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Witsies With the Edge

Lunch with exceptional young Witsies

By Deborah Minors

Twenty-one Witsies featured in the Mail & Guardian’s annual list of “Top 200 Young South Africans to take to Lunch” – exceptional young achievers making an impact in business, science, education, law, environment, civil society, arts and culture.

Speaking at a lunch held in their honour at Wits’ Hofmeyr House on 17 September, Anton Harber, Caxton Professor of Journalism and Mail & Guardian founding editor, said being on the list was not only an honour and a compliment but also made the recipients role models to others.

The following Wits graduates featured in the Top 200 list:

Transforming society: David Bilchitz (BA 1997, BA Hons 1998, LLB 2000) 
Attorney David Bilchitz, 35, is Director of the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law. He is passionate about the power of the law to transform society; he campaigns for the rights of gays and lesbians, and offered his legal expertise in the struggle to establish marriage rights for same-sex couples in South Africa. Bilchitz is active in the Jewish community and a lay preacher at the last remaining shul in Hillbrow. He is an avid animal rights activist and co-founded the Legal Alliance for Animal Welfare. 

Indigent benefit from gift of the gab: Steven Budlender (BA 2000, LLB 2002) The former student editor of the South African Journal on Human Rights,president of the Law Students’ Council and the Wits Debating Union, and best individual orator at the 1999 All-Africa Human Rights Moot Court competition, Advocate Steven Budlender, 32, has a lot to talk about. He has researched litigation strategies of marginalised South African communities and worked to develop historically disadvantaged youth. He previously served as a law clerk to Constitutional Court President, Justice Arthur Chaskalson (BCom 1952, LLB 1954, Honorary LLD 1990).

Techno-futurist attorney: Robby Coelho (BA 1997, LLB 1999, LLM 2005) 
A partner at law firm Webber Wentzel, Robby Coelho, 35, is considered an expert in technology, media and telecommunications, having acquired an interest in the field when it was first developing. Coelho was previously a legal manager at EDS (now Hewlett-Packard) in Africa and the Middle East, where he was part of the team that secured a major global deal. He speaks on the topic of technology at conferences regularly and co-authored a chapter in Joubert’s Law of South Africa. 

Writing the wrongs of human rights abuses: Nicole Fritz (LLB 1999) 
While an undergraduate student, journalist-turned-lawyer Nicole Fritz, 35, won an internship as the Mail & Guardian Best Student Journalist. After a stint working in the media industry in England, she elected to pursue postgraduate legal studies at Wits University, where she also taught, and at New York University, where she was the Hauser Global Scholar and, later, Visiting Professor. Fritz is now Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre, which advances human rights and the rule of law, and is on the Board of Human Rights Professionals.

Bona fide entrepreneur bids and buys: Andy Higgins (MBA 2008) As an electronic engineering undergraduate, Andy Higgins, 35, won the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s award for Engineering Project with Most Entrepreneurial Potential. In 2002, he won the SABC 3 entrepreneurial reality show,Sanlam Money Game. Higgins is Chief Executive of online marketplace He founded the company in 1999 after being exposed to online trading in London, but Bidorbuy’s initial multi-country launch was curtailed when the bubble burst. Bidorbuy flourished from 2005; it now boasts a monthly turnover of R30-million and Higgins is on the boards of several related “” sites.

Mimicking nature’s best: Claire Janisch (BSc Eng Chem 1996) 
Claire Janisch, 35, is one of few specialists in the field of biomimicry – the application of nature’s strategies, models and processes to human problems to advance sustainability. Janisch’s Masters’ degrees explored clean production techniques and sustainable systems, a shift from her background in chemical engineering, where the focus was on petrochemicals and plastics. Janisch has worked with organisations such as  the Johannesburg Zoo and the Ford Motor Company to improve efficiency and sustainability through biomimicry. She co-founded the Genius Lab, which works to inspire creative thinking. 

