MAKGOBA TO FIGHT FOR YOUR HEALTH
With the right people in place, sluggish institutions can change for the better – promoting the quality of health services
At the age of 11, watching his father, Morithi Makgoba, enter into a diabetic coma in the Limpopo district of Sekhukhune shook young Malegapuru Makgoba to the core. It was also perhaps the reason he became a doctor. “Seeing the most powerful person, the head of my family, unconscious and so helpless, well, perhaps that reinforced my idea to pursue medicine – an urge to understand what had troubled my father,” Makgoba tells City Press. “Well, he is 94 now.” Today, Makgoba (64), professor emeritus and retired vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, looks back at a stellar academic career that shaped South African health policy, notably through his critique of Aids denialism and his appeal as Medical Research Council president in 2000 to distribute antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive patients.
Among his list of qualifications is a doctorate of philosophy in human immunogenetics from Oxford University.
This week, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced that Makgoba would be South Africa’s first health ombudsman, who will process patient complaints against health practitioners, hospitals and clinics across both the private and the public sectors.
“I will receive complaints via email and social media. We’re also putting up a website. As ombudsman, I will be able to mediate, but won’t be able to take disciplinary action. Some of the complaints will then be referred to the Health Professions Council of SA (HPCSA),” he says.
Makgoba’s new ombudsman’s office will be based in Pretoria with a staff of up to 50 officials.
“I was appointed a week ago. It’s all very new still. We’re advertising three positions in newspapers [today],” he says.
Operational from June 1, the new office will establish a website, email address and landline number through which it can receive complaints from patients wronged by both public and private healthcare institutions.
Makgoba believes with the right people in place, sluggish institutions can change for the better.
“As ombudsman, the premise will be to promote the quality of health services. We’ll look at the system as a whole, I mean institutions, how are they managed? I believe in the power of individuals, putting the right people in place.”
As a student at Natal University’s Medical School for non-Europeans, Makgoba witnessed the birth of the black consciousness movement and was greatly influenced by the leadership of Steve Biko.
His early thinking was informed by Biko’s message: “Learn to think for yourself” – underpinned by intellectual reasoning.
“I often said that political activists like Steve, and Mamphela Ramphele’s most important contributions were that they were able to put their intellect and ideas into writing,” he says.
Makgoba’s views on transformation have earned him accolades, while sparking equal amounts of outrage.
Over the years, controversy has followed him around campuses and committees, where fellow academics have described him as “unapologetically radical”.
In 1995, clashes ensued shortly after his appointment as deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand when 13 senior academics – all but one of whom were white – lodged a 297-page dossier of complaints against him. Makgoba in turn announced his intention to replace the university’s “dominant Eurocentrism” and calling the university leadership a “small inbred elite”.
This week he told City Press that reactions at the time had been defensive and racialised.
“My own sense is that in 1995 when I wrote about this whole decolonisation and Africanisation thing, people saw me as a threat and not someone wishing to contribute to positive change,” he said. “I wish people hadn’t seen it as threatening. Instead of being embracing, they grew defensive.” Although we speak on the phone, his grin was audible. “Now, we’re almost being forced at gun point to change. We can all see that change is inevitable in South Africa”. Makgoba became the University of Natal’s first black vice-chancellor in 2002, and held on to the position when it merged with the University of Durban-Westville. He retired last year, moving from Durban back to Sekhukhune, where he built himself a new house complete with a study known as his “Makgoba Museum” – a small room dedicated to his career – where certificates, memorabilia and awards are displayed.
“I’m back on my parents’ smallholding where I grew up. I always said the day I retire I will go back home.”
When he starts his new job next month, Makgoba will stay in Pretoria during the week and at home in Sekhukhune over weekends. In his home village, his mother, Makgoadi (84), is also alive and well.
“If I don’t return to develop my own village, who will do it for me? It’s a part of my identity,” he said.
BREAKING THE MOULD Professor Malegapuru Makgoba