A people’s hero before his time

By Mosibudi Mangena Time of article published Feb 27, 2012

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THE story of Dr Abu Asvat is just as tragic as it is heroic and inspirational. It is the story of a man who unreservedly committed himself to the struggle of his people for freedom; who steadfastly defied the oppressor; who devoted all his energies, talents and professional skills to the service of the poor, but who was apparently murdered by either the very poor he worked so hard for or by elements of the liberation struggle gone mad.

Murder by the oppressive regime, while no less painful, would be less surprising since that was its routine business. All praise must go to the Abu Asvat Institute for Nation Building for keeping his memory alive; for doing things in the community that were close to his heart and by organising this lecture which will, hopefully, help us all to concentrate our minds on one of our truly heroic sons.

Asvat had a big “problem” – his tolerance level for injustice was too low. He simply could not countenance inhumanity towards other human beings. That was the mark of the man, and that characteristic coloured his life and work.

He was fired from his post as a doctor at Coronation Hospital shortly after his return back home from Pakistan where he had completed his medical studies. This was the punishment for daring to challenge the racist practices of the authorities at the hospital; for objecting to their contemptuous and disdainful treatment of blacks.

Suddenly, there he was, in 1972, in the street, unemployed.

This sacking was an amazing boon to the poor in the informal settlements of Chicken Farm and Kliptown, as well as the neighbouring townships of Mofolo South, Dlamini, Rockville and Chiawelo. His brother, Dr Ebrahim Asvat, with whom Abu had studied medicine in Pakistan, gave the jobless doctor a surgery at Chicken Farm to run.

Abu’s empathy, solidarity and generosity shone bright in these communities. His modest consulting rooms were almost always full of patients, including those who were too poor to pay for his services. He turned away no one who needed medical care. These communities paid him back not in material things – of which they had little – but with the love they harboured for him in their hearts.

He opened a crèche for the children of these informal settlements and a soup kitchen to feed those who could not afford a meal for themselves. He bonded with these communities, not so much as a doctor but as one of their own, to such and extent that four years later, in 1976, when the June 16 uprisings broke out, his credentials as the people’s doctor were all set. Those shot and injured by the bullets of the regime flocked to his surgery, secure in the knowledge that they would be treated with empathy, sympathy, support and safety.

Ironically, it was his revolutionary activism, accessibility and solidarity with the poor that might have made it easier for his enemies to plot against him. Prior to his murder on January 27, 1989, a few attempts were made on his life and limb.

According to Elinor Sisulu’s book Walter & Albertina Sisulu, In Our Lifetime, and an essay by Jon Soske entitled The Life and Death of Dr Abu Baker ‘Hurley’ Asvat, 23 February 1943 to 27 January 1989, the most probable reason for his murder was his medical examination of the teenage activist Stompie Seipei; his finding that the boy was not sexually abused at the Methodist Church, as alleged; and his insistence that the boy be taken to hospital for the treatment of injuries inflicted by his torturers. This was of course at that time in our history when some crazy and bizarre things were being done in the name of our struggle for freedom.

Azapo never believed that Zakhele Mbatha and Thulani Dlamini, who are doing time in prison for Abu’s murder, carried out this sordid act for money. It just did not add up. We were convinced, from the beginning, that he was assassinated, if not by the regime, then by the madness that characterised our politics at the time. But as often happened in our country then, some crimes are never solved or they leave us with unanswered questions.

The people of Soweto were not the only ones to be touched by the work and energy of Abu Asvat. His collaboration with Dr Yusuf Veriava to compile the Community Health Awareness Project (Chap) manual for Azapo was one of the most brilliant non-state medical interventions ever made in our country, the likes of which are still to be equalled.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele ran the Zanemphelo clinic at Zinyoka village in the Eastern Cape and another at Lenyenye Township in Tzaneen, where she was restricted to under a banning order, but the concept and modus operandi were different. As the secretary of health in Azapo, Abu used Chap as an instrument to deliver preventative health services to communities in diverse areas of our country, especially poor rural settlements.

Chap reached communities in rural Limpopo and Free State, doing simple diagnoses of ailments such as hypertension, diabetes, malnutrition in children, advising people on what to do to improve their health and referring others to clinics and hospitals for follow-up treatment.

Abu bought a caravan, stocked it with medicines, and with the help of volunteers such as Jenny Tissong, Ruwaida Hallim, Thandi Myeza and others, visited communities all over the place preaching good health and advising people how to look after themselves. By all accounts, they were a formidable lot that worked incredible hours. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals in other parts of the country were so inspired by his work that they started their own initiatives under the Chap banner.

To Abu, health was the very essence of humanity, freedom and social wellbeing. It was not an additional thing you can choose to have or do without. Without health, you have nothing. That is why every liberation speech is linked to freedom from hunger, ignorance and disease.

That is why it is so distressing and acutely painful that today, after the attainment of political freedom and the control of public health facilities by a democratically elected government, and the allocation of huge amounts of money to the health budget, our people, especially the poor, are subjected, by us, to what one can rightly describe as a murderous health system.

