Maverick Citizen


Dr Yogan Pillay: ‘A true servant of the public’

Dr Yogan Pillay: ‘A true servant of the public’
Dr Yogan Pillay, retired deputy director-general of health programmes for the national Department of Health.

‘Mister Delivery’ is the nickname of Yogan Pillay, who retired from the national Department of Health at the end of May. His departure is a setback to those who relied on his steady hand, clear vision, and can-do spirit. This is a tribute by colleagues and friends to Pillay’s contributions to public health, which span more than 20 years.

He was the consummate public servant, driven by his motto that there is no such thing as “mission impossible”. When anybody wanted something done, no matter how big or small, no matter how difficult or far-fetched, the number to be dialled was that of the go-to-person in the national Department of Health, Dr Yogan Pillay. 

His connections include everybody who is anybody in the national and all nine provincial departments of health, in other government departments, in academic and research institutions locally and globally, in non-governmental organisations, in the private sector and big pharma, in donor organisations, and in multilateral and bilateral development agencies.  

Pillay served under all five health ministers since democracy and held the institutional memory of the Department of Health. He started off as the director for District Health Systems in 1996 armed with a background in mental health as a former lecturer in psychology at the University of Durban-Westville and with a PhD in public health from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University in the US. He went on to occupy the post of chief director of strategic planning for the department before moving to the health programmes portfolio.

From 2009 to 2020 Pillay was in charge of health programmes for South Africa. 

He was the deputy director-general, giving oversight to HIV, TB, maternal and child health, mental health, diabetes and other chronic diseases. Under his watch, enormous progress was made, especially in HIV management (where South Africa’s response moved from that of world pariah in the age of AIDS denialism, to that of world leader with by far the largest antiretroviral programme globally); in tuberculosis treatment, where the number of TB cases plummeted; and in maternal and child health, where the number of deaths in pregnant women and in children under five years of age more than halved.

Not only has he been recognised for his stellar contribution to health in South Africa, but he has also been influential on the global stage where he served as a member of numerous World Health Organisation (WHO) expert committees. 

In the words of one of his global colleagues:

“We were proud to witness the respect he commands from scientists, policymakers, community representatives and activists across the world. He brought a refreshing perspective to the leadership roles he fulfils in the WHO and several other international bodies.”

The loyal, hardworking and responsive public servant

Pillay has been industrious and hard-working to a fault, and has been as loyal to his superiors as he has to his colleagues and friends. At any time of the day (and probably night too) he would answer his cellphone, to say: “Yes Minister” to the minister of health, or “Yes Boss” to the director-general. 

Regardless of the many requests they made to him, he would be as cool as a cucumber, completely unfazed and unflustered, then try to the best of his ability to ensure that whatever they wanted would get done. This would often mean travelling locally and internationally to represent the department and the country at short notice. Finding solutions rather than highlighting challenges is in his DNA. He would often be interrupted by these calls, but he made multi-tasking a fine art: he would never be distracted but would carry on with what he was doing and be on point.

Despite his hectic schedule he has always been open to questions, mostly communicating via WhatsApp. His approachability is valued by many. If he wasn’t writing speeches and attending meetings or conferences on behalf of his superiors, he was always available to the media. In the words of a well-known journalist: 

“He’s the only health department official we’ve ever known who answers calls at 7am in the morning or 8pm at night. And he is definitely the only government official who used emojis in WhatsApp messages. We will miss Yogan — he helped to make information that would otherwise have taken weeks to access, available within hours or days.”

One of his colleagues has described him as a public servant who really served the public. He cared about the lives of people: the death of one additional pregnant woman or her newborn baby was one too many. He was a public health activist inside the system who behaved with professionalism. He believed that decision-making should be rooted in evidence and wanted the data to back up decisions. 

If you drove into the parking lot of the Civitas building on a Saturday or Sunday, it would not be surprising to see his car in the parking lot. When asked what he was doing there, the answer would be, “The work never stops.”

The leader

Pillay attended an astronomical number of meetings in the national department, most of which he chaired with consummate skill, bringing to bear a prodigious memory, a fine intellect and an attention to detail. He was a good and fair listener and gave everybody an opportunity to have their say, regardless of their status, but at the end of every meeting he summarised the important points and the way forward succinctly and coherently, ensuring that everybody knew what their job was following the meeting.  

But inside the public health scientist he has the heart of a nurturer and carer: if somebody had a problem he would be there to give of his time and energy to try to sort it out. This was coupled with a sense of humility and a deep-seated ethical ethos which enabled him to focus on the job to be done, without seeking political or personal recognition or financial reward.

The academic

If he had not been serving his country so well there is no doubt that Pillay would have been an eminent scholar. 

Despite working exceptionally hard in his more than full-time job he still managed to write and contribute to more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and to be a co-author of a well-respected textbook on global health, which has gone through a number of editions and revisions and is used by a number of universities to stimulate thinking around health systems. Many academics would be proud to have these scholarly outputs.

The father and friend

Pillay is a proud father of his beloved son, Vishay, who is his moon, sun and stars. As a friend, he can let his hair down, enjoy a glass of red wine and be a party raconteur (but with the pressures of work, these occasions became fewer in recent years). He is known for being low maintenance and on many a day would get by on nothing but dry rusks and tea.

There are not that many people in the world about whom it can honestly be said that they have made a huge and positive difference to many people. One of those is Yogan Pillay. He is renowned far and wide as embodying the spirit of ubuntu, a real mensch. DM/MC


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