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Inaugural and Senate lectures

The rite of passage to become a professor in a university has for hundreds of years included the test of having to profess your knowledge to a lay audience and fellow academics. Indeed, the origin of the title 'professor' comes from the need to profess, or declare publicly, one’s knowledge.

In a world of rapidly increasing quantities of knowledge, more and more specialisation takes place. One danger of this trend is that knowledge becomes isolated or ‘siloed’ and therefore fails to benefit from collective thinking and cross-pollination of ideas. It is in this context that we must see the challenge of professing knowledge with the general public and the larger academic community. It is no simple matter. It requires an ability to conceptualise highly technical and abstract matters and to express them in commonly used language, often through analogy, allowing people who have not had the privilege to grapple with the subject for extended periods to quickly grasp the elements at play.

The Inaugural Lecture is thus a platform for newly appointed professors to share their brilliant discoveries, innovative ideas and deep insights with the public and the larger academic community. Additionally, these events allow for random connections to be made that are so beneficial for the creative process we call science. Professionals and academics gain a unique opportunity to engage across knowledge boundaries for the benefit of humankind. Wits University is a proud host of such an inaugural lecture series. Our esteemed professors carry extensive knowledge capable of driving Africa towards improved social justice and a knowledge economy.

Lectures 2021

Professor Karl Rumbold: The bioeconomy in Science and Society - African Solutions to African Problems?

Climate change is affecting our planet on an unprecedented scale. It is widely accepted that the prevailing petroleum economy is responsible for global warming. Renewable energy technology has therefore been booming in recent years. But there is still a need to radically transform the way we are currently fueling, feeding, and healing the world: The bioeconomy combines all technological capabilities for the sustainable production of organic fuels, chemicals, and materials. The World is bracing for change. Are we ready for the bioeconomy? Does Africa play a role in shaping the bioeconomy?

Professor Cheryl Cohen: From epidemics to pandemics - viral respiratory illness in South Africa

The public health importance of seasonal respiratory viral illness and approaches to disease control, and the emergence and epidemiology of pandemic viruses such as SARS-CoV-2.

Professor Mulala Danny Simatele: Just give the poor cash

Just give the poor cash: My view on enhancing the adaptive capacity and resilience of the most vulnerable in society to climate change. 

There is now increased consensus that climate change has its greatest impact on the poor people who in most cases lack any form of productive capital and assets to fend off its implications and consequences. The poor people, however, are not passive actors, but are actively involved in searching for alternatives on how to build their adaptive capacity and resilience against climate induced challenges and problems. Social cash transfers (SCT) have been recognised as a critical package for reducing climate risks and building the adaptive capacity, especially for those individuals and households considered most vulnerable to climate change. Over the past 20 years, I have sought to identify practical ways in which this policy intervention can be implemented so that it yields better results for community transformation. I have learnt with great humility that the solutions already exist in communities of those poor people whose lives we seek to transform and that SCT has the potential to build their adaptive capacity and resilience by (a) contributing to meeting basic household needs; (b) helping the poor respond to climate-induced stressors and shocks; (c) helping vulnerable households to manage risk by considering alternative and innovative investments which upsurge their adaptive capacity; (d) transferring money for investment in long-term adaptive capacity development initiatives; and finally (e) facilitating mobility and sustainable livelihood transitions. It is important, however, to note that SCT is not the silver bullet which overcome and solves all the climate change challenges faced by the poor. I have come to accept and acknowledge that cash transfers cannot address all areas of adaptation, but that it is a pre-condition for further adaptation to be equitable and effective. When compared with other adaptation options, cash transfers, I believe fare well as supported by the evidence I have collected over the years. The evidence and lessons learnt, suggest that there is great potential for scaling up this policy intervention tool, and with the right political-will and transparent and inclusive implementation processes, SCT can immeasurably contribute to promoting the adaptation agenda.

Professor Elizabeth Jonck

The relationship between the packing chromatic numbers of the infinite grid and torus.