We read, see and hear, almost on a daily basis, about the needless deaths of our people in our hospitals; babies dying in their mothers’ wombs or in delivery wards; babies being needlessly brain-damaged during birth; the lack of linen, gloves and food in our facilities; filthy hospitals; broken equipment that is not being serviced; the non-payment of medical suppliers, leading to chronic shortages of medicines and other essentials; the non-payment of bills at the National Health Laboratory Service, resulting in their inability to process specimens to enable doctors to make accurate diagnoses or the closure of these laboratories; the flight of health professionals from public health due to sheer stress and exhaustion; and the long patient queues at our hospitals for very little satisfaction.

The reasons for this sorry state of affairs are plain and obvious for all to see: we have become a society overtaken by rampant greed that is strongly assisted by the deliberate employment of ill-qualified people to run our health facilities, aided and abetted by civil servants of the same poor calibre in the relevant government departments.

We should weep every time the auditor-general tells us that financial management and controls in certain departments are a mere rumour – and he does tell us this sorry tale very often indeed.

The most important consideration for appointments in many cases is not qualifications and competence, but how well connected the candidate is in terms of political affiliation, family and business circles. This then facilitates the looting of public resources through the awarding of tenders to those who are equally connected – but usually not capable of delivering on their mandate – and the spoils are shared in the dark. The result is the near collapse of the public health system.

Until we insist on the appointment of suitably qualified and competent people to manage our health affairs and hold those we appoint accountable, our hospitals will continue to be death traps for our people, especially our poor and working class compatriots. There are no consequences for dereliction of duty, negligence and incompetence in our public service. But to do that, we have to stop discriminating against fellow citizens on any grounds whatsoever in our employment practices. How do you hold an employee accountable for incompetence when competence was not a consideration for appointment in the first place?

Abu Asvat and Albertina Sisulu were from two different worlds. Sisulu was a woman, older, a pensioner, Christian and a member of the UDF, while Abu was male, younger, a Muslim and a member of Azapo. At the time, members of the two organisations were engaged in a ferocious internecine struggle that had seen many a house burnt down and many a comrade killed and buried.

The two were brought together by their common South African patriotism, medical professionalism and their passion for service to the poor and vulnerable in our society. They resisted objections, especially from their respective and warring political organisations, to end their partnership. And they were, indeed, by all accounts, a great team that was well loved by those they served.

It seems Asvat and Sisulu were well ahead of their time. It would appear that even today, almost 18 years after the attainment of democracy, we have still not evolved to the stage where they were. It seems we still rank political affiliation above service to the citizens. This might explain, at least in part, why the sterling contribution Abu made to the struggle and the wellbeing of our people does not occupy the pride of place in his country.

Sisulu and Abu understood that any religion, ideology or creed that prevents people from acting in just, humane and kind ways towards one another and fellow humans needs to be re-examined. Abu took the tenets of Black Consciousness to heart and understood its teachings as an emphatic affirmation of the inherent humanity, dignity, equality and worth of all people, regardless of their material endowments.

The treatment that we subject our people to in our hospitals and clinics is not just a mechanical, ethical and perhaps legal thing; it also speaks about our humanity. When we steal from the sick, either by stealing the money meant to make women give birth in safety, or resources allocated for the cleaning of hospitals, or give friends and our connections tenders they cannot execute properly, we are exhibiting our colours – we are demonstrating our lost moral compass.

Abu Asvat did not have a lot of money, but he had a heart, compassion and the will to serve. Those in charge of Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital have money counted in billions of rand. If only they could just have a heart.

Asvat did not only run up and down fighting the West Rand Administration Board for their forced removal of poor people and the destruction of their dwellings; he did not only wake up priests in the middle of the night to request that they accommodate the homeless in their churches; he did not only lead meetings of the People’s Education Committee; he did not only attend to patients at his surgery; he did not only drive to far-away places with his caravan to attend to the health needs of the poor; no, Abu also loved cricket.

He did not only play the sport, he led a cricket club, got involved in its administration and in cricket politics at provincial and national levels. He was elected honorary president of the Transvaal Cricket Board, which was affiliated to the South African Council of Sport – a body that maintained that normal sport was impossible in a racist society. Sacos protected the dignity of black sportspeople at the same time as it conscientised them about the unjustness of the socio-economic conditions of their people.

Through sport, Abu sought to build well rounded, worthy, socially and politically conscious young people. He was indeed building the nation, even under those difficult circumstances. And one question that immediately comes to mind is: where did he get the time? Did his wife and children ever see him?

The Abu Asvat Institute for Nation Building is continuing his legacy by, inter alia, organising a cricket tournament every year where our young have an opportunity to showcase their skills, interact with one another and, hopefully, be nurtured into better adulthood.

Considering that the ills of our society in education, health, housing, poverty and so on have not been healed by the advent of democracy – they might even be worse in certain instances – how would it be if more of us could consider picking up the cudgels and getting involved in communities to attend to the deficits we see in the health care, education and other aspects of the lives of our people?

If that were to happen, wherever he is, Dr Abu Asvat would smile with pride.

n This is an edited version of an inaugural Abu Asvat Memorial Lecture by Mosibudi Mangena delivered yesterday in Joburg

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