The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Emeritus Professor Anwar Mall reflects on Dr Stuart Saunders as a medical colleague, a vice-chancellor and a fierce defender of equal opportunities for all students. Dr Saunders passed away on 12 February 2021 after a short illness.
Professor Stuart Saunders was the head of the Department of Medicine when I joined the Department of Surgery at UCT in 1980. The Liver Research Unit of the South African Medical Research Council was an amalgamated unit between the two departments. My research associate position was in this liver unit. And I had the opportunity to get to know Professor Saunders.
Stuart Saunders is credited for being the architect of the liver unit and the liver clinic, which have provided a tremendous service for patients with liver diseases since their inception. He also provided medical support for the fledgling clinical liver transplantation programme and saw it grow into a regular form of treatment. His interests were wide, including other diseases like porphyria.
In 1989 I was appointed the first warden of Liesbeeck Gardens, a block of flats converted into a residence to accommodate the growing number of students of different cultural backgrounds admitted to UCT. Stuart Saunders had been the vice-chancellor for several years by then. Those were tough times for the warden, the students and those residing in the neighborhood, who saw the presence of black people in the suburbs as a violation of the Group Areas Act.
“On a personal level I found him engaging; humble but direct.”
Professor Saunders was extremely appreciative of the problems we faced and was ever willing to lend an ear. This was not a conventional residence (something that annoyed students more when they compared their living conditions with those in Smuts Hall and elsewhere on the campus). Our chats in my desperate moments by telephone and in person were frank, encouraging and, from his side, appreciative of our problems. On a personal level I found him engaging; humble but direct. He invited the kind of honesty he himself displayed. Not everyone was pleased after a meeting with him on residence issues. Comments I remember may not be appreciated in today’s climes, such as “Ask those students to behave themselves at their party tonight.”
We crossed paths fairly often at a variety of functions. He attended my inaugural lecture and made a special effort to congratulate me and wish me well before the lecture. He was warm and encouraging as ever. He was widely read and we had several discussions about books, politics and ideas when we could, the last time being about two years ago at a private dinner.
I remember him being extremely worried about the arrest of Cyril Karabus, a former South African doctor, in 2013 in the United Arab Emirates on a manslaughter charge (2002). We discussed the issue and he expressed concern that we, as the Faculty of Health Sciences, had not put out a statement of support for Professor Karabus. He was visibly disturbed, a clear indication of his sense of justice.
“He handled the stormy times during his tenure with grace, displaying the strength of his leadership.”
I have not said anything of Dr Saunders’ leadership as the vice-chancellor of UCT (1981–1996). Those who worked closely with him will offer views. However, it was under his watch that the doors of UCT opened increasingly for all South Africans. He handled the stormy times during his tenure with grace, displaying the strength of his leadership.
It is quite ironic that our last formal meeting took place in Liesbeeck Gardens in 2016 at the memorial service of a young man who died tragically in that residence. While I represented the Vice-Chancellor’s Office, Professor Saunders was there in loco parentis to the deceased, a young man from a very poor background.
That was the mettle of the man, Stuart Saunders.
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