Professor Muchaparara Musemwa: The water crisis in Harare: Historical antecedents and contemporary consequences

The matter of ownership and access to land has dominated Zimbabwean politics and history for many decades. However, lost in scholarly debates as well as in political and economic policies has been water, a vital resource of equal importance. Its significance in urban areas, especially in the capital city Harare, is of growing and urgent concern. Many cities in the developing world confront the same situation as does Harare, where the urban poor lack access to clean, adequate, and affordable potable water as well as any proper sanitation infrastructure. In the case of Zimbabwe, the challenges of supplying water have been exacerbated by the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change, but there are also many other factors that require understanding. It is the purpose of this lecture to counter what I believe to be a growing tendency in current scholarship to attribute all water scarcity problems to climate change and the absence of proper sanitation to contemporary political decisions. Instead, I contend that the recurrent and serious water crisis now evident in Harare can only be understood within the context of a complex, contentious and long history of water politics in the colonial and postcolonial periods.

Professor Willem Conradie: A correspondence-theoretic journey in non-classical logic

Since the rise of modern mathematical logic in the wake of the foundational crisis of the early twentieth century, the field has seen rapid growth and has found application in many areas including mathematics itself, philosophy, theoretical computer science, artificial intelligence, linguistics and the social sciences. This and the different philosophical views on the nature of mathematics has helped stimulate the development of a wide range of non-classical logics including modal logics, intuitionistic logic, substructural logics, hybrid logics and many-valued logics, to name but a few. This lecture will provide a glimpse into the world of these logics and highlight the systematic connections that can be traced between them when viewed through the lenses of duality and correspondence theory.

Professor Matgorzata Beksinska: Innovations in condoms: Their key role in pregnancy and STI/HIV prevention

Male and female condoms are the only available multi-purpose technology (MPT) that can prevent unintended pregnancy and  sexually transmitted infections including HIV. If used correctly and consistently, condoms can provide levels of pregnancy protection similar to many hormonal methods. Condoms remain one of the most common methods used at first sexual intercourse and are relied on as a current use of contraception and STI/HIV prevention by adolescents in many regions of the world.  In particular male condoms are generally easy to access at low cost. Female condoms are more expensive than male condoms and less accessible,  however, they have the advantage of being a female-initiated  method.  Condom users may experience some common challenges, however recent advances in condom technology have led to new designs and modifications of existing products to improve quality and make them more attractive, acceptable and pleasurable for consumers and increase use.  Condoms are classified as Class II medical devices and new products are required to undergo rigorous testing including the conduct of clinical trials to assess functional performance. This lecture will present the latest innovations in condom technology including the research conducted in this area in South Africa.

Prof. Ling Cheng: Hybrid Visible Light Communication for Intelligent Transportation Systems: Challenges and Opportunities

Reliable and affordable data communication is a key to intelligent transportation systems (ITS). A hybrid power line communication (PLC) and outdoor visible light communication (VLC) system is proposed and the challenges in in-vehicle PLC and outdoor VLC are illustrated. Our recent studies were focused on new techniques and strategies to integrate heterogeneous PLC with VLC so as to improve the reliability and scalability of these data communication techniques in an ITS practice i.e. (a) based on the existing PLC and VLC standards provide a more reliable coding and modulation scheme in the physical layer of a hybrid system; (b) evolve the outdoor visible light communication techniques, which are still in their early stages of development in practice, especially on channel modelling; (c) adapt the existing techniques and propose new techniques up-to-date according to the requirements of data transmission in ITS.

Professor Sarah Wurz: Klasies River main site, a link to early roots of human innovation

The 120 000 – 50 000 year old archaeological deposits at Klasies River main site connect us to early human innovative cultural strategies and the capability to survive and adapt over many millennia of climate change, from ice ages to rising sea levels.

Professor Lilian Chenwi: Rights Enforcement in the African Human Rights Court: Restrictiveness, Progressivity and Resistance

Africa is characterised by, inter alia, oppressive political systems, a culture of impunity of those who govern, and the use of State sovereignty mantra in the face of gross and systematic rights violations. Yet, African States have, through the establishment of the African Human Rights Court, created an avenue for judicial scrutiny of their laws and executive action that affect human rights. While the Court holds great promise in relation to fighting impunity and provision of effective remedies for rights violations, ensuring respect for human rights, and fostering Africa’s quest for good governance, development and regional integration, it operates amidst State resistance and other complexities, threatening its effectiveness and existence. Against this background, has the Court shown restrictiveness or progressivity in its enforcement of rights?


