Mandela’s vision inspires us

The passing of President Nelson Mandela has caused many to pause and reflect on the ways he influenced us and others in the United States to work with our friends in South Africa to contribute to a brighter future for that beautiful country.

In 1985, I was invited to join with Herb and Joy Kaiser in Washington, D.C. to form a non-profit organization with members from the United States and South Africa to provide scholarships for black students in that country who were studying to become physicians, nurses, dentists and other health professionals. Herb had retired from a career in the U.S. State Department as a Foreign Service officer and had been posted in South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s.

There, he and Joy learned about the lack of health care for black South Africans and a severe shortage of black doctors and other health personnel. This was because of a lack of educational opportunities under that nation’s brutal apartheid system.

In the 1980s, because of ongoing domestic protests and mounting international pressures, South African blacks were admitted in small numbers to higher educational institutions, but they received little scholarship support. The annual cost of attending medical school in South Africa in the early 1980s averaged approximately $5,000; the annual income for South African black families was less than $500.

The organization we formed, Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB), was made up of Americans and South Africans. We solicited donations in the United States and South Africa and forwarded the proceeds to our MESAB colleagues in South Africa for scholarship distribution.

In March 2000, at MESAB’s annual scholarship dinner in New York, the honoree was Nelson Mandela. Because of his role at that time in helping to negotiate a peace treaty to end the conflict between Rwanda and Burundi, Mandela could not attend. He was represented by South Africa’s first lady, Zanele Mbeki. In Mandela’s statement, delivered by Mrs. Mbeki, he thanked MESAB for its efforts, which he said had already resulted in “the transformation of the health care system with several thousand trained black health care workers.”

By the conclusion of MESAB’s activities in 2007, more than 10,000 physicians, nurses and other health professionals had received scholarship support for training and were providing health services in that nation.

Because of the critical importance of health for individuals and populations, the United States should continue and expand public and private efforts to strengthen health systems and increase the number of trained health professionals in developing countries.

As we honor the life of Mandela, we will remember the significant impact his life and vision have had on South Africa and the world. He will be missed. His vision inspires us to continue our efforts.

Louis W. Sullivan, former secretary of Health and Human Services and former president of the Morehouse College School of Medicine, is chairman of The Sullivan Alliance.