Winner: Dr Emmanuel Taban; Runners-up: Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema & Dr John Nkengasong

Winner: Dr Emmanuel Taban; Runners-up: Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema & Dr John Nkengasong
Dr Emmanuel Taban. (Photo: ELIZABETH SEJAKE / RAPPORT)

From the toughest of beginnings in South Sudan to becoming a pioneering pulmonologist in Joburg, what this doctor learnt was how not to be a perpetual victim.

Dr Emmanuel Taban is our Africa Person of the Year because he has achieved so much and travelled such a great distance – literally and figuratively – to get there.

He was born in a mud hut in Juba, later to become the capital of independent South Sudan, but then still part of Sudan. In 1994, aged 16, he was abducted by Sudanese troops and tortured because they thought he was a rebel spy. He escaped from them, on foot, intending to go home, but took a wrong turn and instead walked into Eritrea.

As he relates in his autobiography, The Boy Who Never Gave Up, he then decided to quit Sudan, embarking on a perilous odyssey, via Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, northern Mozambique and Zimbabwe, eventually to Johannesburg, where he arrived about 18 months after leaving Sudan, just short of his 18th birthday.

He had no passport and mostly no money. Much of his journey was on foot.

It was a learning experience that taught him much about life and about human nature. He was often cheated and robbed along the way. He was particularly dismayed to be turned away by an uncle in Kenya and other relatives in Ethiopia and elsewhere, when he desperately sought their help.

Conversely, he was also given tremendous help by many strangers along the way.

He is particularly grateful to the Comboni Catholic missionaries in Johannesburg, who took him under their wing and gave him both accommodation and financial support to get matric and then his basic medical degree at Medunsa.

After that he largely flew solo, winning bursaries to continue his postgraduate studies and eventually in 2018 to become a pulmonologist – a lung specialist – at the University of the Witwatersrand.

When Covid-19 struck in early 2020 his special skills were in high demand and he fought on the frontline against the disease, contracting it himself.

And he did pioneering work, particularly in discovering a new way of treating very ill hypoxaemic Covid-19 patients (those suffering from low oxygen levels in their blood), many of whom were dying.

Last year, London-based New African magazine named Taban one of the 100 most influential Africans of 2020.

The South African NGO Rally to Read, the rural primary schools programme, this year made him one of its ambassadors. “If anyone can set an example to disadvantaged SA children of how to make the most of their limited education opportunities, it’s Emmanuel Taban,” the Financial Mail, an organising partner of Rally to Read, wrote in a tribute to him.

His autobiography makes it clear that Taban was inherently a bright, courageous and determined child who refused to be bowed by the extreme poverty and hardship that life dealt him. He recounts the horror of witnessing bodies blown to bits in Juba in the battles between government troops and Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)  secessionist rebels – and then observing the bodies with the detachment of a pathologist.

He learnt well the lessons that his hard life offered him. He experienced cruelty, indifference, racism and xenophobia, as well as kindness, sympathy and support, in equal measure from black and white people and different nationalities on his journey. These were lessons against prejudice.

Above all, he learned the lesson of self-reliance and never to blame others for his suffering. “By doing that we accept our status of permanent victims with no control over our destiny,” he wrote. “We remain forever dependent, despite living on a rich continent.”

Taban has been especially dismayed by what has become of his homeland, South Sudan, which eventually won independence from Sudan in 2011 after a long and bloody freedom struggle – and then almost immediately fell into its own civil war in which tens of thousands have died.

“The problem in South Sudan is that people think that if they are not lucky enough to be given everything on a plate, then it is not their fault if they fail. They don’t realise they can achieve whatever they want if they just work hard enough. If they refuse to give up trying, then the lucky breaks will come once they make the effort.”

He starts and ends his story with a great and telling irony. After all the horrors of his childhood and terrible dangers he overcame in journeying to South Africa as a boy, his worst experience was when Tshwane’s notorious Metro Police pulled him over for passing on a solid white line when he and his wife were driving to his hospital to check on one of his Covid-19 patients in ICU.

After calling his South African wife a “whore” for going with a “makwerekwere” (alien) one of the cops grabbed him by the throat and throttled him, threatening to kill him “like George Floyd” if he didn’t hand over his phone so they could delete his record of their vehicle’s registration.

“I had never been so afraid for my life,” he wrote. DM168

Hakainde Hichilema, Zambia’s president. (Photo: EPA-EFE / SPENCER PLATT / POOL)

FIRST RUNNER-UP: Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema

Hakainde Hichilema is a runner-up for Africa Person of the Year for his dogged determination and political skills in unseating incumbent Zambian president Edgar Lungu in the Zambian elections this year. And for his promise to be a “servant and not a master of the people” in restoring the country to good governance and real democracy.

It is a rare feat to beat an incumbent in an African presidential election and “HH”, as he is widely known, only achieved it on his fifth attempt in August this year.  

Some might say the real achiever was Lungu because he actually conceded defeat, which is also rather rare in Africa. But as former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo believes, if a political challenger hopes to topple an incumbent, he or she must win big enough to make it impossible to rig.