Lectures 2020

Professor Frederik Booysen: Health and Health Care in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond

Pandemics are rare events, events that fundamentally disrupt the social and economic fibre of societies. COVID-19, the first global public health crisis to hit the world in a century, holds far-reaching consequences, not only for our present health and well-being, but for health care and its delivery, organization and financing, now and into the future.

In this lecture, I first outline the pre-existing inequalities in the South African health care landscape. I then proceed to use various analyses and evidence to illustrate the pandemic’s likely implications for South Africans’ health and well-being, highlighting the likely role of emotional support in curbing the impending increase in the country’s mental health deficit. I round out the lecture by reflecting on the various policy implications of the pandemic and its longer-term impacts on society.

Professor Sumaya Laher: The 4I=R2 Framework: Advancing an agenda for psychological assessment in South Africa

The unprecedented rise in the use of technologies across all sectors during COVID-19 hastened South Africa's participation in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). However access and distributional challenges in South Africa remain core concerns amidst a volatile and complex global context. Psychology and psychological assessment in particular requires a rethinking within this time and space. This lecture will present a brief history of assessment internationally and locally to contextualize the need for a 4I=R2 framework for assessment in South Africa. The 4I=R2 framework affords an opportunity for the discipline to advance beyond traditional assessment practices where the 4 I’s of Inclusion, Indigenisation, Innovation and Impact was discussed as necessary components for a relevant and responsive discipline. In so doing the lecture presented evidence where traditional forms of assessment are evolving in line with social contexts and technological developments. The extent to which this aids in addressing challenges in the South African assessment landscape with regards to theory, research, policy and practice was discussed together with what still needs to be done to meet the 4I=R2 vision.

Professor Marianne Cronje Metallated Complexes & Apoptosis: New bullets in our chemotherapeutic arsenal?

Cancer is a growing burden in Africa. By 2040, it is estimated that cancer incidence will more than double in Sub-Saharan Africa, and that more than twice as many cancer deaths will occur in low- and middle-income countries compared to upper-income countries. Worldwide, cancer causes more deaths than AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined, and the global burden is estimated to be 27 million new cancer cases in 2050. Cancer represents a significant and under-appreciated public health problem in Africa.

Most chemotherapeutic agents result in severe side-effects and eventual resistance to treatment. Thus, finding alternative compounds that are target-specific, highly effective yet easy to manufacture and available at low cost remains urgent and important. An overview of our endeavours this past decade will provide further insight into the selective targeting of cell death with metallated compounds in cancer cells and support our belief that these are promising additions to the arsenal of chemotherapeutics.


Lectures 2019

Professor Manoel Bittencourt: Africa, economics and development
In this lecture, Bittencourt talked about African contemporaneous development. He also spoke about the role of pre-colonial institutions, and the slave trade, and the scramble for Africa, and also about the colonial institutions themselves. To understand African contemporaneous development - and ultimately to influence policy - we must have African historical development in mind.

For that, new datasets, new methods and modern economics can really help. He showed how the literature on African economic development has evolved since the 1990s and how his teaching and research take the latest scientific developments into account.

