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Tribute to David Sanders

Author: Professor Uta Lehmann - Director, School of Public Health

UWC has learnt with sadness about the passing of Emeritus Professor David Sanders - founding director of the School of Public Health. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and colleagues at this time. (Prof T. Pretorius)

(Published - 2 September 2019)

Since news of David Sanders’ sudden and untimely death broke on Saturday morning, the tributes, messages and condolences have not stopped pouring in. Messages came from current and former students, colleagues, activists and government officials - from all over the world. They came from individuals and large institutions. Many were somewhat incredulous, because as one colleague told me: “I somehow thought David would be around forever”.

All expressed a profound sense of loss, as well as of deep gratitude for his work and contributions. They mourn the loss of the tenaciously urgent voice of the health activist and commentator fighting for health as a human right - fighting against persistent inequity and injustices. They mourn the loss of the leader who helped build the post-independence health system in Zimbabwe, and later in South Africa, the School of Public Health at UWC. They mourn the loss of the man who helped architect the People’s Health Movement both, globally and in South Africa. They also mourn the loss of the voice of conscience, who could be relied upon to ask the inconvenient questions and speak truth to power - whether at a world health assembly, in a TV debate or in a local workshop - by expressing in an enviably articulate and sharp manner what many of us could not find the words to say.

I worked closely with David for 26 years. He recruited me into the fledgling Public Health Programme at UWC, as he did so many others, with a keen eye for people who shared his convictions and vision for health and social justice, and who were prepared to work (almost) as hard as he did.

I attended his first short course on Health, Development and Primary Health Care at UWC - a course which still runs as a module for our postgraduate students. His slides of the Zimbabwean nutrition programme have stayed with me to this day. His book, “The Struggle for Health”, made as deep an impression on me as it did on generations of students over the past 30 years. Inspired by and under his energetic, and at times demanding leadership, we built the formidable School of Public Health at UWC. The school offers transformative public health education to students from the entire continent, conducts research and develops interventions for health systems and health programmes, always informed by a focus on the social determinants of health and issues of social justice.

As is the case with many great leaders, working with David was not always plain sailing. It could be exasperating that he arrived late for every single meeting, or insisted on not ever getting rid of any piece of paper, so that he would disappear behind the piles on his desk. He would arrive with 75 slides for what was supposed to be a 15 minute presentation. But, like everyone else, I listened spell-bound when he unpacked the upstream determinants of health, urging us to pay attention to the politics of health. He was a wonderful teacher and mentor, as so many of the tributes have expressed. He also was, and encouraged all of us to be, a consummate public intellectual, activist and commentator. He built the People’s Health Movement, and contributed to the work of the South African National Commission on Higher Education, the National Health Act, and many other national and international policy debates. He advocated for the importance of community health workers and for political action against the rising tide of NCDs. Most recently, he advocated for a National Health Insurance as “a basis for a unified and equitable health system”. Like the title of his second book, he urged all of us to always “Question the Solution” in search for equity and social justice.

I suspect David himself would be slightly bemused at the many tributes and the expressed sense of loss. He would probably say, in his wry and somewhat self-depreciating style: “Well, they only say all these nice things because they know that I now cannot argue with them anymore”. But we and I know better. We will continue to hear and listen to his voice, and in this way he may well be around forever through his words, his contributions and the memories we carry.

Many of the tributes for David have ended, “A Luta Continua” - a call to pick up his spear, to continue questioning the solutions. This is his lasting legacy!

Nonetheless, his all too early departure leaves a huge void – for us as his colleagues, friends and comrades, his wonderful wife Sue, his children, his sister and his wider family. Our condolences go out to them, hoping that they may find some solace in the knowledge that his life and work touched so many.

Hamba Kahle, David! Rest in peace!


Dean's Tribute to David Sanders - Prof Rhoda

It is with great sadness that we heard of the passing of David Sanders. Prof Sanders has been a champion, pioneer and ambassador for human rights and social justice in the healthcare arena. In doing so, he has contributed to the facilitation and implementation of a healthcare system that responds to the needs of the society as a whole. David made an impact on the lives on clinicians, students as well as colleagues as he engaged with academic institutions, organisations and focused movements.

At UWC we are extremely appreciative to Prof Sanders for his contribution to the development of the world renowned School of Public Health at UWC. The school has made and continues to make a major impact locally, regionally and internationally in the field in a transformative manner. David was a true scholar, conducting relevant research in the areas of health systems and programmes which are all informed by the determinants of health locally, specifically addressing the issue of social justice.

The work conducted by Prof Sanders was also recognised by the National Department of Health, by whom his focus on communities, the role of community workers in the current health system and the provision of healthcare to the South African population, is alluded to. The Department refers to him as “a champion of economic and social justice and a pioneer of public health”.

From the Faculty of Community and Health Sciences, we would like to convey our condolences to his wife, children and other immediate family. May his legacy continue.

Hamba Kahle, Prof Sanders, May your soul rest in peace.

Prof Anthea Rhoda
FCHS Dean​​

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