Pavlo Phitidis sets a challenge for small business owners and offers practical advice.
Wits Business School alumnus Pavlo Phitidis (MBA 2001) and co-founder of Aurik shared a personal tale of his business journey in a talk titled “Reset Rebuild Reignite” with about 240 alumni on 27 May 2021.
As an entrepreneur and innovator Phitidis was earnest about harnessing the skills and expertise within the alumni community to affect global change: “We are finally getting an alumni community together. Those friendships have yielded me not only with tremendous meaning and joy, warmth and love, but also tremendous value. I think that we’re becoming Argonauts as South Africans. It’s really important to figure out a way to connect with each other because the success of South Africa, or any other part of the world is a success to all of us because we are part of a community,” he said.
Phitidis, who comes from a family of entrepreneurs used Carl Gustav Jung’s sentiment – that we are all somehow trapped by the images of our past and carry them into the future – to frame his talk.
“I was born into a family of entrepreneurs and I saw directly what business life was all about for individuals who had to get into businesses to generate income to raise their families, feed their families, educate, house and create a legacy of some form. Employed people see it as a pension, entrepreneurs see that classically as an exit of sale of a business. Two of my uncles worked into their late 80s, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. They built businesses that generated income, but built businesses that were simply not able to be sold.”
From his 25 years of direct experience in conceptualizing and building businesses across four continents, as well as expertise in mergers and acquisitions he said there was an enormous gap between what people think their business is worth and the actual calculations – even that of his father’s business.
“I got hauled into the family business with my father, only to realise that a man I truly loved and admired, was in dire straits. His life’s work was coming to an end and there was no value in the business. He’d done everything right, done it by the book. He had done everything we are taught to do, and yet it was just not possible for him to get that exit.”
Over the years Phitidis learned the mathematics of valuation, which helped to close the enormous gap between the way that people build businesses to generate income and how businesses need to be built in order to be sold. Based on the data-rich economy of the United States, he was able to analyse that 94.6% of businesses started in the US failed to sell. This statistic was similar to a study in Australia, which showed that 97.2% of businesses started failed to sell.
Phitidis’s business specialises in the genesis of starting, investing and building businesses into assets of value. “Over nine years, we sold 12 businesses, across six sectors: two listed on the JSE, two failed, three sold to management buyouts and five were bought by corporate entities looking for growth and innovation.”
He offered a guide on the lessons learned from these experiences. “We defined 207 very clear activities and put them into a very well-structured sequence which we now offer to over 2 871 businesses.” And the results are impressive: “The average compound growth rates that we have seen across that portfolio sits at 28.9% – that is a business that doubles in its revenue every 33-34 months! The average exiting growth rates sit at 32.4%,” he said.
The COVID-19 pandemic presented a particular crisis. “I got the fright of my life; it felt like the blood left my entire system because we’ve got about 600-odd clients and you can imagine 75% of our revenue attached to their growth performance. This was not looking good.”
Phitidis challenged alumni to connect: “Please help. We are growing a highly sophisticated service and product built in South Africa into foreign markets and we want to work with South Africans. There is a resilience and an attitude that we have baked and built into us that we are unaware of that distinguishes us and sets us apart. We’re looking for colleagues and contacts across the US, across Europe, across Ireland, across Australia, across New Zealand and across the UK. So please reach out and let’s have a conversation.”
State capture labyrinth demands tireless collaboration
Alumna gives credit to support and investigative team.
Respected Advocate Kate Hofmeyr (BA Hons 2001, LLB 2003) has been an evidence leader at the State Capture Commission since 2018, where she is responsible for the evidence of over 40 witnesses, including former ministers, directors-general, CEOs, CFOs, SOE board members and auditors.
On 24 March 2021 she led more than 360 alumni through three aspects of the commission: its “unusual origins”, its “machinery and mechanics” as well as insights into the different role commission advocates assume.
She outlined her Herculean task and despite many probing questions from attendees, she deftly permitted herself only one personal comment: “I had the considerable privilege of working with a team of four investigators from mid-2018 to mid-2020. They were without a doubt the most remarkable people I have worked with in my career.
“They came from a variety of backgrounds, from different parts of the country and between them they had forensic, criminal investigation and financial accounting skills. We met weekly and then daily. We had colour-coded excel spread sheets tracking every element of our investigations so that nothing would fall through the cracks.
“We were doggedly committed to doing our work to the best of our abilities. We laughed often, we cried on occasion (well it was only I who got teary-eyed), but we learnt an extraordinary amount from each other. It’s no exaggeration to say that by the end of our two-and-a-half years together, the investigators on my team were pointing us, the lawyers, to the areas of law that needed to be considered. I am sure that many of my colleagues on the legal team had similar experiences.
“What’s important to appreciate is that each time any of us appeared at the hearings to present evidence, we were presenting the product of thousands of hours of tireless investigative work.”
In the first of the webinar series for 2021, on 24 February, Dr Alex Granger asked the more than 340 alumni attendees to consider the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras. It is situated in an extreme weather zone built to withstand the worst of mother nature’s onslaughts. In 1988 it withstood Hurricane Mitch – the second-deadliest Altantic hurricane on record — while other infrastructure was devastated and over 11 000 fatalities were recorded. Dr Granger – considered one of the top leadership coaches and speakers — asked what the point of an unbreakable bridge was, that lead nowhere. Although a great landmark, the bridge offered a metaphor for what happens when one fails to adapt to life’s “changing currents”. He said the COVID-19 pandemic illustrated the need to adjust to change with flexibility in all areas.
Dr Granger’s talk — peppered with corporate ancedotes, motivational quotes, practical applications to improve one’s creative imagination – and even a quiz for participants to access their levels of “grit”— offered helpful pointers. Alumni responded with comments such as “I was so close to shutting down my two-year business and I am rethinking that”; “I wish my team knew some of these lesson you’ve spoken about” and “this is what I needed”. Dr Granger even obliged alumni who asked — and broke out in song at the end of the webinar. Access full webinar here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aFhU4I_uQJ0
James Clear — Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones
Angela Duckworth — Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Future winners will embrace trends quickly
Global financial leader sees a silver lining after a year of upheaval.
In a year characterised by disruption, the 2020 Wits alumni webinar series fittingly closed with a talk by global financial leader Dixit Joshi (BSc 1992) titled “The Future of the Global Financial Industry”. Joshi is the current Group Treasurer of Deutsche Bank, based in London and has extensive executive experience at major global financial institutions. The statistics and actuarial science graduate said that, surprisingly, the events of this year had illuminated what lay ahead for the financial industry. The full talk is available here.
Joshi offered a summary of 2020: an economic shock of unparalleled depth and speed whose consequences will take years to play out; an equally large response through government support packages, which has necessarily pushed public debt to record levels; restrictions on individual freedoms which are unprecedented during peace time; the promise of safe vaccines, which gives some scope to look ahead positively to a post COVID-19 environment.
Moreover, there remained global trends that COVID-19 would not change: geo-political tensions between the US and China for instance; the European Union’s need to redefine its place post Brexit; increased social imbalances as well as increased generational imbalances in which the debt burden – coupled with the prospect of widespread unemployment – will fall largely on younger generations; exacerbated social inequality, evidenced by many white collar jobs being done from home in contrast to manual labour; and the fight against climate change. Joshi stressed that if these challenges were not addressed adequately people would seek solutions at the ballot box.
