I was born in 1953 in the (then) Coloured suburb of Lansdowne, Cape Town, South Africa, the youngest of a family of seven. My family came to South Africa down the east coast of Africa by ship from Bombay during World War II (1941). My two eldest brothers, who I have met only four times, are still living in a village near Mumbai. My father was a college graduate, teacher of Indian languages and Islamic religion, and shop keeper. He instilled in us the value of a good education, while my mother swore by hard work and a keen sense of humour.
Though it cannot be equated with the scale of discrimination experienced by the majority of my country men and women, my family of South Africans of Indian descent had to obtain permission to live in a Coloured area, as Indians were supposed to reside in their own demarcated Group Areas. I was fortunate to attend a Coloured secondary school seen as being politically progressive. Through its teachers many of whom were detained by the police and its students, the basis for my political and social education was established. Note that at the time there were education departments for each of the Population Groups in South Africa (White, Indian, Coloured, Bantu). Since my family was rather conservative in its political and general outlook, I actively engaged them on the critical issues affecting our country.
I had to apply for a permit to study medicine at the University of Cape Town. Indians were supposed to study at a university in another province I had never even left my home town at that stage! There were only 17 students in my final year class who were not white; none were black African. The social and political upheavals that we experienced as disenfranchised students, helped shape my intense desire to confront injustice and denial of human rights wherever they might be. In a small way, my actions during my undergraduate career, helped change systems that were blatantly discriminatory, e.g. separate tea rooms for black and white students; pandering to whims of white state patients not wanting to be examined by black students. The Soweto riots during 1976 had repercussions all over the country and Cape Town was not spared. We were confronted with treating young and old, male and female, with gunshot and other wounds. After completing my internship, I was fortunate to spend almost two years at a Day Hospital (ambulatory care), seeing mainly impoverished children. I found this very rewarding, as I got to know the community, and they me, which allowed me to practise more than just medicine.
On the personal front, I was fortunate to experience a normal loving, cross-cultural, cross-racial, cross-religious relationship in the midst of an abnormal society, as South Africa was during apartheid. Unfortunately, both my wife and daughter died of cancer. Having been involved in their care as health care practitioner, as father, as husband, and as a member of civil society, I am deeply aware that the term public encompasses individuals. I see this as one of the challenges of practising public health and public health nutrition: how does one ensure that the person/patient/individual context is not forgotten. My philosophy is one of context and perspective at all times. Phil James column on Cairo in the March 2013 issue of World Nutrition illustrates the role of context neatly.
I obtained specialist degrees in Paediatrics from the Colleges of Medicine in South Africa and from the University of Stellenbosch, after which I was offered a post-specialisation scholarship with the SA Medical Research Councils (MRC) Research Institute for Nutritional Diseases to work on the biochemical changes occurring in kwashiorkor. I was then offered a permanent position at the MRC and have been there since 1986, as Specialist Scientist (medical), then as Chief Specialist Scientist. I became Director of the Nutritional Intervention Research Unit (NIRU) in 2005 and am in this position currently. I consider myself as a hands-on person and have been involved in field projects in communities in most of our provinces, rural and urban. Areas of interest are low birth weight, maternal nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and human rights and ethics.
I served as the MRCs Vice-President: Research from 2007 to 2012 and as Acting President from 2010 to March 2012. I gained experience in managing diverse research units besides nutrition, and interacted on a national and international level with multiple stakeholders.
Engagement practices with communities in which research is conducted are a special interest area. A major challenge for South Africa is addressing the huge disparity in health status, health care, and income inequality, as well as the presence of over- and undernutrition.