US philanthropist who trained thousands of black SA medical professionals dies

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HerbertHerbert Kaiser, a US Foreign Service officer who in retirement raised $27m to pursue a second career as president of a non-profit organisation that trained more than 10,000 black medical professionals in South Africa, died on the 30th March at his home in Palo Alto, California, reports The Washington Post. He was 94. The cause was heart ailments, said a son, Tim Kaiser.

Kaiser spent 33 years in the Foreign Service, including assignments in Eastern Europe and South Africa, before retiring in 1983. Soon after, he and his wife, Joy, formed Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB) – aimed to rectify what he said was a shocking imbalance of health-care infrastructure for black citizens in apartheid South Africa.

In a country of more than 20m blacks, he once said, there were 350 black physicians, fewer than 120 black pharmacists and fewer than 20 black dentists in 1984. The report says during its years of operation from 1985 to 2007, MESAB trained more than 11,000 South Africans as medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, midwives and hospital assistants.

The impetus for Kaiser’s group, he said in a 2004 commencement address at his alma mater, Swarthmore College, was the “superb medical care available to whites but denied to black South Africans. In Pretoria in 1971 I was treated successfully for melanoma, a vicious form of cancer. Several years later the white South African surgeon who saved my life wrote me that he was giving up his private practice to train black doctors.”

Tim Kaiser remembers his parents huddled over a table in the kitchen of their Washington home, poring over maps and lists of foundations, charities, advocacy groups, and potential corporate and individual donors. They made fundraising cold calls, most of which were rejected, but they always asked for suggestions of who else might be open to a solicitation.

The report says especially in his early fundraising years, Kaiser faced opposition on two fronts: an unsympathetic white government in majority-black South Africa and factions in the US opposed to doing anything in South Africa as long as the apartheid government was in power.

In 1989, a $100,000 donation from the Marjorie Kovler Institute for Black-Jewish Relations – a Jewish group that worked to support bonds between black and Jewish Americans – was a turning point for MESAB, leading to ample corporate donations.
“I recently visited Soweto and other townships in South Africa and have seen first-hand the desperate conditions there,” Senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.), chair of a sub-committee on African affairs, said in a statement at the time. “This grant will shine a light into that gloom.”

Kaiser was born in Brooklyn on 8 June, 1923. He was 7 when his father, a house painter, left the family. His mother supported four children by working as a caregiver to the elderly, and at times she had to rely on welfare to get by. Kaiser was a Navy submariner in the Pacific during World War II and, on the GI Bill, attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1949 and was accepted at Yale Law School, but, with a new wife to support, he joined the State Department as a secure source of income.

His assignments included deputy chief of the embassy in Bucharest, Romania, and consul general in Zagreb, Croatia. His fluency in languages – including German, Polish, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian, Afrikaans and Yiddish – helped him get out among the local populations in his overseas postings. He moved to California from Washington in 1992.

Survivors include his wife, Joy Sundgaard, of Palo Alto; three children, Tim Kaiser of Toronto, Paul Kaiser of New York City and Gail Kaiser of Palo Alto; and six grandchildren.

The report says Kaiser and his wife wrote a book about their work with MESAB, called “Against the Odds: Health and Hope in South Africa,” which was self-published in 2013.

The Washington Post report

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