Making sport count: Neil Jankelowitz (BCom 1998) 
Neil Jankelowitz, 34, inadvertently founded MSCSports (Making Sport Count) when he auctioned a Springbok jersey in 1999. His firm’s core competencies now include sports memorabilia, events and marketing. As joint Managing Director, Jankelowitz’s “client-centric” approach has secured clients such as Bidvest Bank, Hyundai, OUTSurance and others. MSCSports has exclusive rights to distribute official memorabilia of the Proteas, Springboks and Bafana Bafana. Related fundraising auctions have contributed R25-million to charities countrywide. Jankelowitz also chairs BIDSport, which was established in 2008 from the sale of half of MSCSports to Bidvest.

Navigating and convening the online zoo: Gareth Knight (BSc 2000) 
A zoology alumnus seems an unlikely candidate for a technology entrepreneur, but Gareth Knight, 33, Managing Director of Technovated, credits his Wits University degree with teaching him to think differently about technology. Knight founded Technovated, a Web 2.0 service provider, in 2005; in 2007, the company developed, a family social network that was voted a “top three most promising internet company” in the UK. Technovated and Kindo merged, with Knight leading Kindo’s exponential growth worldwide. When international firm bought Kindo, Knight resumed his work with Technovated. In 2010, he launched the technology conference, Tech4Africa.

Seeing stars and kites: Bronwyn Lace (BA (FA) 2005) 
Artist Bronwyn Lace, 30, uses space and scale to explore connections between art, physics and nature. In 2009, she developed a community project in the Karoo town of Sutherland, which is home to an isolated, impoverished community – and the site of the southern hemisphere’s second-largest telescope, the Southern African Large Telescope. Through a kite festival in which artist, residents and scientists collaborate, the project explores the physical and metaphorical distance between Sutherland and the stars. Lace also runs an arts education programme at the Bag Factory in Johannesburg.

Memory, desire, trauma – and reel drama: Nobunye Levin (BA (DA) 2007)The work of filmmaker and Wits School of Arts lecturer Nobunye Levin, 26, is academically influenced by themes of memory, desire and trauma. Her film Stones and Dreads probes the politics around black hair, while Thymesis, which will appear at the Next Reel International Film Festival in New York, explores rape and the pain of memory. Levin’s latest film, I am Saartjie Baartman, a human portrayal of the historically maligned San-woman, was selected for the 56th International Short Film Festival in Germany.

Braamfontein renaissance man: Adam Levy (BCom 1999, LLB 2002)
Although a lawyer by training, Adam Levy, 34, is a “frustrated architect”. He envisages creating a lifestyle hub in Braamfontein and, in 2003, set about transforming the area by refurbishing unique buildings. He revamped a residential apartment block, Stirling House – where he lives – the Alexander Theatre, and the Milner Park Hotel and Kitchener’s Carvery Bar. In pursuit of his vision for Braamfontein to be “a fun place to work, play and live”, Levy converted retail space into boutique stores in 2010.

Hear, hear for “listening with your eyes”: Simangele Mabena (BA (DA) 2006) 
Simangele Mabena, 27, joined theatre company From the Hip: Khulumakahle (FTH:K) as Education Co-ordinator in 2010. FTH:K aims to integrate the deaf into performing arts through programmes that enable “listening with your eyes”. Mabena’s interest in dramatic education was piqued when she worked with autistic teenagers in Canada in 2006 and with deaf youth in Soweto in 2007. She was a 2008 Mandela Rhodes Scholar and pursued postgraduate applied theatre studies. Mabena hopes that sign language, in which she is fluent, will one day become South Africa’s 12th official language.

Graphic renditions of colonial impact on Africa: Michael MacGarry (MA (FA) 2005)
Visual artist and graphic designer Michael MacGarry, 32, transforms familiar objects into recognisable subversions of the original, reflecting his interest in the impact of imperialism on Africa. His work explores control mechanisms and vested interests that inform the journey, via trade routes, of culturally symbolic languages and products, from the “centre” to the “periphery”. A Standard Bank Young Artist award winner, MacGarry has produced artworks that appear in local and international private and corporate collections, as well as a reference book on South African graphic design.

The politics of gender rights: Zak Mbhele (BA 2007) Activist, liberal, constitutionalist and former Democratic Alliance regional representative Zak Mbhele, 26, is a Programme Officer at the Multi-Agency Grants Network, where he leads on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues. His involvement in LGBT issues began at Wits University, when he reignited LGBT student society Activate in response to homophobic lobbying to deny gay students residence. Mbhele was involved in establishing South Africa’s first umbrella organisation for LGBT student societies and has co-chaired Joburg Pride since 2008 and been its spokesperson.