He said the pandemic had amplified trends already underway prior to 2020. “The winners in the financial industry of the future, will be those players who embrace and adapt to those trends quickly.” Joshi outlined these trends to be:
Interest rates would remain low for longer, which came with several consequences. “The search for yield by investors will continue, particularly as populations age, as investors want yield from high-risk assets, we do need to be prepared for some bouts of volatility in future.”
The decline of cash would accelerate. “For most of this year, cash was not only unusable, but was actually a health risk. The flu virus can survive 17 days on a bank note.” This trend will have a number of implications: digital alternatives to cash will spread faster, not only as a means of exchange but as a way to store value. “We’ve seen the rise of cryptocurrencies and the risks. We’ve seen spectacular frauds like OneCoin and more completely unregulated shadow banking systems with all the risks.” Joshi said this means policymakers and regulators will face pressure to act faster in integrating digital alternatives into the existing financial system. We’re likely to see more work done on central bank digital technologies.
As our lives become more digital, more transactions will be online. “Financial service providers will have to deliver more online solutions for customers,” he said. These digital technologies will also provide opportunities for more structural cost saving for the banking industry, which is vital if we are to live with low interest rates for much longer. From machine learning and artificial intelligence we will see more support for tasks and decisions. “We’ll see further migration to the Cloud as financial services firms around the world will face increasing pressure to automate infrastructure processes.”
It is in this digital era that scale will be more important. “Scale becomes critical not only because of the scale of transformational investment needed, but due to the competitive advantage of monetising returns on investment over larger customer bases. This is particularly important in Europe, where banking and capital markets have remained fragmented and cross-border consolidation has been slow. Of the world’s top 20 banks, by market value, only two are from the Eurozone and nine of the top 10 are US or Chinese. “As Europe defines its place in the increasingly muscular geopolitics of the 21st century, banking and capital market union are more important than ever.”
The financial industry can be a vital enabler in tackling the global climate emergency. “Most governments in leading economies have made commitments to renewable energy as part of the fight against climate change. These commitments are of such a large scale that they can’t be financed from the public purse alone and are dependent on public-private investment. At a time of regulatory constraints on balance sheets, the capital markets become more critical in helping turn savings globally into capital for investment. Sustainable financing is already a growth area and this will accelerate as governments approach key targets to decrease dependence on fossil fuels – such as phasing out of petrol and diesel engines in the next 10 to 20 years.” Sustainable financing through the green bond market and ESG [environmental, social and governance] investing are likely to become part of the mainstream. Banks will come under increased pressure to scale back or discontinue the financing of fossil fuel energy and other business activity that contributes to global warming.
Financial inclusion is an historic opportunity. “Around 1,5 billion people, 20% of the human race, remain outside the banking system and that is a fundamental barrier to reducing some the most extreme examples of social inequality,” Joshi said. “One of the priorities for the financial industry in the digital era is to seize opportunities to increase financial inclusion. For example, iris or other recognition and other digital ID services solves the problem of literacy. Online or telephone banking transforms the economics of low-value transactions.” Businesses are increasingly thinking globally, but acting locally (glocalisation). “So for that reason, financial inclusion becomes not just a priority, but a social and a moral duty for the financial industry of the future.”
In the banking industry, business models that relied on certain levels of net interest income need to be re-examined. “Dynamic balance sheet management becomes even more important. As treasurer to one of the industry’s largest balance sheets I’ve witnessed this first-hand.”
A committed and proud alumnus, Joshi has retained a key Wits value, to use one’s professional role to deepen social engagement. He reminded participants: “Combining academic excellence with social engagement is what makes Wits a truly unique institution.” This sentiment was echoed in his summary: “We will become more digital (not only in the way we reach customers but also in the way we manage our core processes front to back); we will become more scalable (as digital solutions increase and industry consolidation gains momentum); we will be more sustainable (and play our part in tackling one of the great challenges facing our world in the 21st century); we will be more inclusive (making our contribution to transforming the lives of some of the most disadvantaged of our fellow human beings).”
Stop fiddling and let’s get moving
Respected public intellectual finds gaping holes in president’s recovery plan
Founder and executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), Ann Bernstein (BA 1976, BA Hons 1977) offered a group of more than 250 alumni a sobering view of the state of South Africa’s economy on 28 October, a few hours before the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, delivered his medium-term budget.
From one of South Africa’s leading development think tanks, Bernstein has years of experience focusing on inclusive economic growth, jobs, education, skills, land reform, cities and the role of business. Her talk titled “Recovery Strategies – SA and economic recovery: Quo Vadis?” provided a candid and compelling assessment: “We have an escalating economic, fiscal, jobs and social crises. All of which have been exacerbated by poor decision making and implementation.
“We have a cabinet where different ministries approach South Africa’s challenges in different ways: The minister of finance wants to cut expenditure, the minster of public enterprises wants to fund SAA, the minister of social development wants a basic income grant for every single adult.
“We have State capacity that is demonstrably weak and riddled with corruption. There’s been no significant progress on the reform agenda. In fact, this government, nearly three years old, has a growing credibility gap.”
“There is insufficient sense of urgency to get moving and get South Africa out of the terrible situation that we’re in. I see a country adrift, desperate for bold leadership, direction and action.”
She shared CDE’s key insights over the past six months. She suggested, in order for South Africa to move forward, there needs to be an acknowledgment of what brought the country to this point. “Real honesty is required about what has gone wrong and why.” She suggested that this acknowledgement could be used as an essential foundation to start building a bridge out of the disaster.
“It’s not just COVID-19 and the lockdown, but it’s 12 years – probably more – of misrule by the government. It’s not just the Guptas and State Capture, but it’s bad policy decisions on almost every front. We have an approach to markets, to investment that has led to economic decline and a junk-status rating.”
She offered a brief summary of the President Cyril Ramaphosa’s recovery plan, released on 15 October, outlining its contradictions and shortcomings. “The plan says we want to cut red tape, but if you read the document there are subordinate goals for every programme, especially set aside procurement processes, which will increase red tape enormously.” She said: “The core proposals rather happily envisage an increase in the costs of doing business in South Africa.”
A key component of the plan was an infrastructure drive, but Bernstein questioned if it made sense. “Is it a growth strategy?” She suggested the plan is not a silver bullet, but “everything is going to depend on building the right infrastructure that supports growth (and pays for itself); at the right price (so the ability to pay for itself is increased); that we have the resources to maintain it. This is not clear in the plan at all.”
She stressed the need for greater urgency. “Let’s move much, much faster. Think of the cost of delay. In February 2019, a special task team gave him [Ramaphosa] a report on what to do about Eskom. At that stage Eskom’s debt was R450 billion. Today, October 2020, that debt is heading for R500 billion. We need to have a better energy plan, but this plan doesn’t announce anything new.”
Another key component is “reforms for growth”. According to Bernstein this is a list of similar proposals, which haven’t materialised over the past four years. One example is e-visas. “Many countries much poorer than South Africa have an excellent e-visa system. In February 2019 we were told this was the highest priority of the president for the year – to establish a world-class e-visa regime. Here we are October 2020 and the plan says ‘efforts will be focused now on putting in place an efficient e-visa programme’.”
