Mark Colvin


By Professor Rajen Naidoo

Good evening to the members of SDCEA, the various communities of south Durban, family members of the activists being honoured tonight. It is indeed an honour to be asked to say a few words about Dr. Mark Colvin, colleague and comrade, and I thank SDCEA not only for this opportunity, but also for convening this milestone evening to recognise the many activists who have selflessly contributed to the struggle for a better life for the members of our communities. Events such as these allow us to reminisce – but only briefly – but moreover allow us to reflect on the contributions of these individuals, the paths that they chose, and how, by their actions moved us closer to that egalitarian and equitable society that we all seek.


Mark Colvin spent much of his adult life in the struggle to achieve better working or living conditions for workers and disadvantaged communities. In 1986, during the darkest days of apartheid, with the banning of almost all forms of political organisations and civic groupings, the new emergent workers movement had begun to establish itself as a central point in the struggle. It had become necessary to protect the health of workers on the shopfloor. Forming non-governmental organisations supportive of the trade union movement could have been considered subversive. Discussions had begun within the trade union movement about setting up these supportive structures. Prof Ari Sitas at the University of Natal was able to set up these structures – one of which included an organisation whose objective was to protect the health of the workers. Mark, with his medical background, together with another nursing colleague was tasked with the establishment of the Industrial Health Unit. The IHU, as it was known, was to be an organisation providing health and safety services to the trade union movement. These two comrades set about building an organisation that over a period of time gained national and international reputation.


It was with the IHU that I had my first encounter with Mark. In 1992 I joined the IHU as a medical doctor. At that time, typical of medical training the world over, understanding the plight of workers or the impacts of environmental exposures on communities, was not a priority of medical education. In this sense, Mark Colvin became my first teacher in the discipline of occupational health. With Mark and other colleagues at the IHU, in 1992, we established the first Workers’ Clinic in the province – the one of only two in the country: a service that was directly accessible to workers and communities struggling to understand their ill-health as a consequence of their exposures. Through the direction of Mark, we established a clinic which workers saw as a critical resource in challenging employers on the issue of health. We won many victories in this struggle, empowered trade union organisers and shopstewards alike: challenging management or engaging the Compensation Fund and the Department of Labour, structures stuck in the apartheid bureaucracy.


Mark remained fearless in challenging those that failed to address workers’ health. Chrome Chemicals, owned by the German multinational, Beier Chemicals and Thor Chemicals, a UK owned multinational were just two of his selected battlefields. Working with the Chemical Workers Industrial Union, Mark uncovered and reported criminal activities on the parts of employers on a grand scale: workers being intoxicated over many years by their workplace exposures, dying or becoming seriously diseased as a consequence. Through his persistence, not only did many individual workers succeed in obtaining compensation for their illnesses, but also brought occupational health and safety to the fore by exposing the practices of these uncaring employers. But Mark brought undue attention to himself for his selfless endeavours – senior management at the University asked Mark to tone down his condemnation of certain companies – as they were major funders of the institution. But as we all know Mark, this sort of intimidation only drove him further! Mark was also challenged by doctors employed by industry – in one instance, Mark was brought up before the Health Professions Council for contradicting the decision of a company doctor. Mark felt that the worker was not properly diagnosed and treated, and removed the worker from the workplace exposures. The company doctor was not happy with Mark’s intervention, and asked for him to be sanctioned. Mark won the case!


There are several more examples of Mark’s uncompromising approach to workers’ health, which over time came to include his involvement in the environmental health struggles in south Durban.


These and the many other examples highlight the character of the person we are honouring tonight. We need to understand what drove Mark to the activism that played such a critical role in his life, and to how we can channel these energies in our own activism – this surely will be the most fitting tribute to the legacy of Mark Colvin.


The first attribute of Mark was his uncompromising position on issues: if the health of a particular worker or community was being affected by the pollution of any employer, then there is no place for adopting a fence-sitting position. Whether it is the sulphur dioxide of the refineries or the burning fires from the exploding factories, we need to ensure that we commit to our community based structures – of which SDCEA is the most shining example – strengthen our organisational resolve and determine ways in which we can engage those who transgress the health standards enshrined in our constitution.


Mark was a committed scientist – his approach to activism was strongly influenced by the science describing the effects of exposures on the health of workers or members of the community. Mark brought his scientific expertise to his activism. He was able to justify his activism on the basis of his understanding of the best available scientific evidence. The scientific research available to us today clearly shows the relationship between environmental or occupational exposures and health outcomes – whether this is about an asthmatic child living in a polluted community, a mother whose unborn child endures exposure or a workers with nervous system disorders because of the heavy metals exposure in the workplace. As Mark so expertly knew – the evidence to support our case against the main polluters exists in the scientific journals – we need to be able to extract this information in our challenges, and ensure that we are resourceful enough when big business presents its version of the “scientific truth”.


Among Mark’s other attributes was his ability to interact directly with workers or members of the community. This was no ivory tower doctor or scientist: he learnt his arts from those that he treated and engaged with. Mark was as comfortable addressing a shopsteward’s council on the factory floor or a community meeting as he was with an international grouping of researchers. On many an occaison, I was present when Mark engaged with workers, trying to understand their specific occupational health problems, and trying to jointly work out the best strategy in challenging management. This level of trust on the part of the workers of the academic Mark, and on the part of the academic of the workers in accurately describing the problem. At all times recognising the affected workers or communities have the task of leading the challenge – not the academic replacing community or union activism with science.


As mentioned previously, Mark was one of two people responsible for placing worker’s health on the agenda in the province way back in 1986. To appreciate the significance of this achievement requires a background on the nature of workers’ health at that time. Apart from a few factories providing part-time medical doctors, the majority of workers in the province had no access to doctors generally, let alone doctors who understood the nature of workplace exposures and diseases that may be been caused by such exposures. There was no meaningful training of workers, and there were no experts  available to conduct workplace inspections. In fact, in the early 1990’s there were only three such experts in the entire country – two of them were at the IHU in Durban. Legislation protecting the health of workers dated back to the 1940’s – companies had little need for protecting the health of the employees or any legal pressure to do so. Through the activism work of Mark and his colleagues at the IHU, more trade unions began to focus on health and safety – the IHU trained thousands of workers, conducted hundreds of factory inspections and clinically assessed thousands of workers from the far north of our province, right through to the Eastern Cape. Over the next decade, the IHU consistently challenged the government bureaucracy to address the health of workers. A few years into our new democracy, new legislation – some of the best in the world – was adopted, transforming the practice of occupational health in the country. Today, almost every union has a health and safety officer, almost a hundred doctors with qualifications in occupational health practice in KZN. In 2003 the University of KwaZulu-Natal established the first academic Centre in Occupational and Environmental Health in South Africa – opened by the then national Minister of Environmental Affairs, Valli Moosa. While much has yet to be done, the groundwork established by Mark and his colleagues, built on their vision of protecting the health of every worker has taken root. It remains our task to consistently ensure that this vision is not lost.


In conclusion, while we have had one of our strongest soldiers removed from our ranks, he has left behind a legacy – primarily in occupational health, but in environmental health as well. He had established the foundations on which we can continue striving to protect the health of our communities and workers. But more that this legacy, Mark has also left for us his philosophy that drove his activism. This must continue to inspire us in our struggles – we do not have the luxury of relaxing, and hoping that others can be our flagbearers. Each one of us has to strengthen our community organisations, challenge those the continue to affect our health or the health of our children, and ensure that our workplaces and communities are healthy productive places – not places in which disease and death stalks.


I hope that each one of us, in paying tribute to Mark, makes such a commitment 


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