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Activist Yusuf Talia dies after battle with muscular dystrophy

Yusuf Talia, well-known activist and one of the Mail & Guardian’s 200 Young South Africans for 2013, died on Monday morning. Talia suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy – an illness which causes muscular degeneration. 

Wheelchair-bound since the age of 10, Talia was in the process of obtaining his third degree from Wits University, and was a prominent activist.

“Talia set himself the goal of invigorating young people and proving that they are all capable of attaining their goals if they maintain their passion and determination,” The M&G reported last year. Aged 24 at the time, he had attained a Bachelor of Accounting Science degree. 

“In the first year of his second degree … one of his lungs collapsed and he spent 42 days in intensive care. After recovering, Talia steeled himself for the task of catching up with his studies and is now in his final year,” read the report. 

Talia was a member of the Disabled Students Movement, the head of mentorship at Redineo – an organisation which mentors underprivileged children – and the deputy president of the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) in 2010. He represented student interests on the Higher Education Disability Service Association and was also the president of the Union of Muslim Students’ Association of South Africa. 

In a statement on Monday, Wits university described Talia as a “giant”. 

“Yusuf Talia was the embodiment of what Wits stands for – a leader and friend who persevered through great personal difficulty to fight for his beliefs to make a positive mark on this world. A battle which he easily won, smiling along the way,” said a spokesperson for the university.  

“There are no words that can capture the impact Yusuf has had in the Wits community and broader society. Despite his many challenges, he was an remarkable student whose intelligence and determination to succeed was unparalleled. His friendly, outgoing demeanour and willingness to help has truly endured him to all those whose lives he touched.” 

“His endless dedication and tireless advocacy for equality and disability rights earned him much respect and admiration from all his peers. Despite his disability, he excelled and succeeded where others would simply have failed.”

“Although small in stature, Yusuf was a giant who broke every barrier possible in order to prove to the world that having a disability does not define who you are or who you can be. He has truly been a great ambassador and an inspiration to all of us and although he will be greatly missed, his legacy and accomplishments will never be forgotten.”

‘Incredible person’
Zaida Gangat, a friend of Talia’s who interviewed him for the Wits Vuvuzela in 2009, described him as an “incredible person”. She said Talia’s wheelchair was a common feature on campus, “always on the go, zipping to meetings or demonstrations”. Her feature was playfully headlined, “Breaking the speed limit”. Talia was able to laugh at the title. 

“It was a playful take on his boundless energy,” she said. “I was blown away by his spirit and even when he wasn’t well he was committed to activism, and he campaigned regularly on campus. I was inspired by what he had achieved, even though he was so young. If I could touch a fraction of the people that he touched, I would consider myself lucky.”

In a recent interview
, Talia described his parents as his support system. At the time, his condition had deteriorated to the point where he was totally dependent on assisted care. He had recently had a tracheotomy. 

“My family is my support system without whom I won’t be able to function. My dad, mum and my brother are my primary caregivers. They are assisted by our domestic worker. This is my “A” team … It is important for me that my personal time includes staying connected to my family and friends. I love interacting with people and would hate to ever be isolated as a result of my condition,” Talia said. 

Gangat said Talia was also a vocal supporter of the Palestinian cause. 

Chairperson of the Media Review Network, Zaakir Ahmed Mayet, tweeted:  

The Wits SRC tweeted on Monday:  

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Sarah Evans
Sarah Evans

Sarah Evans interned at the Diamond Fields Advertiser in Kimberley for three years before completing an internship at the Mail & Guardian Centre for Investigative Journalism (amaBhungane). She went on to work as a Mail & Guardian news reporter with areas of interest including crime, law, governance and the nexus between business and politics. 

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