Bernstein suggested Ramaphosa’s “wish list” leaves many unanswered big questions: How credible is this? How fast will it happen? Have the battles been joined to make it happen? If the State is broken, how do we fix it?
“I think South Africa has all the great potential to be a great African lion of an economy, but we keep disappointing. We’re now in a deep cycle of decline. We cannot make progress if we continue along the same lines.
“We have to rethink the attitudes, the policies that have brought the country to this sorry state. Tweaking, fiddling on the edges, avoiding the big issues will not do the job as the past three years have shown us.
“It is true that our State is weak, corrupt and ineffective but we do have capacity in South Africa. We have a private sector that is strong, not perfect, that could be even more impressive if it were not restrained and held back by policy makers’ unjustified belief in the merits of a commandist, disciplining developmental State.”
She said the State can and must be fixed. The private sector, in the meantime, needs to be supported and freed, instead of being smothered by regulation. This can be seen in the areas of energy supply and land reform.
“There will be no recovery if government’s ambiguous, anti-business policies persist. The government- business relationship has to change fundamentally. We need a State that seeks to enable business growth, not one that sees itself as responsible for ‘disciplining capital’ or continually expanding the role of the State in the economy when it has no capacity.
“The country needs leadership, not endless processes that never seem to get beyond fiddling or tweaking. I am opposed to the prevailing view that compacting will solve everything. We can use compacting to bring people together, to find a common road, but without leadership and a new vision for South Africa, we’re not going to get anywhere.
“The president has to put the national interest above party unity and electioneering. He has to build the political coalitions necessary for South Africa to start doing things differently. That’s what’s missing.”
“We need much greater seriousness and honesty about where we are today, how bad things are today and a much-more strategic and speedier approach on how we can move forward.”
Find the complete talk here in which Bernstein discusses what she wished the president had said when he released his economic recovery plan.
Update on COVID-19 and insights into the vaccine trials
Leader in first in two vaccine studies undertaken in Africa briefs alumni.
A familiar name to many South Africans over the past few months Wits alumnus Professor Shabir Madhi (MBBCh 1990, MMed 1999, PhD 2004) provided an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa on 29 September 2020. Prof Madhi has been appointed as Dean of the Health Sciences Faculty in 2021 and leads the charge in two COVID-19 clinical vaccine trials in South Africa. He serves both as Director of the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council and Research Chair in Vaccine Preventable Diseases of the Department of Science and Innovation/National Research Foundation. He holds the Chair of the National Advisory Group on Immunization in South Africa and is a member of the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts.
Prof Madhi outlined infection rate statistics, the deaths and excessive mortality, the implications of a “second wave” as well as insights into the access to COVID-19 vaccines for low-middle-income countries.
He said when reflecting on the numbers around the pandemic and how it unfolds, that one of the important metrics (to see if you’re getting a true reflection of the cases) is the positivity rate. “A high positivity rate, reflects the bias that a select group is being tested more.” The threshold which WHO recommends, as an indicator that an adequate amount of testing is being done, is where the positivity rate is less than 10%. Once this is under 5%, it suggests a limited spread of transmission in a population and an adequate testing rate.
“In South Africa when we were recording between 10 000 to12 000 new cases per day (around middle of July), the positivity rate was 27%. This indicates at the peak of the outbreak, although we were reporting about 14 000 case per day, that was probably a complete underestimate of the number of individuals being infected.
“More recently our positivity rate is in the region of 5-10%, suggesting that there is dampening of transmission of the virus, but we’re not out of the woods.”
One of COVID-19’s striking features, is that less than 5% have been documented in Africa. There’s a disconnect between the size of the population relative to the number of COVID-19 cases documented. The data indicates the limitations we have on the continent to quantify the pandemic. “This is more than an academic exercise. When it comes to vaccines, countries may be prioritised based on what is shown as being the burden of COVID-19. This is an important narrative, so that African countries aren’t at the short end of the stick for making a case for access to COVID-19 vaccines.”
Prof Madhi said: “We don’t have ability to contain the spread of the virus. Infections will continue to occur. What we do have control over, is our ability to protect individuals who are vulnerable from severe disease. There should be a much greater focus on how to protect them.”
Dean shares insights from coalface of the pandemic.
On 24 August Professor Martin Veller (MBBCh 1979, MMed 1990), Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and professor in the University’s Department of Surgery, shared his insights from the coalface of the pandemic. He reflected on Wits’ response to the pandemic, how the health sciences faculty was navigating medical training and shared personal observations. Professor Veller said the Faculty ranked 77th out of 25 000 for clinical and preclinical disciplines in the Times Higher Education Ranking of Universities in the World.
“I have been in the position to interact with a remarkable faculty – also within the University – with amazing people. One feels pride, as a member of the University, to see the impact it is making even during a difficult time.” See full talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGFOLfD9c3M
Golden smiles across six continents
Wits Dental School Class of 1970 50th Anniversary Reunion
The Wits Dental School class of 1970 celebrated their 50th anniversary virtually on 5 July after original travel plans to meet in Stellenbosch, South Africa were scuppered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr Colin Richman (BDS 1970) convened the programme from Perio, Atlanta in the US while golden graduates updated each other on career and family developments.
A message of congratulations came from distinguished alumnus Dr Stanley Bergman (BCom 1972, CTA 1973, DCom honoris causa 2016), Board Chair of the Wits Fund and CEO of Henry Schein: “As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: ‘To leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition, to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived: This is to have succeeded!’…Our time to create impact is uncertain, as evidenced by the fact that 10 members of this Reunion Class are no longer with us. But while we are still able, let’s continue rising to the opportunities – not barriers – presented to us.
“While not occurring in person, your convening during these unprecedented times is a testament to your collective bond. Assuredly our time at Wits was and is special, and I congratulate you on coming together to honor and celebrate the importance of your school’s years upon your lives.”
The event culminated in celebratory toasts and alumni in attendance were Dr Alan Barnett (Philadelphia, US); Dr Joseph Berlin (Israel); Dr Spiers Breitz (Germany); Patrick Daly (SA); David Garber (Atlanta, US); Terence Gordon (California, US); Mervyn Hurwitz (Boca Raton, US); Leslie Joffe (London, UK); Sheldon Jones (SA); Gerald Kaplan (SA); David Karon (SA); Issac Kesler (SA); Neil Kramer (London, UK); Leslie Lang (SA); Tony McCullum (SA); Vince Phillips (SA); Victor Press (San Antonio, US); Colin Richman (Perio, US); Michael Rudolph (SA); Jack Shapiro (Sydney, Australia); Louis Smit (London, UK); Fred van Gelder (Holland); Anthony Widmonte (SA).
Virtual global reunion connects Witsies across the globe.
The first global alumni reunion which saw Vice-Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib introduce Vice-Chancellor designate, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi to the global alumni community was a huge success.
Although it was held as a virtual event as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, it nevertheless gave more than 800 alumni from over 20 countries an opportunity to connect and engage over two sessions to accommodate time zone differences. Many alumni had the chance to share their well wishes and posed challenging questions to the professors.
