Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Human rights take centre stage at Africa Day symposium
Author: Wilma Stassen
Published: 04/06/2018

Africa Day is an opportunity to celebrate our African identity and to rediscover what it means to be African, Dr Leslie van Rooi recently told delegates at an Africa Day symposium at Stellenbosch University's (SU) Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS).

“It is a special day for our continent and its people. It is a day to remind us, not only of our history and where we come from, but to also direct us to a new African identity. I hope our deliberations here will help us think about our identity as individuals, and also our collective identity as a university and a broader South African community," said Van Rooi, SU's Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation, at the FMHS' 5th annual Africa Day celebration on 25 May.

'Global Health: A time for Action in Africa' was the theme for the day, and Van Rooi said he hoped that the day's discussions would generate a fuller understanding of some of the challenges, and also opportunities, in healthcare.

In his Africa Day address, Prof Jimmy Volmink, FMHS Dean, said that inequity is a leading issue in global health. “The average life expectancy in Africa is nearly 30 years less than in the Americas or Europe… a child born in Angola is 65 times more likely to die in the first years of life than a child born in Norway… and a woman giving birth in sub-Saharan Africa is 100 times more likely to die in labour than a woman in a rich country," Volmink maintained his point with some sobering statistics.

These health inequities are not only seen between rich and poor countries, and dramatic health differences also occur within countries, Volmink continued. Research from the United States and the UK have shown that high-income populations on average live up to 15 years longer than the rest of the population, while the poorest people in these countries have life expectancies similar to people living in the world's least developed countries.

Ranked as the most unequal country in the world by the World Global Inequality Report and the World Bank, South Africa have some of the starkest disparities in health and longevity between the country's rich and poor populations.

While promoting the FMHS' newly-established Department of Global Health, Volmink explained that global health is an evolving discipline that seeks to examine and address health inequities. Its origins can be traced back to the 19th century with predecessors such colonial-, missionary-, and tropical medicine, which introduced Western health practices to foreign communities – regrettably, often in manners that exacerbated health inequities. After World War II, a human rights-based healthcare approach started to develop which today has manifested into global health.

“I don't know if it is possible to successfully launch a rights-based health care system focussing on social justice," said Volmink as he explained how earlier attempts were hampered by other interests, but admitted that there is cause for hope. “We need an economy that can ensure the provision of water, food, health, education, decent work, housing, et cetera. But we must ensure that economic growth does not take us beyond an ecological ceiling where we damage the environment."

In conclusion he said that another boon for global health is the development of accountability structures that would hold countries accountable for promises made and goals set with declarations.

In the second keynote address at the FMHS' Africa Day symposium, Prof Susan van Schalkwyk, director of the Centre for Health Professions Education, unpacked the educational competencies required for global health.

She explained that a global health approach would require students to engage with issues that directly and indirectly affect health. “Global health education emphasises knowledge, skills and attitude needed to identify and influence the social, political and economic determinants of health," said Van Schalkwyk.

Other speakers on the day included Prof Mark Tomlinson from SU's Department of Psychology who spoke about child and adolescent mental health in the Nurturing Care Framework for Early Child Development, and Prof Jackson Orem from Uganda Cancer Institute who explained an inter-sectoral approach for addressing cancer in Africa. There was also a panel discussion on Gender and Global Health chaired by Prof Hester Klopper, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Strategy and Internationalisation, Mr Fanele Ndebele, Prof Stella Anyangwe and Prof Nico Koopman, Vice-Rector: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel.