Sister Sue Roberts

On Tuesday 1 July 2014 Sue Roberts retires.

I have known Sue for nearly 20 years. It’s remarkable that a large part of her life as a nurse almost coincides with the history of HIV/AIDS in South Africa, from the late 1980s through to today. And in all that time she has been an activist. But Sue is not just recognized for her medical care and ethics but also for her concern for the dignity and human rights of every person with HIV that she ever encountered.

In fact it was with Sue that Edwin Cameron, Zackie Achmat and later myself collaborated in the early days of the AIDS Law Project, taking up cases she brought to us of unfair discrimination, people being refused surgery because of HIV and disclosure of HIV status.

But what most of us remember her for was her bravery in the quest for treatment.

It is remarkable that 10 years ago marked the start of the public sector ARV programme. That faraway time was a time of:

–       denial

–       intimidation

–       and silence of all but a few health workers

Today, 2.5 million people are on ARV treatment. Billboards boast about the Gauteng AIDS programme!

It is hard to believe that ARVs were ever a subject of controversy.

In conclusion I want to say that HISTORY should regard Sister Roberts as one of the heroes and early pioneers of the TAC:

Sue Roberts:

–       helped to educate TAC members about HIV and ARVs and develop treatment literacy;

–       was a person that we regularly brought our comrades to (Hazel Tau, Charlene Wilson, Sarah Hlalhlele and many more) and who helped people onto treatment before there was an official treatment programme;

–       took a public stand by providing evidence and affidavits for some of the great court cases on HIV.

Everyone recalls her humility. The numerous meetings she attended whilst still being a nurse.

Although not widely known, she is one of SA’s bravest and most heroic health workers. She belongs to the tradition of Dr Neil Agget, Dr Fabian Ribeiro, Dr Ashraf Coovadia and Dr Haroon Salojee.

President Zuma should create a Sue Roberts Award for Distinction in the Public Health Service!

We will miss her. But she deserves her rest.

On behalf of many, many of us I convey our love and thanks.

Mark Heywood

How other people remember Sister Sue Roberts:

Sindisiwe Blose (TAC Activist)

I remember the first time I saw her with my uncle who was very sick at the time in hospital back in 2002. She treated patients so well. I was so excited when I met her at a TAC gathering months later. We need health care workers with compassion and dedication to improving the lives of people as she has been.

My uncle died during those months but my spirit didn’t die because I had met so many inspiring people in those days including her.

Anso Thom (SECTION27; Health Journalist and Activist)

I started working as a health journalist around 1997/8 and Sister Sue Roberts was one of the first people I interviewed and spoke to. My memories of her was that of an incredibly compassionate person who was doing an incredible job, but did not want to be in the limelight. All she wanted was the best for her patients. She was a true activist, her actions spoke louder than any words or slogans at the time could speak.

Sibongile Tshabalala (TAC Activist)

Although I haven’t worked with Sister Roberts directly I think we should appreciate sisters like her and be grateful to them. From Gauteng province we say THANK YOU very much to Sister Roberts and the good work that she has done for our community.

We love her.


Stephen Ngcobo (TAC Activist)

I also never had the privilege to meet and interact with Sister Sue Roberts and I only know of her legends on the struggle for treatment and how many of our TAC members and comrades in GP were really helped by her.

She is a brave one, we salute her and wish for other health workers to learn to emulate her courageous and heroic actions, given the conditions at that time and era of denialism.

Salute to Sr Sue indeed, she did earn her retirement and she’s got a lot to share with her grandchildren and activists nurses like her in Denosa and Nehawu.

Shadi Tau (Activist)

Sister Sue Roberts is the mother of the nation – very passionate, and caring, I have learnt a lot from her. She has crossed many rivers. She is a pillar of my strength. I will really miss her.

I cannot imagine the health system without Sue Roberts.

Sharon Ekambaram (MSF; Early TAC Activist)

Sister Sue Roberts has worked tirelessly using her profession as a health care work to navigate a long road full of obstacles and yet finding a way to ensure that she did everything in her power to bring dignity and ensure life to thousands of people living with HIV.

Helen Joseph Hospital became the beacon of hope as patients who were being turned away from other health facilities found a human being who was willing to ignore the red tape of bureaucracy and offer help which meant life over death.

Two patients whose stories bear testimony to her incredible legacy are that of Elizabeth and Hazel Tau.

Elizabeth may not have disclosed her status as yet so I will not use her real name. She worked as a domestic worker and found out her HIV status when her employer summoned her and the other workers in this house to go for an HIV test. The doctor then informed the “madam” of Elizabeth’s positive status and she was fired. Being shocked and traumatised she came to the AIDS Consortium. I referred her to Sister Sue Roberts. Through a difficult engagement and support Elizabeth eventually had the courage to go to the CCMA with the support of the AIDS Law Project now SECTION27, and win her case against her employee. But at the time of her unfair dismissal she lost hope in life and humanity. She made an amazing recovery and was eventually one of the first patients to receive ARVs though the then polyclinic run by Sister Sue Roberts at Helen Joseph in 2004. It was more the psychological support provided under the leadership of Sue than the actual drugs that saved Elizabeth’s life and restored her dignity.

Hazel Tau is a famous patient/activist in SA. She was the first applicant in a complaint brought to the Competition Commission by the AIDS Law Project against GlaxoSmithKline South Africa (Pty) Ltd and Boehringer Ingelheim (Pty) Ltd for anti-competitive behaviour resulting in exorbitant prices for life saving drugs. The link with Sister Sue Roberts was that Hazel Tau became very sick at the time when our government was still in denial. I took her to Helen Joseph causality on a Friday afternoon and we waited for close on 5 hours to be eventually turned away with the excuse that there were no beds to admit her. It was Sister Sue Roberts who ensured that she was treated after being diagnosed with pneumonia with a CD4 count of 12. Eventually Hazel Tau was supported through the generous intervention of Dr Brian Brink and today Hazel is alive to tell her story.

Organisations like Doctors Without Borders rely on a daily basis on health care workers like Sister Sue Roberts who make huge sacrifices to provide much needed medical assistance to vulnerable populations as a consequence of conflicts or those excluded from health care because of the horrible conditions under which they live.

It is the sacrifice and commitment of people like Sister Sue Roberts that reflects the spirit of humanity of the millions of South Africans that mobilised against apartheid and fought for human dignity and respect irrespective of race creed or class. One of the key principles that MSF is built on.