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Professor Lungile Pepeta passed away on August 7. He was just 46 years of age.

I can still hear him saying: “I almost don’t believe that we have come this far,” while he was standing in one of the lecture halls of our university’s new medical school. He had worked incessantly to get the school off the ground and the accreditation approved. 

At the beginning of 2021, when we are due to enrol the first cohort of students for the MBChB degree, we will be looking for Prof Pepeta or Lungile, as we preferred to call him, to spot his youthful smile and shining presence acknowledging, “We have done it!”

Lungile was a paediatric cardiologist, professor and executive dean of our faculty of health sciences with approximately 4 000 students under his wing. His death is a loss for the whole higher education sector and the country. Nelson Mandela University is devastated that he has gone. That we will never see him again is hard to bear. 

Our hearts are with his wife, Dr Vuyo Pepeta, his daughter Kungawo and son Lungaka. He loved his family and community, and we loved him.

Lungile’s contribution has been huge. He changed lives through his academic expertise and his care for people’s well-being and personal situations. He believed in opening the doors of learning as wide as possible. He believed that every student given the right support could succeed. 

Paying homage to Lungile, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said: “South Africa has lost one of her best sons — confident, knowledgeable, articulate, inspiring and one of the top thinkers, a brilliant mind, an outstanding academic and a pioneering researcher. He was a visionary who held high hopes for our country and an innovator who always harboured dreams of a better South Africa.”

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande called his death “a great loss to Nelson Mandela University, the medical and health fraternity, and South Africa in general.” 

Lungile personified everything that is good and resilient about our country. Born, raised and schooled in Mbizana in the rural Eastern Cape where he was laid to rest a week ago, he pursued his dreams and showed what can be achieved. He rose to the highest level of his profession and excelled. At the same time, he never forgot his roots; he loved the rural Eastern Cape and all the communities he served.

Dr Basil Brown, former head of the department of cardiology at Port Elizabeth Provincial Hospital, in his tribute to Lungile, wrote: “His death comes as a devastating blow and huge loss to cardiology and medical training in this country.”

Brown, who worked closely with Lungile from 2009 when he was head of paediatrics at Dora Nginza Hospital until his appointment at NMU in 2017, said the effect he had on the delivery of paediatric cardiology services can be gauged from the following:

  • Since 2009, the number of cardiac catheterisations done increased from 10 to 20 a year to more than 150 a year;
  • The number of open-heart operations on children doubled from about 30 to about 60 a year;
  • The Health Professions Council of South Africa accredited his department for the training of paediatric cardiologists and at least four paediatric cardiologists qualified under his tutelage;
  • He supervised the training of at least 20 specialist paediatricians; and
  • He pioneered the use of devices for repairing cardiac defects, establishing himself as one of the best interventional paediatric cardiologists in the country. 

Newspaper pages have run heartfelt tributes by parents of Lungile’s young patients with cardiac conditions. The common thread is the emphasis on his humanity, professionalism and caring bedside manner.

In all the interventions that Lungile led, including programmes to address the Covid-19 pandemic, he always emphasised the needs of those living in townships, informal settlements and rural areas, and how these should be addressed. 

Lungile was outspoken about how the pandemic had exposed weaknesses in the health system in the Eastern Cape and nationally. In several articles in the national media, written in collaboration with Professor Fikile Nomvete, a gastroenterologist and medical programme director at NMU, he repeatedly stated: 

“The clinicians and all the health services teams in our hospitals are in direct contact with Covid-19 patients; they are at the frontline of the fight against the pandemic, yet their voices are not being sufficiently heard.” 

In collaboration with Dr Litha Matiwane, deputy director-general of the Eastern Cape department of health (ECDoH), whom Mkhize deployed to the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro in April this year, Lungile led our whole faculty of health sciences in working with clinicians and health workers to support them and respond to the needs of the public health service.

Lungile emphasised that critical vacancies for nurses, radiographers, clinical physicians and clinical epidemiologists in our public hospitals needed to be filled. He urged that appointees be seconded from the private sector for this period.

He was in constant contact with government officials, urging that the Covid-19 guidelines be changed to enable effective containment of the pandemic, given the limited yield of the strategy of testing as many people as possible, the shortages of coronavirus test kits, the processing backlogs and deficit of systems in place to reach people in remote areas. 

From the outset he appealed to all citizens to wear masks, thoroughly wash their hands with “good old Sunlight soap”, and use the sanitisers distributed to them. He was keenly aware that the majority of South Africans do not live in circumstances where the purchasing of sanitisers and social distancing is possible. But masks (even if fashioned from a T-shirt) and hand-washing were non-negotiables for him.

He was a pioneer and innovator, opting for new approaches that he knew would better serve all South Africans. 

Lungile led from the front. He was the opposite of leaders and generals who strategise from the safety of their war rooms about how others should fight the battles. Lungile was out there in the trenches, on the frontline. He practised what he preached at all times but his exposure, as is the case with all our health services professionals, was just too great.

His is a legacy that will live on through our staff, students, the communities he served and our new medical school.

According to his vision, the school “will produce well-rounded general physicians, trained to practise in diverse communities — from our cities to our deep rural areas”.

His spirit will remain with us. We will make sure that his bright light never dims.

This article appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 26 August 2020 written by Mandela University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa.

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