Hichilema did just that, overcoming a biased state media and other incumbent advantages to garner a majority of more than one million votes with an efficient election campaign that mobilised particularly young voters through social media and an army of election agents to guard against rigging.

Now Hichilema faces a mountain of bad Lungu governance to undo, including settling some $12-billion in debts and mending toxic relations with international mining houses, which are key to the economy. DM168

Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (Photo: Michael Tewelde / AFP)

SECOND RUNNER-UP: Virologist Dr John Nkengasong

Dr John Nkengasong, director of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is leading the continent’s exemplary response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

No other region of the world has been as collective in fighting the disease. Nkengasong and his teams have taught governments how to diagnose Covid-19, launched a continental initiative to secure more than 400 million doses of vaccines, established the Africa Medical Supplies Platform for African countries to buy anti-Covid supplies at standard and reasonable prices, and also launched the Covid-19 Response Fund at the African Union to mobilise resources for those countries most in need.

This Cameroonian virologist has nearly 30 years’ experience of fighting epidemics such as HIV/Aids and Ebola.

He was appointed as one of the World Health Organization director-general’s special envoys on Covid-19 preparedness and response, and was also awarded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2020 Global Goalkeeper Award.

US President Joe Biden has now picked him to head America’s huge Pepfar programme to combat HIV/Aids.

For all his accolades, “Dr John”, as his officials call him, seems like just a family doctor with a good bedside manner when he calmly and transparently delivers life-saving health messages to the continent and updates it about the pandemic in his weekly media briefings. DM168

Daily Maverick Persons of the Year

Every year, Daily Maverick puts its mind to the question of who we should recognise in our annual Persons of the Year categories.

In the past, these decisions have been made after a bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but this year, we decided to do things a little differently. We had the bare-knuckle editorial brawl, but simply to arrive at a shortlist of nominees in each category. Using a new reader engagement tool called Hearken, we asked our online readers to cast their votes on who they think deserves the final nod. We also gave readers the option to choose their own candidate in any category in case they thought we had neglected anyone more worthy. The results were both expected and surprising.

On the whole, readers agreed with our shortlisted candidates, with a few exceptions. We had not considered Greta Thunberg as a candidate for International Person of the Year, but so many readers nominated her that she earned enough mentions to be a runner-up in that category.

Many objected to us only focusing on singers for our Artist of the Year and objected to the predominance of foreign singers in the category. Quite a few readers were critical of us leaving out African women and female contenders in general.

The journalists at Daily Maverick were mentioned several times as nominees for different categories of People of the Year – ah, thanks for the love, guys, but this time around we wanted to cast our net outside our inner circle.

The more than 800 readers who voted totally exceeded our expectations, because this was the first time we have opened People of the Year to readers’ votes.

The pie chart shows how readers voted for the Africa person of the Year.

Below are all the categories. Read about the winners and runners-up in various categories below.

  • South African Person of the Year – a person who has had the broadest or most significant impact on the country as a whole.
  • Africa Person of the Year – a person who has made an outstanding contribution on the African continent this year.
  • International Person of the Year – a person who has had broad international impact or made an outstanding contribution this year.
  • South African Villain of the Year – there was no shortage of suggestions in this self-explanatory category…
  • International Villain of the Year – as above, but drawn from foreign fields.
  • South African Businessperson of the Year – not necessarily the person who made the biggest profit, but someone whose influence went beyond the balance sheets.
  • Community Champion of the Year – someone uplifting, defending and representing ordinary South Africans, often against all odds.
  • South African Polluter of the Year – individuals and entities which have succeeded in further dirtying our environment this year.
  • Our Burning Planet Heroes of the Year – the green warriors fighting for our planet’s survival.
  • South African Youth Champion of the Year – young people working to improve the lot of other young people.
  • Sportsperson of the Year – a sportsperson whose positive impact has been felt either on or off the field.
  • Sports Team of the Year – a team that has stood out from the rest in 2021 either on or off the field.
  • Artist of the Year – a hitmaker whose musical or social influence has towered above others.
  • Moegoe of the Year – someone whose behaviour perhaps falls short of Villain of the Year, but who has in some way acted idiotically.
  • Grinch of the Year – someone who qualifies as a spoilsport or killjoy. – Rebecca Davis/DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.



Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • virginia crawford says:

    Dr Taban: a true hero and an amazing example to all.

    • Geoff Woodruff says:

      I agree 100% I was admitted to Midstream Hospital during the early stages of the covid pandemic thinking I was positive and had the good fortune to be treated by Dr Taban. It turned out that I had pneumonia and not covid and he was the one to diagnose my condition correctly and treat me accordingly. He treated me every morning for 6 days and was kind and cheerful always. He did, not once, speak of his journey through life and I did not realize how great his achievements were until one of the nurses told me his story. The hospital staff adored him and I could understand exactly why. A kinder and more caring doctor you could not wish to meet and a better example of humanity would be hard to find. Thank you Doctor Taban and I wish you well.

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