Recordings of the sessions are available on the Wits Alumni YouTube channel here and here.
Left to right: Professor Adam Habib, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Dr Stanley Bergman and Professor Colin Bundy
Both Professor Colin Bundy, trustee of the Wits Foundation UK, and Dr Stanley Bergman, Chairman of the Wits Fund, paid tribute to the sterling leadership shown by Professor Habib over the past few years. They highlighted his success at not only enhancing Wits’ academic output but also raising its stature and providing innovative clarity on the University’s role during a time of transformation. They noted how Professor Vilakazi was best suited to take over the role as VC in 2021: “Zeblon possesses a powerful vision, an in-depth experience and the ability to cultivate relationships with key internal and external stakeholders which will enable him to lead the university through a difficult period both from an economic and institutional point of view,” said Dr Bergman.
Congratulations Prof Vilakazi. Wishing you all the best for the future. You have our support to make Wits a success. Rendani Neluvhalani, London, UK
Vice-Chancellor Habib spoke about Wits’ efforts to address the challenges inequality posed to continuing access to teaching during the pandemic. He also highlighted the University’s successful transition online; the contributions made by academics to advise and critique government on health and economic policy; the groundbreaking drug therapies and vaccine developments on the medical front; as well as Wits’ scientists assisting to model and map the pandemic. “Wits has been responding comprehensively and ensuring that South Africa addresses the pandemic in an appropriate way.”
He urged support for the plans to celebrate the University’s centenary in 2022, and the associated campaign which hopes to draw resources into a student endowment fund to subsidise capable students who do not have the means to study at Wits.
Thank you for all you have done for Wits, Prof Habib. You have a worthy successor in Prof Vilakazi. Rob Fryer, Connecticut, USA
Professor Vilakazi said he looked forward to the next period of growth at the University, which will be driven by innovations in technology. “Wits must be central to that. Our graduates must be leaders in spawning new technologies that speak to the realities of being located on the African continent, yet being globally connected to the world community.”
Professor Habib closed by urging alumni to back the VC designate: “I’ve had an incredible seven years. There have been some difficult years. I would not have managed that without the incredible support of alumni, from many parts of the world. I want to thank each one of you for that, but I want to urge you to provide that same support to Zeblon Vilakazi because he will be leading this institution of ours under very difficult conditions. He can only succeed through the support he gets from every one of us.”
These were some of the comments made during the reunion chat:
Thanks so very much for organising this incredible event greatly appreciated. Dr Les Glassman, Jerusalem Israel (Wits Alumni Representative)
Huge thanks and appreciation to the Wits leadership under Prof Habib for the great vision and strength. Warm greetings from Glasgow. Rhian Touyz
Hi all. Proud to be a Wits alumnus. Gareth Zimmerman, Stroud, Gloustershire, UK
Congratulations, Prof Vilakazi! I live and work in Chicago and also grew up in Katlehong. Lusanda Mayikana
I'm delighted to be with you all. Dr David Nathanson in Detroit, Michigan USA. Lovely to hear how strong the Wits folks are - good luck!
Proud to be a Wits and Wits Business School Alumni. Anna Zanghi from Brussels
Well done Prof Habib. Glad to have attained my Doctorate degree five years ago during your tenure. Your leadership was remarkable. I wish you all the best. Welcome Prof Vilakazi. I wish you nothing but the best. Thank you Wits. Proud WITS alumnus. Alex Kasembeli, Nairobi, Kenya
Congratulations Prof Vilakazi! Wishing you all of the very best in your tenure and we as alumni are here to support you fully as you lead our treasured alma mater. S’onqoba Vuba, Johannesburg, SA
Bad news wrapped in protein
Professor Glenda Gray gives insights into the pandemic in South Africa, its impact and its trajectory.
On 19 July, in a much-anticipated webinar, Professor Glenda Gray took alumni on a journey covering the seven-month-old COVID-19 pandemic, which was part historical, part biological and part medical.
Professor Gray, a highly respected academic and leader, is the first female President and CEO of the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC). She is the Chair of the Research Committee on COVID-19, bringing together scientific evidence and experience to the Minister of Health and the National Coronavirus Command Council.
Key early warning system
She outlined the history of the then “unknown pneumonia”, which could be traced back to 17 November 2019, which morphed into the World Health Organisation’s declaration of a public emergency of international concern on 30 January 2020 which affected 19 countries and had a tally of approximately 7 000 cases.
On 8 January 2020, in the Journal of Travel Medicine, academics who studied travel data and infectious disease vulnerability indices, saw the potential for the international spread of an unknown disease. It listed 20 cities considered to be at risk. Professor Gray emphasised the importance of an early warning system, which must be implemented in future to detect emerging pandemics.
She provided an outline of the four known human coronaviruses, which recur seasonally in two to four year cycles. A major concern is that infection appears to provide immunity from reinfection for only a short period of time. The transmission of COVID-19 is also a concern as it has spread even under lockdown conditions, social distancing and the wearing of masks.
Movement across the globe
Over time the pandemic has moved into low and middle-income settings and continents where testing will be crucial. “The more you test, the more you get a feel of the epidemic, the less you test, the harder it is to understand the burden in your country.” South Africa is currently the only African country which is doing a substantial amount of testing.
The runaway train
South Africa currently has among the highest infection rates in the world. “The reason why our numbers continue to climb is because we haven’t managed to get our infection reproductive rate under zero. The only time you can contain an epidemic is if your reproductive rate is under one. This means one person who has an infection, has not infected one or more people. We’ve always hovered between 1,1 and 1,5. It has had a similar trajectory throughout the lockdown period. By the time we had testing up and running, community transmission had already occurred and we were overwhelmed with testing, with long turnaround times, and were soon unable to identify cases fast enough to isolate their contacts and quarantine them. What happened is the runaway train with community transmission - that’s well established.”
When will South Africa peak?
“We haven’t yet peaked although we are far above the average compared to when European countries peaked...Our trajectory is completely different, (and) similar to what you see in Mexico, Peru and Brazil.”
South Africa seems to be following the trajectory of other low-middle income settings. “We haven’t yet peaked although we are far above the average compared to when European countries peaked.” For example, Gauteng has 33,4 daily new infections per 100,00 population, whereas Italy peaked at 9,3 daily new infections per 100 000 population. South Africa has 19,9 daily new infections per 100,000. “Our trajectory is completely different, (and) similar to what you see in Mexico, Peru and Brazil.”
Bad news wrapped in protein
Professor Gray described the COVID-19 virus as “bad news wrapped in protein”. She said what makes it more severe than other COVID infections is that it invades the deep tissues of the human body, the lungs and the gastrointestinal tract. It is 1000 times better at infecting humans than its closest relative because it evolved from several coronaviruses that merged together. “It is also 1 000 times better at binding to ACE2, which is the called the body’s ‘entry key’.”
The good news
Encouragingly, Professor Gray said there has been a reduction in mortality and ICU admissions in South Africa due to early use of oxygen, high flow nasal oxygen, and the use of dexamethasone and anti-coagulants.
The cumulative cases by age distribution in South Africa as well as hospital admissions mimics global trends. “Most people admitted are 50 years and older. Slightly more men than women are admitted, with very few children admitted or dying. Mortality is associated with comorbidities of diabetes, hypertension, obesity. TB and HIV are also risk factors.
