentists do so grudgingly due to pain or discomfort. The challenge is to manage the pain and discomfort, fix the underlying issues, and get them to leave in a stable state, where they can live their lives and thrive – and where they want to come back again by choice.”

Yusuf Osman knows what he’s talking about – he’s been a dentist for forty years. And one of his most difficult patients has been the University of the Western Cape’s Faculty of Dentistry itself. Retiring after years of serving as Dean of the Faculty, he’s happy to say the patient has survived all challenges, and is definitely thriving – as the largest and most productive dental school on the African continent.

“My specialty, Prosthodontics, is concerned with the replacement of parts of a tooth – replacing the whole tooth, some teeth or all the teeth,” he says. “There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a patient get their crowns or their dentures and the transformation in their attitude. I find the challenges posed by these patients exhilarating and thrive on the opportunity to assist them to improve their looks. And UWC’s Faculty of Dentistry is looking pretty good.”

The Faculty of Dentistry of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) has transformed from an apartheid institution, created to train dentists of colour, into a leading provider of health workers in Africa. The faculty started with a class of 25 dental students and two oral hygiene students after the De Villiers Commission recommended that a separate training facility for dentists of colour be established - the existing three dental schools in the country at the time together trained only two dentists of colour per year.

One of those 25 was Yusuf Osman – a young man from the small town of Witbank. He’d left the University of Durban-Westville after his first year, when they were informed that a new dentistry programme was being launched at UWC to train dentists of colour for South Africa.

“Being the pioneer class has its advantages and disadvantages,” he muses. “Most of the lecturers were supportive of this new school and wanted us to succeed, however, there were some who made us feel as if they were doing us a favour by training us, and this was part of the motivation that contributed to me wanting to come back to make a difference for future generations of dental students.”

When Osman left UWC as one of the first graduates of the Faculty of Dentistry, the University didn’t even have a hall for graduation. He was fortunate enough to be awarded the gold medal of the Dental Association of South Africa for the best academic record throughout the five-year programme – but had no place to celebrate his accomplishment. He became the first Prosthodontist of colour to have registered with the South African Medical and Dental Council, and constantly butted heads with apartheid bureaucrats who made it difficult to serve the community as best he could.

At this stage a registrars post (training post) was being advertised at UWC. Osman called and both Professor Reddy (Dean at that time) and Professor Wilding (head of the department of Prosthodontics) encouraged him to apply for the position.

“This was the turning point in my life,” Osman recalls. “It was an adjustment because I had a wife and three children and had become accustomed to a lifestyle of a private practitioner, and now had to become a student again and dependent on a salary – and a small one at the time. But the sacrifice was worth it, because this was the beginning of a new career for me – one which would be rewarding beyond my wildest dreams.”

He stayed at UWC because of his passion for teaching, his desire to change the circumstances for future generations of dental students - and his strenuous opposition to the apartheid policy  which had restricted the movements and training of his fellow dentists.

Over the decades since, as a lecturer, Deputy Dean and eventually Dean, he helped the University and Faculty grow from strength to strength - becoming the largest dental school on the African continent, and a World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre.

“The challenges to the University now and in the past are and have been enormous,” he notes. “But UWC has a history of coping with these challenges, facing them and overcoming them, and becoming something more. More people-oriented, more research-focused, and more sought-after, locally and internationally. We’ve come a long way.”

Prof Osman is proud of his long association with the University.

“I owe UWC a great debt,” Prof Osman says. “I started here in 1974, and now it’s 2020 - that’s a lifetime. And I’ve had this great experience as a student, staff member, dean...what more could I ask for? I’m a first-generation graduate, like many others who have called UWC their academic home, but my children are all graduates who have gone on to pursue their own dreams - three of them are medical doctors, and the fourth has a doctorate in Law. That’s what education does for you. That’s what UWC did for me.”

Respice, Prospice: Looking Back, Looking Forward, On The Shoulders Of Giants

Prof Osman’s predecessors, Professors Reddy, Miles, Hobdell, and Moola, have been his role models – the trail blazers who built up UWC Dentistry to be so much more than it was intended to be; the giants on whose shoulders Prof Osman is proud to stand.

The Faculty of Dentistry has changed over the years, he notes - and that for the better.

“Over the years the Faculty has been on a trajectory - onwards and upwards. We’ve achieved a lot, and there’s still great potential for more. But it’s seasonal, and there’s a time for change. You must move on, and encourage new people to take on new challenges. We can’t stand still and let the world pass us by - not in this time.”

Fortunately, the Faculty of Dentistry is more than ready to keep up the good work and take the University to the next level.

“We have the right people and the right vision to take dentistry forward,” he enthuses. “That’s why it’s a good time for me to leave, knowing that there are such amazing people, individually and together, who will take this faculty and the profession forward.”

Over the years the Faculty has forged many international relationships in Africa, as well as with institutions including the University of Missouri, Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences, the University of Oslo, the University of Bergen, Asahi University and Meikai University.

“I enjoy travelling and have been to at least 40 countries over the years, lecturing at conferences and examining at other Universities in Africa and elsewhere,” Osman recalls. “One of the highlights: being invited to address the graduating class of Health Science students at the graduation ceremony of Asahi and Meikei Universities in Gifu, Japan.”

Prof Osman will be honoured with an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Oslo in Norway in September 2020. In the meantime, he says, he’s learning to relax and slow down – walking with his wife, watching sport, enjoying drives along the coastline and into the winelands.

 

My advice to young academics is to have a healthy balance in their lives between their academic activities and their family life. I missed critical years in the lives of my children, and I hope to make up for this in the lives of their children.”.

And one more thing: no more Mondays.

“I always told everybody that in my next life I’m not going to have any Mondays,” he laughs, “and that’s what I have now. I have a great weekend and I sleep late on Monday morning. So if you need me to do something, talk to me on Tuesday or thereafter, okay?”


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