Former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland on Tuesday told MPs, that contrary to fears, universal health coverage would improve the South African economy.
"By investing in your people you will create economic growth," she told a joint meeting of the portfolio committee on health and the select committee on social services.
Brundtland said research showed that the returns on universal health care systems far outweighed the cost. And history showed that many nations who successfully implemented national health care systems, did so at a time when their economies were not strong, particularly in Europe after World War II.
"Many of the countries that introduced a national health insurance system were very poor after the war and in a very poor condition, so this is not an argument not to do it."
She said South Africa needed to address concerns about the country's levels of corruption, but that was not mutually exclusive with overhauling the national health care system.
"You have a number of issues to deal with but the NHI is part of what you need to do. Clear up your society and move into a new era with less corruption and more equality."
Brundtland was part of a delegation of The Elders, a group of leaders working for peace and human rights, who addressed the committee weeks after the government tabled the National Health Insurance Bill.
It has been described as unworkable and possibly unconstitutional by critics.
Many have warned that South Africa could not afford the cost of the system the bill seeks to establish and that the state lacked the ability to run a corruption free entity of its scale.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize in his closing remarks to the meeting agreed that government needed to curb corruption and stressed that the current distribution of health resources was unfair.
Government says the NHI is aimed at addressing the imbalance in the health care system which sees 84 percent of the population rely on an understaffed public system while 16 percent have access to private health care.
Mkhize said this imbalance was so great that he believed "we need to discriminate to create equality".
Brundtland and several other members of The Elders, including former Irish president Mary Robinson and the widow of former president Nelson Mandela, Graca Machel, were due to meet with President Cyril Ramaphosa later on Tuesday.