Wits honours former UCT vice-chancellor

19 December 2014 | Story Abigail Calata. Photo Supplied.
Dr Stuart Saunders, former UCT vice-chancellor, at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he received his sixth honorary doctorate.
Dr Stuart Saunders, former UCT vice-chancellor, at the University of the Witwatersrand, where he received his sixth honorary doctorate.

Dr Stuart Saunders, former vice-chancellor of UCT, urged health science graduands from Wits to never forget that sick people look to them for more than just the healing of their disease.

"Patients are human beings. They are anxious, frightened and vulnerable and you must make emotional and physical contact with them," Saunders said upon receiving an honorary doctorate from the university on 11 December 2014.

Wits is the sixth institutions to honour Saunders in this way. He has honorary degrees from the universities of Aberdeen, Sheffield, Rhodes, Cape Town, Princeton and Toronto.

He revealed he was "not sorry" that young people whose main goal was to make money were seeking qualifications from faculties other than health science. "The care of the sick and the advancement of human health should be at the centre of what you do, and not how much money you can make out of it," he stated, adding that, "the idealism which lies at the heart of the healing professions is crucial and represents a long tradition."

Referring to the recent outbreak of Ebola, he highlighted the fact that although the nature of the virus has been known for forty years, few attempts have been made to find a cure for it. "The reason for this is clear. It is a disease that has affected poor Africans in poorly developed countries and not in North America or Europe. Only now that there have been a handful of patients in the USA and Europe, with the disease threatening the rich countries, is there an attempt to correct this deficiency."

Saunders argued that "governments in the developed world are going to have to fund the development of drugs and vaccines for major diseases affecting the developing world because it will be in their own interest to do so. Drug companies will not do it because they are driven by their bottom lines."

He pointed out that "being human and having humane values remain central to the practice of all health professionals" and that in the course of their careers, graduands will face ethical dilemmas.

"There can be no short cuts here. You cannot spot the answer when faced with real issues. You have to know your values, know again where and when you will draw the line, and refuse to compromise. This knowledge, this sureness of yourself and your values will be your strength."

Allies through tumultuous times

Saunders also recalled the historic links between the UCT and Wits, pointing out that both institutions "vigorously opposed the imposition of apartheid on higher education. Together they became and remain two of the most renowned universities in South Africa and indeed Africa".

"I have warm feelings about Wits because of its historical record and the considerable support its then vice-chancellor Sonny du Plessis gave to me when I started out on the perilous task of being UCT vice-chancellor. Wits and UCT consulted each other on the issues of the day and there were many challenges during the tumultuous eighties."

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