James Claassen – an icon of health transformation | by Professor Gregory Hussey

by May 23, 2012All Articles

James did his medical training at the University of Cape Town in eighties, a period that saw an exciting new development in South African politics manifested by the emergence of an organised and highly motivated progressive health and social services movement across the country.  Health workers, both professional and non-professional, were forming a united front to oppose the reactionary forces within the established medical, dental and nursing organisations, which continued to support the apartheid government.
James was an active member of one such organisation, the Health Workers Society (HWS), based in the Western Cape and founded in 1980.  The broad aims of the organisation included  the promotion of health , the provision of support to communities in their struggle for better health and to support better working and living conditions for health workers. HWS also provided a forum for debate on issues relating to health, politics and society.
The HWS was involved in a range of progressive activities and actively collaborated with like-minded organisations nationally. A major focus of the organisation was the unionization of health workers. James assisted with the setting up of a health workers advice office in Cape Town to support health workers to deal with their day-to-day problems and to provide information about conditions of employment and workers’ rights. The Health Workers Union grew out of the advice office and was formally launched on the 10th December 1985. This was a historic occasion in that it was the first union in SA that catered specifically for the needs of all health workers.
Another major activity of HWS was the establishment of  a progressive primary health care (PHC) project in the informal KTC settlement. Community health workers were trained, and clinics were organized in a multi-purpose facility which served the needs of the community. James organized students to assist with supporting clinic activities which usually took place over a weekend. The commitment of individuals like James and organisations such as HWS to primary care  presaged its emergence as the framework for South Africa’s health care system in the 21st century, illustrated by the current national policy of re-engineering of PHC and the recommendation  by the National Planning Commission that community health workers form the frontline of health development.
After completion of his medical training in 1989 he spent most of his career working in community and public health structures. This included a two year stint in Dr Mahate’s  strongly community orientated general practice in the southern suburbs, and a three year period  as a medical officer for the Children’s Resource Centre where he pioneered child-to-child primary health care preventative initiatives.  In 1997 he joined the provincial health service and was responsible for the development of the district health system in the Southern Cape. Five years later he was appointed as Deputy Director for policy and planning, a post he held for about 3 years before he joined the City of Cape Town, where he was the Manager of the Klipfontein sub-district, responsible for services in this area. In 2008 he rejoined the Provincial health services and as Director of Mitchells Plain / Klipfontein Sub-Structure of the Metropole District. In all of this positions James performed his work in a dignified and principled manner.
James regarded health as a basic human right. He knew that for us to achieve this required not only the radical transformation of the health sector but society as well and he worked tirelessly and unselfishly with a range of grassroots, academic and political organizations to try to achieve this goal.
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