“Children manage the COVID-19 much better. This may be a culmination of them having less ACE2 receptors, a different immune response as well as more recent exposure to other coronaviruses that may provide some cross protection to them. We are trying to see why children are largely spared. But that is good news for all children at a global level.”
Road to a vaccine
Non-pharmaceutical interventions such as wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands remain our main line of defense to prevent its propagation “until the coronavirus circulates out in two or three seasons’ time”. “Normal vaccine development pathways take between 10-15 years. There is a hope that we can get one in 12 to 18 months. But you can see how challenging this is given that it took us 60 years to find a vaccine for polio, 15 for Ebola, and still nothing for MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) six years later. It’s a very ambitious project and a race against time.”
Wits alumna provides an insightful look at the South African financial landscape in recent webinar
About 250 Wits alumni and guests tuned in to listen to Wits alumna Fatima Vawda (BSc 1993, BSc Hon 1994, MSc 1995, HdipCompSc 1997) on 9 July 2020. In one of the first alumni networking events since the start of lockdown, Vawda walked participants through “The Evolution of the South African Savings and Investments Industry”. Watch the video here
Vawda is the founder and Managing Director of 27four Investment Managers. A Witsie with a Master’s in Applied Mathematics, she has over 20 years of experience in the local and global capital markets and has received a number of accolades such as the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur Southern Africa Emerging Category award in 2016.
She spoke of the key role of a healthy financial sector to facilitate economic growth, which needs to be trusted, efficient and facilitate stability. She provided a breakdown of the size of the South African investment sector providing useful context to the laws that shaped the present financial system in six different periods over 400 years.
“By the end of 1890 there were around 300 companies listed on the JSE. What I find most ironic about it is, present day we have just over 300 shares listed on the JSE,” she quipped.
Other highlights were the stark reminders of the global financial crisis which exposed a range of vulnerabilities in the financial sector such as inadequate regulatory oversight and high-profile malpractices. Although South Africa weathered the storm, there was an overhaul via the “Twin Peaks Model” bringing a tighter regulatory mechanism.
“Our very troubled and weak economy, resulting from poor decisions made over the past 10 years, has plunged into economic despair.”
Since 2018 South Africa’s fiscal position had deteriorated sharply. The arrival of COVID-19 has further pushed the country into financial gloom. “Our very troubled and weak economy, resulting from poor decisions made over the past 10 years, has plunged into economic despair. Government saw this as an opportunity to consider reforms on how it can institute a reform package to crowd in investment from the private sector and retirement funds.”
She demonstrated how the removal of exchange controls attracted foreign investment to the country post-apartheid. This saw an increase in liquidity, activity, increase in foreign ownership – a golden age of investment. “The past 10 years has seen an exit of international investors from our debt and equity markets and seen a decline in the rand.”
“The public sector wage bill is the single largest component of government expenditure – currently at R639-billion for 2020/21.”
“The public sector wage bill is the single largest component of government expenditure – currently at R639-billion for 2020/21. A public sector worker’s salary is higher than that in the private sector.” This is causing strain on the fiscus and is the reason for our sovereign downgrading for failing to reach a compromise on our debt.
“We have played an active role to introduce and incubate black-owned asset management firms. You can see the growth since 2009 from 50 firms and a size of R91-billion all the way to the R579 billion mark, which is very little when compared to rest of R7.9 trillion saving stock in South Africa.
“What we are concerned about is the saturation in the market, the decline in the economy, the level of retrenchments, the disinvestments from the market, the increase in competition. We are expecting to see further consolidation and attrition in this market given the environment.”
Increasingly companies are turning to alternative sources of capital to grow and expand their businesses. Although independent asset management firms have emerged, the historically dominant players remain entrenched. An emerging trend globally is the rise of private equity and the private market. “It can play a phenomenal role in an emerging and developing economy as South Africa. It can be used to successfully provide economic growth and good developmental outcomes.” Vawda said there is research to back this up with a good example being a partnership between 27four and National Treasury Jobs Fund, which focuses on investment in private equity to create jobs.
She said the way forward will see more public and private partnerships as seen through the introduction of the Presidency’s Infrastructure Office to co-ordinate investment through partnerships. “The thinking behind this is to have a well co-ordinated and institutional infrastructure delivery mechanism that involves public private partnerships. It provides mechanisms for blended finance institutions and multilateral development banks.” The government is currently evaluating 276 projects, with a total of R2,3 trillion investment value and a funding gap of R502 billion, and it expects 1,8 million direct and indirect jobs will be created from it.
Another key area of importance are standards that potential investors use to screen potential investment. The key areas are environmental criteria (what are the climate change effects); social impacts (how companies manage relations with employees and clients); governance issues (leadership, executive pay, audit issues, shareholder rights etc).
Insurance for young professionals
Jonathan Walker was a guest speaker at a young alumni event on 10 October 2019.
He spoke to students and young alumni about surviving year one of an insurtech start-up. His new and rapidly developing company, Granadilla focuses on the change in insurance needs for young professionals.
Home and car insurance, whilst still a necessity may no longer be a priority for a fast growing entrepreneurial and tech savvy younger generation, whose always on the move.
He spoke at length about changes within society and how young middle class individuals are looking for a way to insure tech valuables such as their laptops and smart phones without the hassle of normal insurance processes.
Granadilla, works with Machine Learning and AI to give its users an experience of fast insurance cover at their fingertips whilst also promising a claims process that can take anything from two minutes to 24 hours. A feat that Granadilla’s competitors cannot keep up with.
Alumni reunion in Cape Town
The Wits alumni spirit was strong at a reunion at Southern Sun The Cullinan on 10 September 2019. This was the first Wits alumni event to have the Chancellor (Dr Judy Dlamini), Vice-Chancellor (Prof Adam Habib) and President of Convocation (Stacey-Lee Bolon) all in attendance. These University leaders spoke about Wits today and into the future, giving alumni an opportunity to reconnect and find out how they can make a difference to their alma mater.
Geard is the founder of two innovative recruitment platforms, RecruitMyMom and RecruitAGraduate. She is a passionate marketer whose career experience includes working in a big company as well as consulting to businesses and setting up her own enterprise.
RecruitMyMom meets the need of skilled workers for flexible, part-time employment and the needs of employers. This idea and Geard’s execution of it have won several awards for entrepreneurship. Founded in 2012, the service already has more than 60 000 workers on its platform.
In March 2019, Geard launched RecruitAGraduate, matching graduates and interns with opportunities.
Geard told the audience the story of how she became an “accidental entrepreneur” and shared some of her thoughts about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (“Be as human as you can – that’s how we beat the machines!”)
First find a problem
Her definition of an entrepreneur is basically someone who identifies a problem that a defined group of people are experiencing, and then fixes it.
She warned that running your own business is “ridiculously hard”, but said the reward is seeing the difference you can make in people’s lives.
Straight after university, Geard was recruited by a large, international company, Procter & Gamble, and she had a successful career as a marketer for its brands. She aimed to become a director and did not think about having her own business. When she decided at the age of 32 to take a career break to have children, she intended to return to corporate life. But as a mother, she found that her feelings about her career had changed completely. She began to consult to companies and realised that small businesses often need to hire good skills on a flexible basis. She also realised that many women want to work – and the economy needs their skills – but they drop out of the workplace and out of the executive pipeline because they need flexibility as mothers.
