The poet Robert Frost memorably describes the two roads everyone encounters during the journey of life in “The Road Not Taken”. Stellenbosch University (SU) Emeritus Professor Usuf Chikte, who recently retired, is unlikely to feel any regret about which road he chose.
The former Head of the Department of Global Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences has been a dental practitioner and an academic during a long and very illustrious career, and served on various professional and educational bodies for many years as well.
Towards equal opportunities
All these seemingly diverse roles were motivated by one overriding desire: to work towards a more egalitarian society. “For me, that has always been the vision,” says Chikte, “and we must be uncompromising about it.”
This challenge is especially urgent in South Africa: It is one of the most unequal societies in the world in terms of income level, with a Gini coefficient of close to .67 and wealth inequality even higher at around 0.94.
“Who gets the diseases that are preventable?” asks Chikte rhetorically. “It’s the poor.” He cites tuberculosis, diarrhoea and other infectious diseases as examples.
South Africa also fares badly in child and maternal health. To illustrate this, Chikte refers to the different experiences of a woman with breast cancer in rural Dimbaza, outside King William’s Town, and a woman with breast cancer in the affluent Cape Town suburb of Constantia.
“If the person in Dimbaza is diagnosed, it will be very late,” says Chikte. “And if she is diagnosed, access to hospital will be cumbersome; the treatment, the human resources, the professional care, her suffering, her quality of life, will be very different than in an urban centre and in a middle class setting.” He adds: “You can translate this to almost every other disease.”
At SU, which he joined in 1996 as head of the Department of Community Dentistry, he has consistently tried to address such inequalities in healthcare. He became Associate Dean of the Faculty in 2000 and Executive Head of the Department of Interdisciplinary Health Sciences in 2006.
The pioneering Department of Global Health, that was recently launched, brings together various divisions and centres. “We try to understand the global interconnectedness of diseases, recruit the best minds to teach it, and encourage young people to grab the baton and run with it into the future.”
He is immensely proud of its work. “We yield to nobody in offering a programme that is world-class and from which the world can learn.”
Chikte believes the Faculty has also played an important role more generally at Stellenbosch University, and points out that it has been at the forefront of bringing about demographic changes on campus.
However, he emphasises, much still needs to be done. “The University’s history still haunts it. Although there may be more people who have gained access, this is not enough to speak of equality of opportunity.” Access is still largely confined to the urban population (and in particular Cape Town), he contends, and to those who can afford it.
There are still restrictions on attracting new staff as well. “There’s a long road to be travelled to remove the impediments to equal access to teach at SU. And that has a dynamic of its own in terms of who gets trained, what they get trained for, and who wants to apply. There’s a whole institutional culture that needs to be addressed.”
Chikte has played a key role in helping to advance this process of transformation, both as an academic, a Senator and a member of the University Council. “It’s been an exciting, meaningful engagement,” he states.
But he is acutely aware of the many challenges that remain. “The moment you think you have addressed something, the world changes and you need to rethink and reorganise how you are going to sustain the values of equality and egalitarianism.”
Yet he remains undeterred, and highlights the key role of teaching in this process. “While you engage in other issues, you need to be a good teacher or the best teacher you can be otherwise you won’t have credibility.
“Therefore, the programmes that you put in place, the graduate attributes that you instil, the recruitment that you do at the level of students, the research agenda that you persecute, the publication and dissemination of the results, the policy issues that you chip away at or introduce, how you translate that into the practice and praxis of a department, a faculty, the university and a larger educational system, those are the problems of everyday life that a teacher or a lecturer or a professor faces at university.”
Educating a new generation
Chikte stresses that a good, quality education is priceless. “There should be no compromise on the quality of education that one provides.”
He bases this conviction on his own experience, in particular at Harold Cressy High School in Cape Town: “Some teachers had a great influence on me – both as educators and in terms of the values they imparted. And that is so important. You can get the technical part of teaching right. But, through that process, you impart values: of human dignity, social justice, egalitarianism, equality.
“And it is not only the teaching of it, or the understanding of it; the point is, you must change it. And that is often difficult.”
Chikte pays tribute to the inspirational role in his life of Helen Kies, Maureen and Lionel Adriaan, Victor Wessels, Richard Dudley and Abe Fortuin, all once members of the legendary Teachers’ League of South Africa: “Their voices still echo across the length and breadth of South Africa on equality, non-racialism, the fight against injustice, freedom from the incarceration of the mind. I would like to add to that echo.”
Chikte’s position as emeritus professor after his retirement will enable him to continue doing so. “I have a very keen interest in and at Stellenbosch. There are still great opportunities around public health, and around cultivating a new generation of students. That will certainly be continued.”
He adds firmly: “My own teachers walked to their graves teaching.”
‘The voices of the legendary Teachers’ League of South Africa still echo across the length and breadth of South Africa on equality, non-racialism, the fight against injustice, freedom from the incarceration of the mind. I would like to add to that echo.’ - Prof Usuf Chikte
Photo credit: Damien Schumann