People Health Movement South Africa mourns the untimely and all-too-early death of our pioneer and founder leader David Sanders. But while we are deeply grieving, we also celebrate a life that inspired people across the world and continues to inspire us to work for social justice and health for all. David was an inspiration, a champion and role model. Many of us got involved in PHM precisely because of what David did and what he stood for.
David was the visionary who helped to establish PHM in SA. His commitment to the health of children and health equity kept PHM SA going through hard times and helped to build a stronger Civil Society movement in health in South Africa. David never shied away from speaking the truth, however uncomfortable. He was willing to take up difficult issues and ask difficult questions in order to advance health equity. However, he never did it for himself or for his own glory, but rather to advance the cause of health.
David led by example. A man of incredible integrity, he would never ask from others what he was not prepared to do himself. And because he asked a lot of himself, he got many of us to extend ourselves to take PHM further. We never knew we could do it until David got us to do it.
When we toyed with the idea of translating PHM’s International People’s University into a local home-grown equivalent, a South African People’s Health University, we were unsure of the idea, but David said, of course it is possible. Just like another world being possible, we could do it. And we did, the SAPHUs are now an established part of PHM’s programmes. PHM-SA’s most recent project on Non-Communicable Diseases would not have materialized if David did not plant the seed for others to run with. David’s presence made you feel safe you were on the right track. He gave us the confidence that his analysis would help you stay on track, and activists would be reassured by bouncing ideas off him.
David changed many people’s lives and challenged us to see the world differently. His politics was sharp and insightful. He was able explain complex relationships in health with ease, for example, explaining the links between political determinants at global level (e.g. trade agreements) and the factors causing diarrhoea in a rural Easter Cape homestead. He could do equally clearly to Ministers of Health at the WHO as he could to a community meeting in one of our many under-serviced and marginalized communities, making these analyses understandable to all. Few people will forget David’s insistent and clear explanation of the causes of the causes of the causes.
But despite David’s intense seriousness when it came to justice, he was also remarkably funny. While he was a committed activist on issues of life and death, he also brought humour and lightness to the meetings. How many of us were subject to his gentle teases and laughed at his self-deprecating jokes. This was David’s humanity that got us to engage in issues we never thought we would, or to pursue organizational challenges because we were willing to walk this path with him.
Many of the people he taught are in senior positions in the health system now. We hope that his message, of needing to challenge inequality and the unfair exercise of power, will shape their ongoing contribution to make health systems more equitable. As PHM, we will certainly be reminding our leaders of David’s unwavering commitment to this vision of making the world a better place.
Sadly, while David was looking forward to taking all these issues to government, he will no longer be able to do that. However, as PHM-SA, we will continue to walk that path and ensure that his vision is realized – a world where no child goes hungry because of unfair economic, political and social system; a world where health is a right and where the rich and powerful do not oppress those with less power; where equality between genders is a reality; where the environment is not trashed for private consumption; and where our health system is not sold off to the highest bidder.
Hamba Kahle, comrade David. Gone but certainly not forgotten. You live on in all of us.