Match it with a solution
Geard had found her problem and her solution. She researched ways of matching people’s needs online and models for earning revenue. With long hours and hard work, RecruitMyMom came into being. On a small budget, Geard played almost all the business roles herself at first and used all the free marketing opportunities she could find, including business competitions. Measuring impact in terms of visitors to her website gave her the confidence to take more risks and she became an employer and an advertiser.
A speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 inspired her to make a difference in the lives of young people, and she created a new recruitment platform to match graduates with smaller companies – the ones that don’t visit graduate recruitment fairs on campus.
Phillipa Geard’s lessons for entrepreneurs:
Successful entrepreneurs are successful problem-solvers.
Don’t follow the crowd: look where the crowd isn’t looking.
Know how to communicate your solution to the people who will use it.
Change is constant. Get comfortable with change.
Be humble. Learn from others who have been where you need to go.
Ask staff and colleagues for help.
Hire people who are smarter than you. That includes young people.
Ethical leadership is the only way to lead. It creates an environment of trust.
Name and share the values that your company stands for. Staff who know how to behave will be empowered to make good decisions.
You work with real people with real feelings. Everyone wants to be heard.
Your staff are your greatest asset.
Businesses are not about transactions; they are about people.
If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean the idea is bad, but perhaps the execution isn’t right.
Look after yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Spend time with your family, read inspiring things, get some balance.
Adapt and learn things outside your field of study. Don’t see things in silos. Broaden your horizons.
Use all the free material available online and read books. This can make you stand out from the crowd.
Don’t just be employable – look to employ.
Lead by example and don’t be afraid of hard work.
Don’t despise the smallest job or a bad boss. Learn from everything.
As Forbes magazine put it: the difference between an entrepreneur and someone who just runs a business is about being a leader versus a manager. Leaders work ON the system; managers work IN the system.
Trends shaping 2019 and beyond
Strategist Abdullah Verachia was the guest speaker at an alumni networking event on 25 June 2019
Almost 100 Witsies braved a cold evening to hear global strategist and Wits Master of Management graduate Abdullah Verachia, the guest speaker at a Wits alumni networking event on 25 June 2019 at the Wits Club. His topic was disruption, especially what it means for Africa’s future.
All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership. – economist JK Galbraith
Starting with this quotation, Verachia spoke about how the public discourse in South Africa was dominated by the media. The daily headlines can be an overwhelming source of anxiety, but we should think about society beyond the headlines: the way global events and trends ripple out and affect people and places that are not in the media. What’s happening to China’s economy, for example, has consequences for every South African.
And global context is relevant for every country. South Africa has its challenges but is actually punching above its weight in many important ways, including freedom of the press.
It’s a hypercompetitive, data-driven world and people’s expectations are changing, he said. Consumers demand simple, user-friendly experiences which are made possible by complex information. But what this supposedly technological revolution also needs, Verachia said, is people who understand the human element. The things that cannot be digitised become more valuable in this world. He urged us to put technology aside sometimes, talk to people who are different from us, be optimistic, travel, try new things, be curious, and think about our impact.
Wits alumni, he said, received a great education and have a responsibility to look beyond the headlines and work hard to make the society they want to live in.
Select Wits alumni were invited to meet Jack Ginsberg at the opening of his collection of book art at the Wits Art Museum
A special alumni event was held on 27 March 2019 to showcase the new Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts at WAM, presented by Jack Ginsberg himself, who gave personal insights into the collection and spoke about the highlights of his collecting journey.
The event was conceived as an exclusive and intimate opportunity to acknowledge alumni who have contributed to Wits in some way. (See photos here.)
A triangular book; a movable book; a round book; a glass book; a metre wide pop-up book; a 10 metre long folding book. These are a few of Ginsberg’s favourites in the collection. Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books, rather than books about art.
Art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg (BAcc 1979) began collecting in this field in the early 1970s, almost from the inception of this contemporary art form. He has recently donated his world-renowned collection to Wits Art Museum, to make it accessible to future generations of students and researchers.
The collection is unrivalled in Africa and in the Southern Hemisphere and includes more than 3 000 artworks, plus a unique archive of an additional 3 000 items on the history and development of the book art genre. A dedicated centre has been established at WAM to accommodate the collection.
Professor Ivor Sarakinsky supplied a welcome note of humour at an elections-themed alumni networking event on 11 April 2019 when he quoted Groucho Marx’s definition of politics: “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”.
The Wits School of Governance professor was in conversation with Lumkile Mondi of the Wits School of Economic and Business Sciences at the Wits Club. Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, also of the Wits School of Governance, was the facilitator. All three are regular public commentators on the South African political and economic landscape.
The discussion provided some well-informed views of the upcoming national election and what kinds of challenges would remain or emerge afterwards.
Alumni and guests used question time to raise issues such as the prospect of coalitions, representation of the youth, and the difference between rural and urban voters.
“There’s lots of noise [from political parties] and little attempt to persuade voters through evidence,” said Sarakinsky. “This is not a bad thing.” He said election noise was a useful way of ventilating people’s emotions and showing those in office what people were thinking and feeling. A calm pre-election mood would be a problem, he said. South Africa should be proud of the Independent Electoral Commission, he added; the country’s election processes are robust enough to deal with issues after the results are out, unlike countries where faulty processes are often blamed and violence follows. In South Africa, the result is incontestable.
Sarakinsky estimated what support the main parties might achieve in the 8 May election and suggested some of the reasons for and possible consequences of this showing.
Mondi retraced developments in the political scene from about 2007, when South Africa’s economy was growing at over 5% a year, benefiting from global cycles and local policies. It then entered a phase during which the state and state-owned enterprises were “hollowed out”, he said. This “radical economic transformation” was really a form of accumulation, Mondi said, and the money accumulated left the country instead of circulating in the South African economy. Corruption is now institutionalised, a normal part of doing business or getting a service, he said. When institutions are ruined, how can redress be achieved? Only organised business appeared to be fighting back. “We’re all on a wing and a prayer, hoping it comes right,” Mondi said, adding that he was disappointed with the silence on corruption from those who speak out about other issues such as decolonisation.
Forty years on, the bridge is solid
- Colin Little
Civil Engineering Class of 1978 – 40 Year Reunion Dinner
The final year Wits Civil Engineering class of 1978 was one of the largest to graduate. Following on from a 30 year class reunion in 2008 at the Sunnyside Hotel, a regular watering hole back in the day, an organising committee coalesced miraculously in mid-2018 and set about putting together the 40 year version.
Group photo caption:
Front: Dave Spooner, Leon Furstenburg, Danny Martinho, Paul Carlisle, Colin Little, Chris Zweigenthal
Rear: Peter Legg, Patrick Jardine, Kevin Spence, Ian Weir, Gary Theodosiou, Ian Robertson, Mike Brett, Anthony Poorter, Dr Irvin Luker, Keith Small, George Jamieson, Prof Akpofure Taigbenu, Tony Purchase, Wally Mayne, Paul Hillen, John Drennan, Sandow Emmerich
The committee decided on a more formal reunion in the form of a dinner to which the Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Professor Akpofure Taigbenu, would be invited. Close scrutiny of the class photo and faculty members revealed that Dr. Irvin Luker, who had the misfortune to have to deal with the rowdy class of 1978, was still on the faculty and was duly invited. Both eagerly accepted.
