Hambani kahle Gavin and Del


  • Di McIntyre

One of Gavin's proudest moments was when he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 2009, with his beloved Del at his side and proudly displaying his Scottish heritage (kilt, sporran, sgian-dubh … the full regalia). Since Gavin and Del's devastating deaths in the early hours of 20 December 2012, tributes to both have flooded in from all over the world.1 I have once again been reminded that all too frequently we only honour people in death and not during their life-time. I am not sure that Gavin, who was a truly humble person, was fully aware of the thousands of lives that he profoundly influenced.

UCT awards honorary degrees on one of two grounds: exceptional academic contributions or contributions to society; Gavin would have been eligible on both grounds. The citation for his Honorary Doctorate, which I had the privilege to read at the graduation ceremony, noted that: “Although he doesn't like to be referred to in this way, as he thinks it reflects negatively on his age, he is one of the founding fathers of health economics. He was at the forefront of the development of techniques for applying economic theory and principles to the health sector … Probably Prof. Mooney's most important contribution in health economics has been to open up for debate the value base of the health economics discipline. In particular, he has led the way in challenging the prevailing orthodoxy in much of health economics, which prioritises concerns with efficiency over the distributional consequences of decisions. … Prof. Mooney has also made a critical contribution by shifting the health economics profession from its largely ‘academic’ and clinical outlook to embrace a broader social role.”

This degree was also conferred in recognition of Gavin's contributions to UCT and more broadly in Africa. Our initial collaboration with Gavin was through an Australian-South African Links program. Subsequently, we were able to secure Mellon Mentorship (and other) grants, which allowed Gavin (and Del) to spend a few months each year for four years in our unit. His main brief was to mentor staff in publishing their research findings (and our publication record has soared!), but he engaged generously with all our learners and staff in a range of activities.

When these visits started, Del had just started her PhD (on the political economy of climate change) and she became the heart and soul of our shared post-graduate office. She chose coal mining, which primarily feeds the production of electricity, in South Africa as her main case study. Her thesis has greatly enriched our understanding of the “extreme character of uneven capitalist development and the


unusually exploitative relations between capital, state, society and nature” (Personal communication: Professor Patrick Bond, School of Development Studies, University of KwaZulu-Natal). While Del lived to see her doctorate awarded, its publication as a book by Routledge Press will be posthumous (a draft was filed the week before her death). She was the one who forged the links with our other doctoral candidates, which led to Gavin contributing to mentoring and developing young health economists in several other African countries (particularly Ghana and Nigeria).

Gavin and Del's humanity is illustrated by their personal engagement with refugees in South Africa. Their first stint in Cape Town in 2008 coincided with our deeply shameful xenophobic violence and Del volunteered at the local refugee centre. She was distressed by the limited support that could be offered to families who feared for their lives daily. They have emotionally and financially supported a number of Cape Town refugee families ever since (despite their limited personal means), including Gavin raising considerable sponsorship on one of his marathons (many of you will remember the e-mail appealing for sponsors)!

Their humanity is also borne out by their personal engagement with Aboriginal communities, which will be well known to ANZJPH readers. Another of Gavin's proudest moments was when he was adopted into an Aboriginal family, and given the name of Uncle Ngulla (meaning a tree, or one who brings life). Gavin and Del would have been honoured that Ted Wilkes and his son ‘smoked their graves’ and conducted an Aboriginal ceremony at their funeral on 3 January 2013.

There are thousands of people who regard Gavin as their father, mentor and friend, particularly from their contact through the distance-learning health economics courses he established in Scotland, Norway, Australia and South Africa, but also because he was warmly responsive to anyone who wrote to him for advice or input.

Throughout their lives, Gavin and Del have demonstrated what it means to speak truth to power, to be public intellectuals, activist academics, thinkers and doers. Gavin supported us in our fight for a universal health system (never mincing his words) and to build a decent society based on the health system as a solid social institution. His all time favourite quote was from Nye Bevan, founder of the British NHS: “Society becomes more wholesome, more serene, and spiritually healthier, if it knows that its citizens have at the back of their consciousness the knowledge that not only themselves, but all their fellows, have access, when ill, to the best that medical skill can provide.” It is deeply unjust that it appears to have been a failure in access to mental health services that led to their unnecessary untimely deaths.


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    Gavin has held positions (or honorary appointments) at Aberdeen University in Scotland; the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus in Denmark; Tromso in Norway; Maastricht in the Netherlands; Wellington in New Zealand; Sydney, Curtin (Western Australia) and the University of New South Wales in Australia; and University of Cape Town in South Africa; and his writings, mentoring and personal contacts have reached even further.