Sher, the brave advocate of HIV-Aids

Mokgadi Pela

Mokgadi Pela

Martin Luther King Jnr once said that when you are aged 20 and fight injustice, you are as good as a 60-year-old. But if you are 80 and do so, you are as good as a 20-year-old.

Professor Ruben Sher, 78, who died of heart failure recently, was clearly as good as a 20-year-old. Sowetan readers and millions of South Africans owe their knowledge of HIV-Aids to him.

Sher spoke about the dangers of burying one's head in the sand long before it became fashionable. He campaigned in schools, churches and various local and international forums for people to realise that unless something was done quickly, the virus would destroy our people.

Back in 1988, then Sowetan senior editors Joe Thloloe and Sam Mabe took me, a young health reporter, to meet Sher at the South African Institute for Medical Research in Johannesburg. We wanted him to help us educate people about the virus.

HIV was not topical in South Africa then, despite the fact that the first case had already been diagnosed in 1981.

When we met, bonds of an unflinching relationship were laid. Sher had the patience and ability to explain difficult medical concepts to laymen. His intervention helped Sowetan to become the first publication to write consistently about HIV, a fact that is acknowledged by several radio stations.

Towards the end of 1988, Sher facilitated my travelling to Toronto, Canada, to work at a specialist medical publication, The Medical Post, to sharpen my medical writing skills.

Sher said: "Aids has delivered a more powerful message to South Africans than all the pulpits put together.''

He told us about the importance of putting faces to the disease. Hence, the beautiful and heart-rending stories we published, among them of Tiny Monei, a frail woman who was dying on the outskirts of Rustenburg. He also cautioned us against sensationalism, always urging us to be compassionate because: "We are dealing with human beings with God-given dignity."

The serious academic and teacher also had a great sense of humour. He said that Aids affected three types of people - homosexuals, heterosexuals and tri-sexuals. When we asked who tri-sexuals are, he said: "One who tries anything."

Sher was a loyal, able and brave advocate of HIV-Aids whose shoes will be hard to fill.