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4 May 2021
Healthcare is a human right says Dr Andile Mabhala
Dr Mzwandile (Andile) Mabhala grew up in uMzimkhulu, a small town in what was then Transkei. One of seven siblings born to Nonkosi and Mthuthuzeli Mabhala, he attended Clydesdale and Msudukeni High Schools in uMzimkhulu. After matriculating in 1989, Andile moved to Johannesburg and served as an active member of the ANC and chairperson of its Newclare-Bosmont branch in the run-up to the first democratic elections.

Andile says he was privileged to have ANC veteran Professor Ismail Mohamed as his political mentor in Johannesburg.

“Prof Mohamed suggested it might be a good idea for me to go to university and he recommended the University of the Western Cape,” says Andile.

Remarkably, Prof. Mohamed had spoken fondly of his time at UWC, despite being fired in 1976 after only a year in his post as Head of the Department of Mathematics, following his arrest and detention with Trevor Manuel, Johnny Issel and Cheryl Carolus.

Having developed an interest in population health, nursing seemed a good career option (Andile’s sister Zizipho is also a qualified nurse). Armed with a bursary from Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB), a US scholarship programme that funded the health sciences studies of 11 000 black South Africans between 1985 and 2007, Andile started his BCur studies in 1994.

On campus, Andile was an active member of the Marxist Society and served on the School of Nursing Student Council. Andile met his wife Melanie Mabhala (née Farmer) in 1996 when they were both studying at the UWC School of Nursing (they celebrated their 21st wedding anniversary on 29 April).

“Statistics lecturer Prof. Pretorius [now Vice-Chancellor] especially influenced and helped shape my future career,” says Andile. “I still have a copy of his book on inferential statistics. It shaped my commitment to using population data to improve population health.”

After graduating in 1998, Andile immediately headed for the United Kingdom where he was employed at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital. Working at teaching hospitals (he also served as a senior staff nurse at Aintree University Hospital in 2002) led naturally to his move into academia. To achieve accreditation to teach, he completed the English National Board Teaching and Assessing in Clinical Practice qualification in 2001 and the Postgraduate Certificate in Education, Health and Social Care in 2002.

After a short secondment from Aintree to Oxford Brookes University as Senior Lecturer in Epidemiology and Public Health in 2002, Andile taught in the University of Oxford’s MSc Evidence-Based Health Care Programme before taking a post as senior public health workforce development manager in the Public Health Resource Unit (PHRU), Oxford University Institute of Health Sciences in 2003. In 2005, he began his long tenure at the University of Chester, first as a lecturer and, since 2015, as Professor of Public Health Epidemiology.

Andile holds a Master’s in Public Health degree from Brighton and Sussex Medical School (2003) and a PhD from the University of Brighton, awarded in 2012 for a thesis that examined ‘the conceptualisation of public health as a strategy to reduce inequalities in health’.

A prodigiously busy academic, Andile has presented papers at more than a dozen international conferences, authored more than 30 peer-reviewed articles, nine chapters in books and co-edited two well-received books on public health. He has served on several expert panels and reference groups, acted as an invited reviewer of three rated journals and supervised numerous Master’s and PhD students.

As an epidemiologist, Andile has relentlessly pursued the notion of ‘epidemiology as a science with moral purpose’ throughout his career.

He explains: “My interest in tackling the inequalities in health stems from my belief in health as a human right for all. As a young man growing up under the apartheid system, it was apparent that this human right was not being observed; the health of non-white South Africans was poorer than that of their white counterparts. When I came to the UK, I observed the health divide accorded with the British class system – people in low social classes have poorer health than those in higher social classes.

“Studying public health enhanced my theoretical and scientific understanding of patterns of disease distribution and deepened my understanding of social justice principles. I concluded that social justice should be a foundation principle for public health, and public health should be used as a strategy to reduce inequalities in health.”

On his rare breaks from academia one might find Andile playing golf or road running. He is also a “huge rugby fan” and insists that, despite holding dual citizenship, he is South African at heart.

He says, “Whenever SA is playing, I cover my house with the largest South Africa flag I found at the market.

“I have fond memories of UWC. UWC opened the doors to world-class education to all South Africans. It is a vehicle for social mobility in South Africa.”

Recognising the importance of ploughing back, Andile says: “Alumni networks can play a major role in raising the profile of and contributing philanthropically to the university. At Brighton and Sussex Medical School, there is an alumni philanthropic fund in which successful alumni donate funds to help the next generation.”

Andile says his UWC ties are strong as most of his UK friends are UWC alumni and even former classmates. He visits the campus whenever he returns to South Africa, especially the library, which was his favourite place as a student (he even drafted the final chapter of his thesis there on one of his visits).

READ: Andile Mabhala explores the intertwined relationship between homelessness and poverty. Read the findings on why poverty creates social conditions that increase the likelihood of homelessness in his journal entry in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health here.