While standing in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in Soweto at lunch time several years ago, Luyanda Majija had a revelation.
Luyanda was at the transportation hub for work—to launch a campaign about strokes on behalf of a client of her Johannesburg public relations firm. As she stood in that busy intersection, adjacent to the largest hospital in South Africa, she saw fast food chains in every direction, and then watched as about 30 motorcycles sped off on urgent missions to deliver pizza and fried chicken.
“I thought, where are they going? There is high unemployment in the townships. People are living off of social support. The industry is feeding them this food?” Luyanda said. “It had never stuck out to me before that.”
Five years later, Luyanda works primarily on food policy for Vital Strategies—on issues ranging from building support for taxes on sugary drinks to designing effective warning labels for ultra-processed food. She is still grappling with the complexity of what she witnessed that day, of the intertwined challenges of poor nutrition and food insecurity and the power dynamics it reveals.
“People are really hungry. When you speak of nutrition you are speaking first of food insecurity, and it is difficult to talk about,” she said. “But the right to healthy and nutritious food is enshrined in our constitution. The industry shouldn’t be sending unhealthy food to poor communities struggling with high burden of diseases and high health care costs. They don’t deserve to be sick.”
Luyanda has seen the same dynamic in rural communities where drinking water is scarce but Coca Cola is always available in heavily branded shops. In schools, sugar-laden yogurt is doled out to children and branded as healthy, when rates of diabetes and obesity have risen rapidly among youth in South Africa.
During COVID-19, this contradiction became particularly challenging to reconcile, when multinational beverage companies donated soda to drink with the food parcels they donated. She eventually came to believe that it was Vital’s responsibility to criticize these actions.
“The reality is that the industry is pumping unhealthy foods into communities that are poor and marketing unhealthy food as aspirational,” she said. “And the industry has monopolized food production, taking away opportunities for entrepreneurship for local food growers, because they are competed out of the market. And this fires up the work. We cannot not say anything.”
Luyanda was born in 1988 in the final years of apartheid, the eldest of four daughters.
She grew up feeling insulated from the crime and chaos around her in the township where she grew up because of her protective, supportive parents. Her father was a police officer in the apartheid government. Her mother was a teacher.
They lived in the caretaker’s home at the school where her mother taught. Luyanda remembers, in 1994, when she was 6 years old, seeing long lines of people extending from the school for miles. Her father explained to her that it was the first time people of color could vote in elections.
Her parents taught her that even with laws changing she would have to work extra hard to earn her place in the world because of racism. “There was very little room to opt out or underperform,” she said.
By the time she went to school, apartheid had ended formally and she went to a newly integrated school. Many of her fellow students were Black, but the teachers were white. She now realizes that she experienced many microaggressions that she didn’t understand, from rules about how to wear her hair, to bans against the speaking of indigenous, African or vernacular languages in school and teachers who disciplined students of color with remarks like: “Don’t behave like this in my school or you can go back to your township schools.”
“Any expression of Blackness was frowned upon and punished. Apartheid was over, but we often felt unwelcome in these previously white schools,” she said. “We were the experiment for how white South Africa would treat us. White people brushed away the idea of racism and were spellbound by the Mandela effect, and the pursuit for the ‘rainbow nation’ But we had to overperform just to be seen.”
When it came time to apply to university, Luyanda, who was artistic, athletic and good at science and English, decided she would become a doctor because of the profession’s direct path to stability and success, and because her uncle was a doctor. It was not until a few months into her studies at University of the Witwatersrand—when she failed classes—that she realized for the first time how reliant she had been on the protection of her family, and that she had to figure out how to persevere on her own.
“It was a huge eye opener for me. It was the first phase of my life when I had to deal with failure and that was really hard for me,” she said.
Luyanda learned that there were resources at the university to support her and that she could ask for help. This became an even more important when her father died suddenly a few years later. In 2012, while she had not followed the medical track as she had planned, Luyanda received her bachelor of science in microbiology and chemistry.
On the advice of a professor, she spent her one-year honors year focused on journalism and media studies. The career in health and science communication that emerged from that experience would bring together her love of storytelling and her background in science.
After university, Luyanda worked for a year as a journalist, in the communication department of an emergency medical company, and then for four years for a public relations firm, focusing on public health, science and development.
Luyanda is particularly proud of the PR work she did to support the first study in Africa to test the efficacy of vaccine for HIV. The three-city launch attracted much public interest, and involved high-level partners including South Africa’s Ministry of Health and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was helping fund the study through his work at the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Luyanda also launched a project to make research on HIV biomedical prevention products accessible to young African women by creating an interactive blog that encouraged them to document their perspective on reproductive health issues.
Then, inspired by the MPHs that came after the name of clients that she admired, Luyanda sought her own master of public health degree in 2016. For her dissertation, Luyanda conducted a study to explore young women’s perceptions of a novel HIV prevention product called the Dapivirine vaginal ring. This led her to talk to women in the township where she had grown up, which gave her new perspective on the complex challenges they experienced.
“Before, I would have thought that these women should have just studied harder or spent less time doing other things. Through my work I was able to see how difficult those environments always had been even though I didn’t realize it when I lived there,” she said. “I had to reflect. Why was I blaming people for their choices? And why didn’t I experience these hardships?”
Without discounting her own hard work or that of her parents, she realized how important her good luck had been. “A small moment in my trajectory could have changed my fortune and changed the person I became today. I was black, female and I lived a township designed to keep my people downtrodden,” she said.
At Vital, Luyanda is proud of having helped develop design prototypes for warning labels on ultra-processed food to support people in making informed choices. She is proud to be have to have contributed to a study about the efficacy of these labels in influencing people’s decision-making, and also for having developed national mass media campaigns to support the introduction of warning labels.
Luyanda was hired to work on the food policy team, focused in South Africa, but her role has grown to support work in Ethiopia and Nigeria, and to include other ad hoc projects like the Vital Policy Accelerator, our COVID-19 response work and tobacco control.
During the pandemic, Luyanda has struggled with the collective grief and angst of her community and the world. She has moved out of Johannesburg and is temporarily living in Cape Town.
“I needed a change of scenery, ” she said. “I live in a neighborhood where I walk down one or two blocks and I am taking a stroll on the promenade. This has changed how I focus at work or my mood on a day. I open the doors and windows and smell the ocean. I am driving home from my coworking space and I see seagulls. I have a renewed commitment to having a health a better work-life balance and practicing self-care radically.”
Luyanda is prioritizing balancing her own enjoyment with her sense of duty and rigor that was instilled in her as a child.
“I am learning to manage all the other parts of my life that I haven’t tended to as I wish I would have. The work piece I have down for now,” she said. “I am passionate about these issues and it takes a lot out of me. It is a privilege that I work in a meaningful job, but it can be tough because I care a lot about what I do.”