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Wits 2033: the leading edge of the Global South

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg has for the past century stood proudly in the heart of South Africa’s, and the continent’s, most dynamic city. As the University enters its next century, it will expand its role as a leader that shapes society – both locally and globally.

From our early beginnings as a mining school, to becoming a fully-fledged university in 1922, our driving force has always been the pursuit of knowledge and innovation. Wits was born from the need at the time to provide our city – and the country – with an institution that would provide outstanding professional training and research that was needed both to advance industry and to develop the emerging city and region.

From its inception, Wits has led change in society. Through its leaders, academics, students, and alumni it has been a pioneer for change in industry, an agitator for change in the higher education system, a catalyst for change in society, and a thought leader for change in public policy. Leading change is what defines Wits and will do so into the future.

Our academics, research leaders and students, from fields as diverse as evolutionary sciences and clinical medicine, to nuclear sciences, engineering, and the humanities, have pioneered technologies and solutions that have not only advanced their disciplines, but have transformed lives and societies. We count four Nobel Laureates and the largest number of CEOs of publicly listed companies in Africa amongst our alumni. Our graduates were some of the leading political figures in the fight against apartheid and have continued this proud tradition of fighting for social justice in the democratic era. The community we have created continues to define who we are and what we do.

Wits will be the ‘leading edge’ as the foremost research-intensive university in the Global South bridging the world’s divides using our location in Johannesburg to act as an interlocutor between the Global South and North, and being driven by our motto, Scientia et Labore, to achieve this.

Our goal is to lead in:

  • Growing the next generation of change-makers and global scholars;
  • Innovating and pioneering knowledge;
  • Using our knowledge and influence to advance society by tackling climate change and inequality, and promoting social justice and public health from the Global South;
  • Strengthening democracy and governance in South Africa; and
  • Transforming the global university landscape, taking our continental partners on this journey with us.
Situational Analysis

The world is in a state of flux, in part brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is not the first time that such disruptions have occurred, nor will it be the last. However, the challenges and changes brought on by such disruptions, both in how we live and work are here to stay and importantly, provide an opportunity to reimagine how we position Wits for the future.

The Global Context

Our world is defined by an expansion of knowledge and interconnectivity at all levels. These developments have brought about remarkable progress in areas such as health, technology, and education that have improved the quality of life for many. On the other hand, these advances have also brought about serious existing and new global challenges such as increasing inequality in an already unequal world, climate change, depletion of the earth’s resources, irreversible damage to the biosphere and emerging public health threats. The academy has a major role to play in addressing these by finding innovative, multidisciplinary, and multinational solutions.

These challenges will impact Africa harshly. Since the continent is set to become the centre of the Global South due to its rapidly expanding population, both the challenges and the opportunities for finding solutions must emanate from this region. This requires harnessing and strengthening Africa’s potential through development of its knowledge systems and academic leadership. To achieve this, Wits must play a major role on the continent by being the leading academic hub that connects the Global South and Global North in the quest for an equitable global university landscape. In this regard, our partnerships across Africa will be vital.

The technological changes and innovation of the past years have had a transformational impact on how we live, work, and learn. We must now think about the future skills and knowledge systems that are needed to manage these changes. Technological acceleration, for example, has meant that the higher education sector has become a marketplace where students can pick and choose from a far wider selection of courses and degree programmes across the globe than before, but this has also exacerbated the pre-existing divides in the sector, mostly in terms of access to online learning. The global knowledge system itself has become more interconnected due to technology and continuously opens possibilities for new and faster modes of sharing knowledge and building partnerships.

By harnessing these technological changes, it will allow Wits wider possibilities on the continent and across the globe. It is also important to use these technologies to cross borders and bring the global knowledge project closer for our students, researchers, and academic leadership.

