Professor Laetitia Rispel winner of the Wits Vice Chancellor’s Academic Citizenship Award

Congratulations to Professor Rispel – former PHASA President – on receiving the Wits Vice Chancellor’s Academic Citizenship Award on 17 October 2014 at Savernake in Parktown.

Rispel won the award because of her visionary and innovative leadership, and contribution to the growth and development of PHASA, and the discipline of public health, both nationally and internationally.  

Professor Laetitia Rispel  winner Citizenship Award
Former PHASA president and Head of the Wits School of Public Health, Professor Laetitia Rispel receiving the Vice Chancellor Academic Citizenship Award from Wits Vice-Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib.

Here are Professor Rispel’s useful leadership insights:

What challenges have you had to overcome on your path of academic citizenship?

As you know, I was nominated for the award by the PHASA executive, for my contribution to the growth and development of PHASA, the African Federation of Public Health Associations and the World Federation of Public Health Associations.

The concept of ‘academic citizenship’ has different meanings and interpretations, depending on context. In general, it refers to the duties, responsibilities or virtues of academics serving five overlapping communities: students, colleagues, institutions, professions, and the wider public.

My main challenges have been finding the time to do everything I’m committed to and I have an inability to say no to some requests. Furthermore, universities tend to put greater emphasis on research and teaching rather than the “activist” role of academics.

What are your two most effective academic citizenship skills and why?

Probably leadership and time management. Leadership and stewardship are important in providing organisational guidance, and in ensuring that one builds a sustainable organisation that will survive once the ‘leader’ has left. Leadership is also important in building the capacity of young people, as one’s legacy continues through their work and achievements.

Time management is essential to juggle different priorities, and to make sure that one does justice to one’s work and responsibilities.

In your two terms as PHASA president, which of your achievements for PHASA have been specifically memorable and why?

Growing the next generation of public health leaders or professionals- PHASA is one of the few organisations committed to giving young students or professionals a platform to present their work, in a relatively safe environment. At times, we under-estimate what such opportunities do for the professional and personal growth of people. The Junior Public Health Association of South Africa and the ‘young’ executive are also developments that are very pleasing and I think I have played a small role in that.

Organisational development of PHASA; I was amazed that we managed to draw more than 300 people to Polokwane for the 2014 conference. We were competing with the International Health Systems Conference in Cape Town, and I thought many people would choose to go there. The turnout illustrates that PHASA conferences have their own niche, and that there is a loyal and committed public health community, willing to support the organisation. I was also impressed that we managed to have delegates from nine other countries, again showing that the annual PHASA conference has become a well sought after event.

I think I have also left PHASA as a much stronger organisation, with up to date financial audits, as an example. PHASA is better known to government, and it plays an important role both in the African region, and also in the World Federation.

Past or present, locally, internationally or overseas, who do you admire for their outstanding citizenship and why? 

I think the late Nelson Mandela exemplifies citizenship and service to humanity. There are other colleagues, too many to mention, that I admire a great deal.

We should not forget that we can also learn from younger people, not just from those who are well known or famous. Every day, I learn from my own children; they already know a whole lot more than me when I was their age.

How can positive citizenship contribute to a sustainable South African public health system?

It pains me that we continue to have such deep inequalities and that poverty and ill-health have become a way of life for many South Africans; that should not be the case, as no one is destined for ill-health or poverty. Our health system is in such disarray, and part of the problem is that people don’t do the work they have been employed to do. There is a lack of caring, and callousness that is distressing and infuriating at the same time.

But you asked me about positive citizenship. We have great potential in this country, and we can show the way with strategies to achieve a more egalitarian society.  I do think if we have greater activism (which is what citizenship is about) and commitment to make a difference to the lives of other people – rather than about getting personal benefits or prestige – we can turn the situation around.

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