Professor Eunice Mphako-Banda: Is a knot a knot? That is the question!
We go deeper into knots – those fascinating geometrical objects which are very simple to visualise, yet remarkably hard to analyse. Simply considering a piece of string, tying a knot and gluing the two loose ends of the string together forms a knotted loop. Such a knotted loop is called a knot in mathematics. Knot theory delves into answering the question of deciding whether two knotted loops made of flexible, but impenetrable material can be transformed by means of continuous modifications into knotted loops having the same shape. Further, one may ask whether an arbitrary knot is a knot. To answer such questions, knot invariants are employed. Two knot invariants; the number of components and the pathwidth of a knot were discussed. Further, the mathematics behind these invariants, the Tutte polynomial were presented.
Professor Jonah Choiniere: The rise of dinosaurs in southern Africa
Two hundred million years ago, a mass extinction event upheaved Earth's ecosystems, causing the demise of nearly 75% of its species. Dinosaurs flourished in the wake of this event, becoming the dominant land-dwelling vertebrates for the next 135 million years. Southern Africa's rich fossil deposits make it the best place in the world for studying this extinction and its aftermath. Choiniere shared the results of seven years of fieldwork and fossil study in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, giving an emerging picture on the dawn of the dinosaur era.
Professor Jerome Loveland: Paediatric surgery at Wits: embracing the new millennium
The Department of Paediatric Surgery has made a significant contribution to the development of paediatric surgery in South Africa, this through the development and training of numerous paediatric surgeons who have made their mark both nationally and throughout the world. The Department at Wits has become a major focus of teaching and training for South African paediatric surgeons, as well as for international trainees from both Africa and abroad. More recently, the Department has focused on enhancing its clinical research outputs, as well as developing specific clinical sub-specialties within paediatric surgery. This lecture traced the Wits Paediatric Surgery's origins from the infancy of surgery in Johannesburg in the 1880s, to a unit with a now well-established clinical and research reputation both within South Africa and abroad.
Professor Pamila Gupta : Writing decolonisation: Seven keywords
It starts in Goa (India), moves to Southern and East Africa (Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, and Zanzibar), and returns to Goa. The framing device was that of “keywords” as a vocabulary of culture and society (following Raymond Williams, 1976) in order to reflect shifting research interests and writings on decolonisation.

Lectures 2018

Professor Robyn Lynne Van Zyl: My anaemic symbiotic relationship with malaria
Malaria remains a concern for all those living on the African continent. Attempts to elucidate critical pathways within this intriguing parasite, and to discover potential antimalarial compounds, have required commitment and resolve. This inaugural lecture will highlight some of the lessons learned during the journey. 
Professor Peter Kamerman: The open road: Open and reproducible research
The past five years has seen a groundswell in the biomedical sciences for transparent analysis and open data. I will discuss some of the key forces that are driving this change in behaviour, and how technological advances are making it easier for 'old dogs' such as myself to learn (and teach my students) how to report data in an open and accessible way.
Professor Geoffrey Candy: Finding Small
Small' comes in many guises: a molecule, a bacterium in the gut, elucidating the mechanism of a disease, an experimental animal, the interaction with a patient, supervising a post-graduate student or mentoring and advising the trainee specialist clinician/surgeon. Scientists working in Health Sciences must undertake translational research to be clinically relevant. Candy describes the challenges and highlights working as a biochemist and scientist working in the clinical field of surgery and clinical medicine.
Professor Lynne Schepartz: Women and children first: A deep history of health inequalities
Drawing on her experience with health inequalities in prehistoric populations, Professor Schepartz presents how she pursues similar questions regarding the impact of gender and social roles on health in contemporary African societies. Her research employs a multidisciplinary perspective, incorporating data on dental growth and development, oral health and biocultural anthropology.
Rebellion and resistance: South African young adult dystopian fiction
Judith Inggs, Professor of Translation at Wits University
25 October

Event Time : 18:00

Venue : Braamfontein Campus East

Dystopian fiction for young adults in South Africa has increased in both quality and quantity in recent years, and is able to hold its own against globally celebrated trilogies such as Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games or Veronica Roth's Divergent. While young adult literature often reflects changes taking place in society as the protagonists negotiate a sense of identity and position of power within the institutions of their society, in dystopian literature the young protagonists take a leading role in opposing and subverting the totalitarian societies that have emerged. This lecture highlights recent works by South African authors and seeks to situate them in both a local and global political and historical perspective. The focus is on the portrayal of female protagonists and questions whether writers are promoting the active agency of young women as empowered citizens or whether they are inadvertently reinforcing the traditional role of females as nurturers, ultimately dependent on their male counterparts.