The dinner was held at the Johannesburg Country Club on 17 November 2018, with 22 of the 67 graduates attending.
Classmates coming from as far afield as Hawaii and UK made it all the more special.
The formal proceedings began with Tony Purchase welcoming the class and guests of honour to the dinner. Mention was made of the great turmoil the country, and indeed Wits University, was experiencing in the mid-70s.
In reply, Prof. Taigbenu spoke with great enthusiasm of the faculty of 2018. He mentioned the increased class sizes after some lean years with over 1000 under- and post-grads, of which a third are female. He also noted the wider scope of civil engineering. In 1978 structures dominated the curriculum whereas today the scope has broadened to include more environmental and hydrology aspects. Dr. Luker remembered our era with great fondness and gave insight into the dynamics of today’s classroom.
Wally Mayne, head of Contractual Affairs at CESA, gave a realistic and hard-hitting overview of the profession – and those who had stayed in the profession agreed that civil engineers need to stand up and be counted, and get paid what they are worth.
Kevin Spence, the Class Rep, then reminded the class how successful they had been in their many diverse careers and called back the past with memories of our graduation dinner at the Old Edwardians Club. In particular, the bail-out we got from the Dean in 1978, Prof. Geoff Blight, who had a small reserve fund to cater for damages.
In closing Paul Hillen paid tribute to class mates who had passed away and a toast was drunk to their memory; Zen Dama, Seth Nkosi and Ronnie Philpott were all well remembered. We also toasted those absent, and vowed to keep in touch.
A small profit was made on the event and it was unanimously agreed to donate the surplus to the Endowment Fund of the School.
Wits has a job for its elders
Founders' Tea 2018
Wits’ elders played an important role during the difficult period of student fee protests. Their advice and support was appreciated and has helped the University to complete two calm and successful years since that time.
This acknowledgement of the vital contribution of senior Wits alumni came from a grateful Professor Adam Habib, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, in his address at Founders’ Tea on 29 November 2018.
Founders are alumni who graduated 40 or more years ago. More than 600 of these stalwarts arrived for the function on the Library Lawns, keen to meet old friends, revisit campus and hear the guest speaker, Public Enterprises Minister, Pravin Gordhan. (See video here.)
To loud applause, Professor Habib thanked Minister Gordhan for the way he had carried out his responsibility to the nation. The Minister was invited to speak at the function out of respect for his exemplary behaviour in difficult times, Prof Habib said.
Minister Gordhan received a standing ovation from the Founders. (“I hope that wasn’t just your morning exercise,” he joked.)
He spoke about dangerous trends, disruption and uncertainty around the world, and how to create stability. He said South Africa still needs to bind people into a common nationhood, and asked the Founders to use their wisdom and resources to ensure that a negative narrative doesn’t persist. “It’s people who make the Constitution a living document and give content to democratic values.”
Minister Gordhan warned that people who had benefited from corruption and state capture would not give up without a fight. “[It is a battle between] those who want to rebuild South Africa, and move it in the right direction, and those who want to hold on to the last seven or 10 years, and continue with the processes of extraction.”
He urged South Africans to make the economy more inclusive; to share skills and experience so as to create opportunities; to build a more competitive economy; to encourage more partnerships between government, business and civil society; to close the gaps between haves and have-nots; and to drive an ethical business culture. “There is a lot of work to do.”
Professor Habib told the Founders about his six-month spell at Harvard in 2018, writing a book about the fee protests. While out of South Africa, he said, he had been struck by the similarities between social and political trends in different parts of the world. “Our problems are global problems.”
Wits had a good year in 2018, he said, enrolling 37000 students and graduating a record 8400. Research output has risen 80% in five years and transformation in the student body and staff has continued. Wits has shown that an institution can achieve excellence at the same time as transformation, Prof Habib said.
Alumni networking event with authors Niq Mhlongo and Nthikeng Mohlele
A lively and entertaining discussion took place at an alumni networking event with authors Niq Mhlongo (BA 1997) and Nthikeng Mohlele (BADA 2000) at the Wits Club Barns on 2 August. The event was held in partnership with the Department of African Languages.
Tlou Legodi (BA 1998, BA Hons 2004) acted as event compere.
Mhlongo had just returned from witnessing the elections in Zimbabwe, which he intends to write about. He said he was reminded of South Africa in 1994, when he was at Wits. This was the setting for his novel Dog Eat Dog.
Mohlele said that on re-reading Dog Eat Dog he noticed in it the “seeds” of the Fees Must Fall movement. Mhlongo said that when writing the book, what he had in mind was his own experience of adjusting to the unfamiliar world of being a Wits student. He recalled writing an aptitude test in Hall 29, struggling to get a bursary, adapting to a culture of learning and teaching that was so different from his school days, and bearing the expectations of a large family.
Mohlele spoke of the “University of Humanity” as a good place to start learning.
The writers discussed their choices of language – Mohlele is currently writing a novel in Sepedi and Mhlongo said that because of his multilingual Soweto background there was no single, dominant language for him. “In terms of language I’m always an outsider.”
Responding to comments and questions from the audience, Mohlele spoke of the importance to him of consciousness and the total human experience, rather than binary thinking. “To say that JM Coetzee is a great artist is not to diminish Wole Soyinka.”
Prof Isabel Hofmeyr concluded the evening’s discussion by saying that African literature had become more visible in the book market than one could imagine 30 or 40 years ago. She paid tribute to the Wits academics who had contributed to this development, and said both of the guest speakers were “game-changers” whose books were used in teaching literature at university level.
Books by Niq Mhlongo: Dog Eat Dog;After Tears;Way Back Home;Affluenza;Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree
Books by Nthikeng Mohlele: The Scent of Bliss;Small Things;Rusty Bell;Pleasure;Michael K
An evening with the future
Alumni networking event
The more we think about revolutionary advancements in technology, the more we think about what it means to be human. It’s exciting to think about what technology can do, but it also raises concerns around ethics, trust, privacy and even spirituality.
Technology touches almost every aspect of our lives and we need to consider the implications for humanity. Should machines cut us out of certain operations and think for themselves? Should we connect our minds and bodies to the internet? The questions pile up as the implications for business, medicine, government and daily life emerge.
Almost 200 Wits alumni across the generations arrived at the Wits Business School’s Donald Gordon Auditorium on 10 May to hear a distinguished panel of Witsies discuss “The Future of the Connected Human”.
(To see photos of the event, click here. To see an edited video, click here. The event also featured on the SABC's Networkprogramme.)
Guests were welcomed by master of ceremonies Vukosi Marivate (BSc Eng 2007, MSc Eng 2009), who is a senior data scientist at the CSIR and a Wits Convocation Exco member.
