• Written by  Roy Jobson
  • Published in Khulumani Thinking
  • Read 3401 times

True meaning of “civil obedience”

September 12, 1977 was the 36th anniversary of Steven Bantu Biko’s murder by torture and assault by apartheid security forces.

His untimely and unnecessary death remains a blight on the otherwise highly regarded medical profession in South Africa.

This is an edited extract from a speech by Prof. Roy Jobson at a memorial for Dr. Neil Aggett at Kingswood College on 14 September 2013.

I am here as part of the “Neil Aggett Support Group” to announce the establishment of the Dr Neil Aggett Unit by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) also known as Doctors without Borders. This regional initiative of MSF will assist, enable and empower young doctors and health care workers to take on various activist roles.

Yesterday was the 36th anniversary of Steven Bantu Biko’s murder by torture and assault by apartheid security forces. His untimely and unnecessary death remains a blight on the otherwise highly regarded medical profession in South Africa. The doctors in charge of his “care” while he was being tortured were negligent – they were taking orders from policemen. Caring for someone who is being tortured is surely an oxymoron!

The official structures of the medical profession remained silent – the Medical Association of South Africa, and the South African Medical and Dental Council. It took a brave Professor at UCT and some of her colleagues to force the profession as a whole to critically look at Biko’s murder and demand justice. The late Professor Francis Ames taught me, and would have taught Neil, neurology. She said, at the time of the Biko murder, that unless the issue is publicly dealt with, the medical profession in South Africa is doomed to a loss of ethics and morality.

In her book, Beverley Naidoo reveals the complicity and collusion of another medical doctor with the security police. This was a psychiatrist, who misrepresented Neil’s state of mind and mental reasoning to the inquest.

When the magistrate eventually found “no one to blame,” but suggested that one of Neil’s fellow detainees could be held “morally responsible,” George Bizos, representing the family said that it was an “unbelievable judgment.

This is one of the reasons why the Neil Aggett Support Group is planning the prosecution of Neil’s torturers – who we believe, induced his suicide and in effect, murdered him.

The march of the Eastern Cape Health Crisis Action Coalition on Bisho is to protest the appalling health care conditions in the Eastern Cape generally.

It’s with a sense of shame as an academic, that I have to point out, that none of the four major tertiary education institutions in the Eastern Cape, to the best of my knowledge, have been actively involved in organising this protest. Academics, like the medical and health care professions, tend to be conservative. We tend to more easily speak out (and write) against injustice than stand up or fight against, injustice.

The Eastern Cape health “crisis” goes back much further, however. In 1978, 35 years ago, working at Butterworth Hospital in the former Transkei, a young Dr Dawson, now more generally known as “Dr Jobson,” had to watch babies dying of meningitis because there was no penicillin available.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is an organisation that gets things done. Even when the authorities are prevaricating. Perhaps the most significant of their actions was to set up clinics where antiretroviral therapy could be provided to people who were HIV-infected. They also initiated the use of Prevention of Mother to Child Transmission or PMTCT with nevirapine in their clinics, when the national government was still “testing” it in “pilot” sites. Their experience was later used as evidence in the court case which ordered government to “roll out” PMTCT nationally.

I think it’s important to acknowledge Neil’s trade union involvement. I am sure he would himself have acknowledged that his own education as a doctor was completed by his union work. Perhaps every medical doctor who wants to make a significant difference to South Africa and its citizens should have an experience of being educated within a union?

The most important thing I want to say today is:

As Neil did, and as MSF have done, doctors and health care workers should not only speak out on what is unacceptable, but, “get their hands dirty” in providing humane, meaningful, and rights-based health services. It’s not necessary to wait for government to do their job, before we do ours. Surely the true meaning of “civil obedience” must be when we serve other people.

As doctors, as Kingswoodians, and as citizens, sometimes, perhaps often in the Eastern Cape, we have to get stuck in, and make things right as far as we possibly can. And we have to realise that this may require sacrifices which may even be painful and costly – and includes our own money. This is the example that Neil set us, and we are conscience-bound to follow.

In concluding I want to share from two emails. One is from Neil’s sister, Jill Burger. She says: “I am so touched and impressed by the esteem that Kingswood has shown towards one of their old boys. Perhaps some of Neil's ideas and attitudes will make a lasting impact on the young people who school there today. Please pass on my greetings and grateful thanks on to the College, as well as to Jay Naidoo for supporting us in gaining recognition of what Neil did during his lifetime.”

The other email I want to quote from comes from Nathan Geffen – the former Treasurer of TAC. He said: “What separates MSF from most other medical NGOs is also what separated Neil Aggett from most other doctors. Neither were willing to stay neutral in the face of gross injustice.“

The official launch of MSF’s Dr Neil Agget Unit will take place in Johannesburg on 4th October, two days before Neil’s 60th birthday. We express our deep gratitude to MSF for this recognition of our colleague and exceptional Kingswoodian.

Thank you.

Prof. Roy Jobson – Old Kingswoodian (1973)

  • The keynote address at the meeting was by Jay Naidoo and can be read here.
  • The launch of the Dr Neil Aggett Unit took place on 4 October 2013. Read more about the launch here.

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