25 years of transformative impact: UP’s School of Health Systems and Public Health marks milestone anniversary

Posted on December 06, 2023

The School of Health Systems and Public Health (SHSPH) in the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of Pretoria commemorated its remarkable 25th anniversary through a series of events, culminating in a grand gala at the Javett Art Centre on 1 December 2023. The celebration brought together alumni, UP executives, hospital CEOs, heads of departments, directors, faculty staff and school chairs to honour SHSPH's history and achievements.

At the heart of the commemoration was a retrospective video featuring Professor Kuku Voyi, former chairperson of SHSPH, reflecting on the school's inception during the transition from an apartheid-era health system. Prof Voyi emphasised the evolution of SHSPH into a population-focused entity that is globally-competitive yet locally relevant.

The visionary leader behind SHSPH, Professor Carel IJsselmuiden, was honoured with the prestigious Chancellor’s Award from the University of Pretoria during the May graduation. Prof IJsselmuiden’s unwavering vision sought national and continental relevance, international excellence and the establishment of SHSPH as a powerhouse. The school, now boasting 27 dedicated staff offering 90 modules to over 250 contact and about 1200 fully online postgraduate students, stands testament to his foresight.

Prof Carel IJsselmuiden shares impactful words in a commemorative video at the 25th anniversary gala.

In a video interview during the gala, Prof IJsselmuiden highlighted the school’s founding principles of health, equity and development. He also underscored another critical role for a School of Health Systems and Public Health was – the necessity to transition away from semester training with courses spanning over three months. “Three-month semesters posed challenges in securing on-site professionals for extended courses, hindering collaboration with foreign expertise and institutions. Thus, the adoption of a learning system comprising short courses, ranging from one to three weeks, opened avenues for opportunities previously unattainable,” he said. Another key aspect he highlighted was the internalisation of leadership skills in public health degrees.

The current chair of SHSPH, Prof Olalekan Ayo-Yusuf, echoed the sentiments of transcending boundaries, embracing diversity and pursuing excellence.

Prof Ayo-Yusuf reflected, "Twenty-five years ago, this school was founded with a vision – a vision that transcended boundaries, embraced diversity, and aimed for excellence in public health education, research and service in Africa and South Africa." He expressed pride in the milestones achieved, the challenges overcome and the impact on public health. He emphasised that the legacy is not just in buildings and statistics but in the lives touched and the ripple effect of positive change.

"The journey of the School of Health Systems and Public Health mirrors the resilience of the South African people. Through challenges and triumphs, the school has stood as a beacon of knowledge, compassion and progress in the realm of public health,” he added. As he reflected on the past 25 years, he acknowledged the dedicated academic staff, passionate students, and tireless staff members who have been the heart and soul of SHSPH.

Prof Ayo-Yusuf underscored SHSPH's commitment to addressing unique health challenges, championing equity and justice in healthcare. He highlighted ground-breaking research influencing policies and practices, initiatives strengthening the public health workforce, and the impactful role of SHSPH's graduates.

"As leaders in health, we must not only reflect on the past 25 years but also envision the next quarter-century," he said. Prof Ayo-Yusuf emphasised the evolving and complex challenges in public health, urging SHSPH to adapt, innovate and continue as a beacon of knowledge, compassion and progress.

Prof Olalekan Ayo-Yusuf, current Chair of SHSPH, shares inspiring words during the 25th anniversary gala. 

Expressing gratitude, the chair acknowledged the contributions of academic staff, students, alumni and partners. He concluded, "As we embark on the next chapter of our journey, I am confident that the School of Health Systems and Public Health will remain a bastion of excellence, a hub of innovation and a catalyst for positive change."

Dean's perspective on the journey

Professor Tiaan de Jager, the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, reflected on the significance of the anniversary. "With celebration, comes reflection, an opportunity to look back in time, but most important, an opportunity to plan for the future. But what excites me most is what lies ahead for the SHSPH," he shared.

Highlighting the school's student-centred approach, Prof De Jager emphasised its use of educational research to inform teaching and learning. He applauded the growth and success of programmes, capacity-building, and addressing critical needs in the country.

"The SHSPH is committed to graduating a new generation of public health professionals, providing context-driven education and training guided by societal needs and the Sustainable Development Goals," Prof De Jager affirmed. He expressed excitement about the school's commitment to inspiring global public health excellence through research activities.

Reflecting on his personal journey since joining SHSPH in 2003, Prof De Jager acknowledged the transformative chapter in his career. “The School of Health Systems and Public Health provided me with an invaluable opportunity to learn from the trailblazers in public health. Under their guidance, I witnessed true leadership and embraced the challenge of strengthening research capacity in a young school.”

He noted the impact of the school on the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG3 – Health and Well-being, where the University held the second position in the 2023 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings in Africa.

Prof Tiaan de Jager reflects on the signifcant journey of SHSPH at the 25th anniversary gala.

Prof De Jager encouraged optimism and determination, stating, "The School of Health Systems and Public Health is not just an academic institution; it is a catalyst for positive change, a beacon of excellence, and a source of inspiration for generations to come."

Perspectives from the Gauteng Department of Health

Dr Lehlohonolo Majake, acting chief executive officer of the Steve Biko Academic Hospital, attended the gala as a guest speaker on behalf of Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, the MEC for Health and Wellness.

Dr Majake commended SHSPH for its pivotal role in shaping health policies and practices. She acknowledged the institution's impact over the years and looked forward to future advancements. Dr Majake highlighted the invaluable partnership between the University of Pretoria and the Gauteng Department of Health, emphasising its instrumental role in healthcare delivery and public health initiatives.

In reflecting on the past 25 years, Dr Majake celebrated the collaboration's achievements and the legacy of SHSPH. She emphasised the profound impact on individuals' lives and the far-reaching influence on health policies.

Dr Lehlohonolo Majake receives a thoughtful speaker's gift at the SHSPH 25th anniversary gala.

"As we stand on the shoulders of this legacy, we are charged with the responsibility to continue this journey of excellence," said Dr Majake.

She highlighted the collaborative efforts that have given rise to remarkable initiatives, notably the Albertina Sisulu Executive Leadership Programme in Healthcare, now in its tenth year. “This programme has played a crucial role in developing the capabilities of hospital executives and clinical managers, ensuring skilled leadership in health systems”, she affirmed.

Addressing another noteworthy accomplishment, she highlighted the Tshwane Insulin Project (TIP), making a substantial impact across 37 clinics by providing training in diabetic care to healthcare professionals. The collaboration goes beyond the confines of academia, with Prof Ayo-Yusuf at the helm of the Provincial Health Research Committee, contributing academic expertise to steer research efforts.

“The legacy of SHSPH transcends its years, touching lives, preventing health crises, and uplifting communities. The research produced within its walls informs policies and addresses emerging health challenges,” she concluded.

- Author Sindisiwe Kubeka

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