Professor Charis Harley: Pursuing knowledge: The unpopular choice
Scientific achievement and the development of economic success has been the focus of universities, to varying degrees, since their first inception. More specifically, the research engendered by these academic institutions has been a part of humanity's attempts to seek truth. From this purpose followed certain intellectual and moral obligations, such as the continual support and sanctioning of debates around the merits of past and current ideas, and the development of those minds eager to attain knowledge. However, as society's norms and values have altered, so too have the pressures faced by universities, and the academics therein. Having transformed at the behest of so many, at times opposing forces, we should re-evaluate what we define our purpose to be, and how we aim to achieve it. Simplistically, are academics losing relevance? Are we still perceived as part of the intellectual elite of our era? Do we still hold with high regard the pursuit of knowledge, and aim to produce individuals who will contribute to society? Or have the pressures we face led to our consensual participation in a race for popularity, ultimate group righteousness, and hence continual intellectual comfort?
Professor Tracy-Lynn Humby: Mining and post-extractivism: How do we talk about contribution and cost?

Under a post-extractivist model of development, poverty would be a thing of the past and rights would be conceded to nature. Under the current dominant model of predatory extractivism, mining promises poverty alleviation and manageable impacts but contributes to highly unequal development and the erosion of the commons. Multiple pro- and dissenting mining discourses presently frame contribution and cost in a manner that makes common ground appear elusive. In her lecture, Humby asks: How should a post-extractivist mining discourse present contribution and cost; and would it facilitate a common political agenda?

Professor Augustine Munagi: A non-random walk through partitions of integers and sets

Whenever a finite set of distinct objects splits into subsets in which only the size of each subset is of significance, the object of interest is a partition of the integer cardinality. The ramifications of this relationship between integer partitions and set partitions is ubiquitous in number theory and combinatorics, with applications in statistical mechanics, group representation theory, molecular chemistry and vertex colouring of planar graphs, to name just a few. This lecture will trace a selective path of recent discoveries under the two themes.

Professor Noor Nieftagodien: Public history in times of decolonisaton: Reflections on the past and present

The lecture will reflect on the ideas and practices that shaped Public History. Contrary to expectations, the moment of formal decolonisaton – the post-1994 era of democracy – did not lead to an embrace of the transformative impulses inherent in Public History. Instead, History came under pressure to support the production of ANC-centric narratives of the liberation struggle and to become institutionalized in the service of mega heritage projects. These objectives of the new ruling elite were always challenged and increasingly so as popular discontent gained momentum from the mid-2000s. It will finally be suggested that the Fees Must Fall movement powerfully and urgently placed on the agenda the need to rethink the role of public universities. Encapsulated in the demand for ‘decolonised education', this movement further opened space to critically reflect on the relationship between the academy and publics. By reconnecting to its roots, Public History, undergirded by rigorous and principled intellectual work and a commitment to dialogical practices, can contribute to a revitalisation of the idea of a decolonised public university. In so doing, Public History can also be reimagined.

Professor Joel Quirk: Speaking Truth to Power? The political appeal of 'Modern Slavery'
Calling something ‘slavery' is a popular way of seeking to draw attention and investment to specific causes and issues. One recent example of this strategy is the category of ‘modern slavery', which has unexpectedly emerged as a major source of popular fascination and political mobilisation since the mid-1990s. Over the years, numerous governments and activists have declared their intention to end slavery once and for all. However, there are a number of fundamental differences between transatlantic enslavement and ‘modern slavery'. In stark contrast to historical campaigns to end legal enslavement, which were firmly aimed at the profits and privileges of the rich and powerful, campaigns today rarely pose a direct threat to major political and economic interests, particularly in the Global North. Governments and corporations feel comfortable supporting campaigns against exceptional cases of ‘modern slavery' – rather than broader campaigns for migrant, worker or women's rights – because they selectively focus on deviant criminals and ‘bad apples', thereby pushing larger global systems of exploitation, violence, discrimination and privilege into the background. High profile campaigns against ‘modern slavery' have secured support because they do not rock the boat. How much can a campaign realistically accomplish if it is popular because it doesn't make waves?
Professor Imraan Valodia: Economics in the real world: Reflections on three policy engagements
In his inaugural lecture Valodia will reflect on the role of an economist in shaping policies aimed at reducing inequality. He will focus on three policy issues that have played some role in guiding ‘academic discussions' to actual policy recommendations. These are the proposal for a National Minimum Wage in South Africa; the proposed amendments to the Competition Act; and finally, the proposal to increase the rate of VAT from 14% to 15%.