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Passing The Baton: Celebrating David Sanders - Academic, Activist And Inspiration

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Hundreds turned out to UWC’s School of Public Health to pay tribute to the late David Sanders - healthcare worker, academic and activist whose efforts improved lives and inspired action from students, communities and international organizations alike.

(Published - 25 September 2019)

David Sanders was one of the giants of public health - and while his sudden passing has left people across the globe shocked and with a deep sense of loss, he leaves behind a legacy that will not soon be forgotten - a legacy that was celebrated with poetry, tributes, music and more in a memorial service at the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health on 19 September 2019.

“In this room I see activists, and students, and researchers, and policymakers, and family and friends and more,” said Prof Uta Lehmann, current Director of the SOPH. “And there are many, many more friends, family members, colleagues and comrades from all over the world watching this, joining to celebrate a remarkable man and an incredible legacy, who will not soon be forgotten: Professor David Sanders.”

That incredible legacy extends from the halls of academia to the corridors of power to the streets of the townships. Emeritus Professor David Sanders was not only a world-renowned academic who shaped research and teaching in public health for almost five decades, the founding director of the School of Public Health at UWC, and a founding member and co-chair of the People’s Health Movement (PHM) - he was also a tireless champion of public health, and a consummate activist and commentator, who spoke truth to power – a great public intellectual.

“David knew that after apartheid, what we needed in this country was primary healthcare in its radical form,” recalled Prof Louis Reynolds, Public Health Movement member, and David’s longtime friend and collaborator. “He had this incredible energy, this intellectual buzz, that he passed along at UWC and elsewhere. He could get to the nub of any complicated issue immediately. The world is a poorer place without David. But we will keep up the good work, and the struggle for health for all will continue.”

David Sanders was born in South Africa, but grew up in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) where he qualified as a medical doctor. During the 1970s he lived in the UK, where he specialised in paediatrics and public health. David’s qualifications were in paediatrics and public health and his main interests were health and development, child health, nutrition, primary health care and human resource development.

Until the very end, he remained active in various civil society organisations that promote social justice and Health for All, as Ms Nowhi Mdayi, community activist in Gugulethu and PHM member, explained.

“There’s a popular saying that behind every successful man, there’s a successful woman. But we have a different saying: Behind every successful activist in Gugulethu and Khayelitsha, and in so many other places, there is David Sanders. We will take up the spear of David - and know that his spirit will always be among us.”

David undertook research in South Africa’s rural Eastern Cape to improve the management of children with severe malnutrition. He also raised awareness about the role of transnational food companies in the growing obesity and non-communicable diseases epidemic.

“David has influenced so many of us: hundreds of us; thousands of us; tens of thousands. He’s shown us that to address inequality and health, we need value-based leaders like him who work collectively,” said Dr Tracey Naledi, who served with Sanders as chairperson of the Tekano Board - and had known him for over twenty years as a student, colleague and longtime friend.

“Sue, Oscar, Lisa and Ben - all of his family, may be comforted by the knowledge that his work and his teachings live in all of us. His students, his colleagues, his fellows and his friends. He has not died - he has multiplied.”

The House That David Built

Prof Sanders established the Public Health Programme (subsequently known as the School of Public Health) at the University of the Western Cape in 1993, becoming its founding director. He led the school until 2009. During his years there he developed a world-renowned distance-learning Masters in Public Health that graduated students from all over Africa.

“I’ve had the privilege - and sometimes the curse - to work with David for many years,” said UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Tyrone Pretorius. “I was Dean of Community and Health Sciences when our former Rector, Prof Jakes Gerwel, had the vision for a school of public health that would champion health for all. David was recruited to carry out that vision - and we could not have asked for a better champion.”

From a virtual centre with only three employees, Prof Sanders built an institution that gained an international and a continental reputation for excellence, that produces world-class research into public health, and that attracts and educates candidates from across the continent.

“In David we had an exemplary human being, a committed activist, a loving family man, and so much more - an icon for health rights all over the world; a great man whose greatest talent was to turn others into believers. Look at where we are sitting today: This is the House that David built - and long may it stand.”

Aluta Continua: A Living Legacy

Amid the huge gap that has been left by David’s death, most intensely for his family, the outpouring of tributes and messages is testament to the countless individuals he influenced across the world.

“The biggest challenge we had in preparing for today was one of containment,” said Prof Uta Lehmann. “David engaged with and touched people all over the globe and in all spheres of society. So I would encourage those of you who haven’t done so yet to visit the tribute page and read and share.”

Sue, David’s wife, thanked all the speakers for sharing their memories about David (“Even after so many years, there’s a lot to learn about my husband.”), and shared her appreciation for the hundreds of messages of support received via email, and text, and more. She thanked the School of Public Health for helping to paint a canvas of his life.

“And of course, the biggest thank you is to David - for 43 years of a funny, interesting, unconventional and deeply loving partnership. And as I say this I can hear David saying I’ve used too many adjectives - but at least I’ve put the commas in the right place,” she said.

“Suffice to say, he’s been a husband and a man of a very unique kind, and I hope we will all remember that as we move forward. And let us also remember: the way to keep someone alive is to never stop loving them.”

If you have worked with David, been his student, or have been influenced by his life and work in other ways, please share your thoughts and memories here.​​

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