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Wits, Limpopo and Venda join hands

- Wits University

Long-term relationships and joint projects between universities bearing fruit.

Collaborations between Wits, the University of Limpopo (UL) and the University of Venda (Univen) are yielding significant results that are benefitting all partners.

“Partnerships between South African universities are fundamental in strengthening local knowledge and contribute to advancing our country’s educational, economic and social development,” says Wits Vice-Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib. “These collegial partnerships have led to ground-breaking work across institutions, disciplines and cultural spheres, and we are looking forward to further deepening our ties.”

While Wits and the UL have been working together for over two decades in various capacities, the two institutions cemented their relationship by signing a Memorandum of Agreement focusing on specific academic projects in the areas of engineering, health sciences, education, mathematics and social sciences this year. The agreement includes staff mentoring and capacity building, student exchanges and access to research and teaching facilities through Wits’ Rural Facility in Mpumalanga. 

“A major benefit of these initiatives is that it enables more effective use of research and teaching resources through a reciprocated arrangement,” says Professor Mahlo Mokgalong, UL’s Vice-Chancellor.

There are many long-term relationships and joint projects in place across faculties at the three institutions, some of which are highlighted below. 

Understanding health, population and social transitions

One example is the partnership between the Faculties of Health Sciences involved in the Wits/Medical Research Council’s Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt) and the Dikgale Health and Demographic Surveillance System (Digkale HDSS) at the University of Limpopo.

“The Agincourt Unit, a pioneer in rural health research, was instrumental in the establishment of Dikgale HDSS. Both entities seek to better understand the dynamics of health, population and social transitions in the rural south and southern Africa in order to mount more effective public health, policy and social responses,” says Research Professor Stephen Tollman, Director of Agincourt and Head of the Health and Population Division in the Wits School of Public Health. “Both institutions are affiliated to INDEPTH, a global network of health and demographic surveillance systems made up of centres from low- and middle-income countries with the responsibility of providing reliable health and population data. Over the years Dikgale, with sites in eight villages in Limpopo province, has published valuable research in the areas of mortality, fertility, migration and household composition.”

The Dikgale HDSS is also one of six centres involved in AWI-Gen, the Africa Wits-INDEPTH partnership for genomic studies on cardiometabolic diseases in African populations, which is a Collaborative Centre within the Human Heredity and Health in Africa Consortium (H3Africa). “Dikgale, under the leadership of Dr Marianne Alberts (UL), is contributing valuable data and biospecimens from a rural population to help us understand environmental and genetic contributions to the increase in obesity and the risk for non-communicable diseases in these communities,” says Professor Michèle Ramsay, principal investigator of AWI-Gen and Director of the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB). 

The Digkale HDSS also undertakes research in cardiometabolic diseases as a member of the AWI-Gen Collaborative Centre.

Exploring bioinformatics 

The changing nature of health means that institutions have to share their expertise to accelerate capacity building. Bioinformatics is a new discipline and there is very little expertise available nationally in this area. Wits staff members from the faculties of engineering and science and the SBIMB have taught introductory courses at theUL.

Another area of cooperation is the Southern African Human Genome Programme (SAHGP) driven by Wits and the University of Pretoria, with five other universities involved, including the University of Limpopo. “The SAHGP is funded by the Department of Science and Technology and aims to make a significant contribution to the understanding of DNA variation amongst southern Africans and how this impacts on the health of the people of our country,” says Ramsay. “Potential long-term benefits could include new ways to diagnose, treat and eventually prevent the numerous diseases and disorders that affect the people of this region.”

Wits also has a signed agreement with the University of Venda to collaborate on a range of activities of national relevance. “We believe that we can do more together by pooling our resources and sharing common areas of teaching and research,” says Professor Peter Mbati, Vice-Chancellor of the Univen.

Improving governance

Univen and the Wits Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management are also currently exploring new partnerships. “We are looking at collaboration in the delivery of short courses, especially in the area of governance and business development,” says Professor Imraan Vaoldia, Dean of the Wits Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management. “Univen has developed an institute to work with government and business to improve the performance of government. One component of the activities in this area is to offer accredited short courses for government officials at the local and provincial government level. Wits has a wealth of experience in this area and we will be working to support the initiative at Univen. A similar initiative is envisaged with respect to business development courses.”  

Working to end vulnerability

There is research evidence to suggest that sexual minority students (LGBTIQ) are marginalised, prejudiced and discriminated against in various contexts in higher education. Negative experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex students are shared globally. 

“Although national legislation pronounces protection and non-discrimination on the basis of gender and sexual orientation these human right protections are not always realised,” says Univen’s Professor Mavhandu-Mudzusi who is conducting research in this area. “It is reported that students at the University of Venda face prejudice from fellow students in lectures, in residences and in sport. They also face abuse and marginalisation from lecturers. Their complaints against unfair treatment are not considered seriously and not always investigated by university management.”

This is a widespread problem in African universities and research by Professor Mzikazi Nduna at the Department of Psychology at Wits confirms this assertion. A joint project commenced in 2014 and is focused on knowledge generation in this field. “We hope to contribute to the bigger debates around homosexuality in the SADC region. This work is crucial as 38 of the 54 countries on the continent criminalise same sex activities,” concludes Nduna. 

There are several other projects in the pipeline.