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Nelson Mandela, champion of public health

By Yogan Pillay

Our late former President Mandela has passed on but his legacy will live on and should live on for generations to come. He inspired millions across the world to do good, to forgive, to work for the common good. This also inspired me: from my youth in university when he was in prison, as a government official since he became the President of our country, and today as we mourn his passing.

President Mandela, whose clan name is Madiba, will be remembered by millions for many things.


As an activist for the last 30 years and as a health professional for past 25 years I salute Madiba and the African National Congress, which he has and will continue to be inextricably linked, for inspiring me to be become socially conscious, to be concerned about the less fortunate, and to understand the reasons why some people are poor and some are rich!

As a health professional, the first democratically-led government in South Africa (headed by Madiba), prioritized development through the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) in which redistribution of wealth was prioritized. Within the RDP provision of health, education, and social services was prioritized as was provision of water and sanitation and housing. In 1996 access to health care for children under six years of age and pregnant women was made free at the point of care in the public sector (this was extended to people with disabilities in 1998). The social security system was extended ,and more poor children and women are able to access social support as well as cash transfers. Today 16 million needy South Africans have access to social assistance — just one of the many legacies of Madiba!

Madiba was vocal about the impact of HIV and AIDS on citizens of his beloved country. Even when others were silent about the disease, he announced that his son, Makgatho, died from HIV and asked all South Africans not to hide the disease but to treat it like any other disease. The Nelson Mandela Foundation has since its establishment, developed and implemented programmes on HIV, in particular community dialogues around HIV.

Given Madiba’s concern for women and children, it is not surprising that he established the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund 1995 and the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust in 1999. The Hospital will open in 2014 — such a pity that Madiba will not be at its opening. I am sure that the spirit of Madiba will be there to ensure that the hospital is indeed the world class facility he wanted it to be — to serve the children of Africa.

I was employed by the first Mandela government as a director responsible for establishing the district health system to strengthen the provision of primary health care. Since 2008 I have been responsible for ensuring the elimination of HIV and TB in our country and to ensure that mothers, children, and women’s health programmes are strengthened. I am inspired by Mandela’s commitment to humanity in my work every day. For this I thank this great humanist.

I will celebrate Madiba’s life and what he gave to South Africa and the world even as I mourn his passing. I will forever be in your debt, Tata, for teaching me to be compassionate and caring.

Rest in peace Tata!

Yogan Pillay is a senior management in the National Department of Health, South Africa. He worked for the Department of Health in various capacities since 1995 and is currently the Deputy Director General responsible for the HIV, TB and Maternal, Child and Women’s Health programmes in the National Department of Health. Together with Prof AE Birn and Dr T Holtz he co-authored the Textbook on International  Health, published by OUP.

Image credit: Johannesburg, South Africa – February 13, 1990 : Former South African President Nelson Mandela, shows the freedom salute after his release from prison. © ruvanboshoff via iStockphoto.

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