Arthur Goldstuck (BA 1984), head of World Wide Worx, a technology market research company, skilfully facilitated the discussion. Setting the scene, he pointed to the explosive proliferation of technology start-up companies and mentioned some of the concepts, products and trends he had seen at recent international exhibitions. Built-in voice commands; smart clothing; brain-to-vehicle signals; text by thinking; flying cars; the end of passwords… It’s all here or coming soon. He also shared insights from research into the technology that South African companies are already using or planning to use.
Panellist Dr Benjamin Rosman (BSc 2007, BSc Hons 2008, BSc Hons 2009) senior lecturer in the Wits School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics and Principal Researcher at the CSIR, spoke about his work in robotics and machine learning. This includes working out how to transfer knowledge from humans to robots, among robots themselves, and even from robots back to humans (think of being able to learn skills that have been lost). The goal is for robots to learn, from their experience, how to make decisions. This in turn can teach humans more about decision-making.
Adam Pantanowitz (BSc Eng 2007, BSc Eng 2008), lecturer in the Wits School of Electrical and Information Engineering, is working a groundbreaking project: connecting human brain activity directly to the internet.
Vimbai Muzofa (MCom 2015), Head: Interbank & RTGS (Africa Regions) at Standard Bank Group, is interested in human behaviour in the sphere of financial activity. In her work she looks at issues of trust when it comes to money; speed and efficiency in financial services; and mining data to understand what clients want.
Sunil Geness (MM 2006), Director, Government Relations and Corporate Social Responsibility, SAP Africa and President of the Information Technology Association of South Africa, talked about the revenue potential of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will touch people’s lives in many ways. He urged the audience to watch Do You Trust This Computer?, a movie that “explores the promises and perils of our new era”.
Are robots just a toy, a gimmick? Though the fun aspect of robots is good for getting children excited about science, technology, engineering and maths, Rosman said, what people want in many contexts is to be able to make better predictions and decisions. The promise of robotics is that systems could make better decisions than humans can.
When you connect your mind to the internet and share your biological signals, are you opening the way for dangerous invasions of privacy? It’s uncharted territory, said Pantanowitz. Humans seem to have a natural urge towards networking, but there are ethical concerns to consider. In response to a question from the audience about interfering with consciousness, he added that the aim of science is discovery and understanding.
What about big business: will companies treat information ethically when they have access to powerful technological tools? Muzofa said that in order to survive, financial services companies have to take on technology and use it to mine data – but they are highly regulated. In response to a question, she said banks have to be inclusive and collaborate with the people they are there to serve.
We have to make sure that the digital economy creates jobs instead of just replacing humans, said Geness.
Rosman said that there is a lot of potential for AI to be used in education. Answering a question about embedding morality in robots, he agreed it was important to make AI safe and to avoid giving robots “bad” instructions.
The first Deep Learning Indaba took place at Wits in 2017, attracting several eminent international experts who are also Wits alumni. The outcomes were reported here. The next Indaba takes place in Stellenbosch in September this year. Its mission is to strengthen African machine learning.
Bang on time
A water wake-up call
Never mind the complicated stochastic hydrology graph projected on the screen – it was the loud clap of Highveld thunder that drove Professor Mike Muller’s point home. Speaking on “Managing Climate-Related Risks” at an alumni networking event at the Wits Club on 19 April, he was talking about the right time to panic about water supply.
A welcome shower fell on the day, but many of the 80 alumni and guests in the audience were there because they were worried about Johannesburg – or anywhere else – facing a water crisis like Cape Town’s.
Representing a range of professional disciplines, from philosophy to chemical engineering, they heard the Wits School of Governance water expert say that water is not a physical or technical problem as much as one of governance. It’s about people listening to each other, being informed, speaking up, looking at the big picture, planning and acting in time. It’s about understanding vested interests too.
“The challenge is how to make things happen in the real world,” said Prof Muller.
People have all kinds of reasons for the decisions they make (or avoid making) when confronted with a problem like water management. And the water issue, in particular, touches the lives of all kinds of people in multiple unavoidable ways. This is why Wits’ new Centre in Water Research and Development seeks to bring together many different perspectives and disciplines in dialogue and collaboration.
“This is our generation’s problem,” said Professor Craig Sheridan, the Centre’s head, to the audience. Water crises are made by people, and the Centre aims to create leaders and visionaries who will work on solutions together.
For more about water-related research at Wits, see the “Watershed” issue of Curiosity magazine – named with a nod to the University’s position on the "White Water Ridge", which directs Joburg’s rainfall to different oceans.
For photos of the alumni networking event, click here.
Alumni were privileged to share a discussion about breast cancer with Lauren Segal and Professor Vinay Sharma at the Wits Club on 15 March 2018.
How does anyone cope with four cancer diagnoses – and how does it change your life? The greatest lesson that Lauren Segal took away from her journey through the “kingdom of the sick”, as she calls it, was how to ask for help in a difficult time.
“Care and kindness is part of wellness. I had an instinct that I needed help.” She sought various complementary forms of care along with surgery and chemotherapy, an approach which she said is becoming more widely accepted as beneficial. “Science is catching up with this.”
Wits alumna Lauren (BEd 1988; BA Hons 1990) is the author of five books, including Cancer: A Love Story (MF Books 2017), her account of this journey. She trained as an historian and film maker at Wits and is the managing partner of Trace, a team of research, exhibition and design professionals. She has written about South Africa’s Constitution and about the history of Soweto, and helped design Johannesburg’s Holocaust and Genocide Centre.
Great events and great lives have been the focus of her career. But it is the value of an ordinary day and her own family and friends that have become so important to Lauren after her experience with cancer.
“This experience has given me something, rather than taken something away,” she said to Wits alumni who joined her at the networking event. “There is so much to learn from difficulty.
“Do something you want to do every day,” she urged. “Value your time.”
Professor Sharma, Head of Radiation Oncology at Wits, spoke about the importance of patients having confidence in their doctors. This can be a challenge in hospital settings where the medical staff have so little time to discuss each patient’s concerns and choices or to see each person as a whole. Often, too, patients are left on their own in hospital because families and friends can’t be with them all the time, and this is not ideal.
He asked Lauren how she had felt and reacted when she received her cancer diagnoses, and how she helped her children to deal with what was happening.
She received her first diagnosis of melanoma at the age of 23 and a breast cancer diagnosis at 45. The third diagnosis was the most shocking, she said, because she thought she had finished dealing with cancer. It was difficult to have to make a lot of medical decisions and to enter a world in which “you don’t know the rules”.
Writing was a way to gain some degree of control of her life and to protect her family from the difficult feelings she was experiencing. Reading was also a help: other people’s cancer stories, and in particular Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl’s ideas about choosing your response to your circumstances.
Since sharing her story, she has been surprised by the levels of fear, shame and silence that still surround the subject of cancer. She said that for her, “leaning in” to the thing you fear the most, and having the support of a community, provides strength.
“Care, love, exercise – these don’t cost anything. Education is the challenge. Knowledge is power.”
Prof Sharma shared some research findings about the links between melanoma and breast cancer, the factors that increase the risk of cancer, the tests available and how patients can take care of themselves and maintain a positive outlook.
Dr Maurice Goodman, acting President of Wits Convocation, and Peter Bezuidenhoudt, Wits Development and Fundraising director, thanked the speakers and the alumni who attended for generously sharing their time, knowledge and insight.