From rural Venda to computational intelligence: Fulufhelo Nelwamondo (BSc Eng Elec 2005, MSc/PhD 2008) 
Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, 28, was the youngest South African recipient of the Harvard-South Africa fellowship and attended Harvard University as a postdoctoral fellow. He is a computational intelligence and pattern recognition specialist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. Nelwamondo previously lectured at Wits University, where his MSc was converted to a PhD. On weekends he teaches mathematics to Soweto learners, and he sponsors learners from his home area, Venda, who excel in science. He is widely published and is a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

Flying the flag; talking in constructive circles: Anthony Prangley (BSc Hons 1999) 
At the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) Dialogue Circles, South Africans discuss how to support the country. Anthony Prangley, 32, co-founded the Dialogue Circles circa 2005 and now manages the Gibs Centre for Leadership and Dialogue. Postgraduate anthropology studies in South America brought home to Prangley his limited knowledge of his homeland. He returned to work in Swaziland, Mozambique and South Africa, and established the Gumboots Foundation, through which patriotic South Africans living abroad fund grassroots projects in disadvantaged South African communities.

On a crusade for vulnerable children: Rebecca Pursell (BA (Social Work) 2001, MA (Social Work) 2005, MPH 2008)
Human and social development specialist Rebecca Pursell, 31, works in the fields of orphans and vulnerable children (OVC); forced migration and prevention of trafficking; child labour; HIV/AIDS-affected vulnerable populations; and monitoring and evaluating development programmes. She worked on the Reducing Exploitive Child Labour in Southern Africa project and co-ordinated the Community Mitigating against Trafficking project. Pursell developed the monitoring framework for the OVC programme of the KwaZulu-Natal Education Department and co-ordinated the social impact and performance assessments of Coca-Cola Africa’s corporate social investment projects in Africa.

Putting women’s healthcare first: Marlise Richter (BA 1998, BA Hons 1999, LLM 2007) 
A visiting researcher in the Forced Migration Studies programme and a PhD candidate in the School of Public Health at Wits University, Marlise Richter, 34, researches feminism and HIV/AIDS generally, and sex work and gender-based violence specifically. Her PhD focuses on migrancy and access to healthcare for sex workers in Hillbrow. She is on the board of the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce. In 2007, Richter won the Discovery Institute Clinical Excellence Award at the third South African AIDS Conference.

Thinking about relationship dynamics: Jason van Niekerk 
Wits University philosophy lecturer and PhD candidate Jason van Niekerk is exploring the depth and complexity of human relationships through the African concept of ubuntu – the concept that a person is a person through other people – in his doctoral thesis. A native of Johannesburg, Van Niekerk completed undergraduate studies in ethics and philosophy in Grahamstown. His interest in human relationships stems from his personal experience; very poor health during his high school career meant he only really felt part of a community once at university.

“Big Sister” with healthy legal credentials: Amelia Vukeya-Motsepe (LLB 2003) Senior Associate at Bowman Gilfillan, Amelia Vukeya-Motsepe, 29, is passionate about people and the law. She co-founded 18twenty8, an empowerment initiative that mentors young girls and facilitates dialogue through a “Big Sister” network, and volunteers at as an attorney at’s HIV legal clinic. Vukeya-Motsepe won a postgraduate scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, DC, and interned at the American Bar Association. In 2009, she won a scholarship to attend the Unesco Chair & Institute of Comparative Human Rights Office’s global leadership training programme.

Fights, camera, faction: Tsepo wa Mamatu (BA (DA) 2003, MA 2007)
Playwright and lecturer in the Wits School of Arts, Tsepo wa Mamatu, 31, creates often-controversial political, satirical theatre that challenges failures of power. His plays include 100% Zulu BoyStompie, and Mbeki and Other Nightmares. In 2009, he reportedly grabbed a microphone from President Jacob Zuma at an artists’ meeting, telling him not to prescribe to artists. Wa Mamatu’s PhD examines Africans’ capacity to govern from the perspective of Ghana’s in