The Local Context

In locating South Africa within this global context, we need to examine our own challenges and opportunities. Nearly three decades since democracy South Africa remains a divided society marred by deepening inequality and a state apparatus which is in perpetual decline. The impact of this is felt across the whole higher education sector, but with Wits’ location in the inner city, many of the problems are felt more profoundly within our institution. The decline of the state is a concern for Wits on two levels. The first is financial, due to decreasing teaching and research subsidies from the state. The second is that as a public institution and a research-intensive university we have a role to play in society – indeed, a duty – to harness our intellectual capital to ensure that we strengthen our democracy and governance in South Africa. Furthermore, it is also our responsibility to develop the next generation of ethical leaders who can contribute to society and grow the economy. If this is not achieved, we will have failed in our broader and fundamental responsibility to society.

Wits’ location is an immense advantage in that it is in the economic heartland of Africa. However our historic location in Braamfontein has brought about significant challenges. As the economic hub of South Africa has moved north from Johannesburg’s city centre, the downtown area has converted into a primarily residential node for lower income residents with the consequent urban management challenges of overcrowding, crime and grime. Braamfontein, our immediate neighbourhood, is increasingly a suburb of student accommodation with its attendant service sector of retail and social amenities.

However, as the song goes, ‘we built this city’ from its origins as a mining town and the city is part our DNA. Wits continues to face and contribute to addressing these challenges in many ways. We are the leading actor in the City Improvement District that provides urban management solutions to Braamfontein. Wits RHI, our internationally recognised research institute focussing on HIV, sexual and reproductive health and vaccine preventable diseases is based in Hillbrow. The Tshimologong Precinct our digital innovation ecosystem and which includes the IBM Research Centre, is based in Braamfontein.

The University initiated the Smart City Task Team with the City of Johannesburg to bring the research capacity we have into the service of the City. In these, and many other ways, the University contributes to the growth and sustainability of our neighbourhood, the City and all sectors of our society. In doing so we are addressing the issues of democracy and governance, inequality, social justice, and the sustainability of our city. All are key elements in Wits’ pursuit to lead change within the local context.

Our Purpose, Vision, and Values


Our purpose is to make a positive impact on society through:

  • creating and advancing global knowledge; and
  • fostering graduates to be leaders with integrity.


By driving innovation throughout the University, embracing the diversity of our people, disciplines and ideas, Wits will be a place where our students and staff thrive.

We will strive to empower our graduates to be socially-responsive and adaptive to an ever-changing world.

We will build on Wits’ 100 years of academic scholarship and research excellence, and use our abundance of knowledge, talent, and innovation to find solutions to the challenges of the 21st Century.

Our locale will enable us to lead from the Global South, to serve as a hub of knowledge on the continent to advance inclusive and sustainable futures for all.

We will be at the leading edge of innovation and academic excellence in the Global South.


Excellence underpins all that we do.

Our people are at the centre of what makes Wits great. We are collegial, open-minded, and respectful, and we are accountable and always act with integrity. We foster a welcoming environment and embrace the diversity of our backgrounds.

Innovation is what drives us forward. We enable a space to create, collaborate, and engage in robust and informed debate, across disciplines and boundaries.

We are committed to using our knowledge for the advancement of our community, city, country, continent, and the globe.

Strategic Framework

At the core of Wits 2033 is the advancement of a people-centric university with an ethos of excellence and innovation across all spheres of the university. To align our vision and values with our strategy, Wits will, in the next ten years, focus on four areas:

  • advancing a shared identity;
  • pursuing academic excellence;
  • achieving social impact; and
  • ensuring its sustainability.
  • Academic excellence remains Wits’ primary focus.

Innovation in today’s world is fostered by breaking down disciplinary silos. The University must cultivate multi-disciplinarity in finding solutions to the major challenges which confront humanity and our planet. And in order to ensure the University’s success, it must adopt similar multi-disciplinary approaches in its organisation and management structures and processes.

Our strategy recognises that the University’s values (excellence, innovation, collaboration, impact and people-centredness) are cross-cutting and that being at the leading edge can only be achieved by embracing these values in all we do.

The Wits 2033 Strategic Framework provides a high-level direction for the University from which an implementation plan will be devised. Each of the following themes has a set of commitments which the University undertakes to achieve by 2033.