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Welcome Witsies!

- Professor Jason Cohen, Commerce, Law & Management Faculty Deputy Dean

Sanibonani. Good morning new Wits students. Welcome to Wits and welcome to the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management.

The Dean of our Faculty is Professor Imraan Valodia. I am not him. He could not be here today as he is overseas and coming back next week from Edinburgh University in Scotland. iGama lami u Professor Jason Cohen. I am the Deputy Dean for the Faculty and it is my pleasure and privilege to welcome you all here today.

As Deans we get to stand up in this Wits Great Hall and step to the microphone on the podium here on two occasions. The first is during orientation to welcome you to Wits. The second is when we call your name at graduation and you walk across this stage to receive your degree. It would be my honour to call all your names at graduation a few years from now.

This year we are welcoming around 1000 new first year students to the commerce, law and management faculty at wits. This is 1000 students against 30,000 applications to study in our faculty. You have done well to get here. Sitting here is a result of the hours you spent away from family and friends in order to study for matric. It is a result of the countless number of times you had to say “no” to other choices in your life in order to say “yes” to your studies and to your future. Every morning that you fought through the traffic or stood in line to catch public transport or walked to school to get to class on time. You are here because of that diligence and focus, your ability to manage your time, to be prepared and to do what was necessary to excel. These are qualities that will serve you well in the years ahead.

When people think of Wits they often think of the great alumni like Nelson Mandela, Robert Sobukwe, Ruth First, William Kentridge and our very own Chancellor, Dr Judy Dlamini. Or you may have heard of other CLM alumni like Brian Joffe (of Bidvest) or the late Donald Gordon (Liberty Life).

But there is something magical about the setting of Wits University, in the heart of the country’s economic hub that inspires so many of our graduates to do great things.

Like Nhlanhla Dlamini, a student I taught a little over 15 years ago in our BCom programme. He went on to a masters at Oxford then an MBA from Harvard, worked for companies such as McKinsey and Morgan Stanley investment bank, and is now one of South Africa’s top industrialists.

Miles Kubheka, who did his Bachelor of Commerce Honours with us 20 years ago. I remember talking to him about his reservations of taking up an internship at a software company. He is now a restauranteer and author. You may have heard of his restaurant Vuyo’s in Vilakazi Street Soweto.

If we look a little further back, Wanda Orlikowski got her BCom in 1977 and her MCom in 1982. She is considered a leading global scholar at MIT writing about the 4th Industrial Revolution and effects of technology on organisations.

Felicia Kentridge established the Wits Law Clinic in 1973, one of the first public interest law clinics in the country. In 1979, with Arthur Chaskalson, she set up the Legal Resources Centre which went on to do groundbreaking work including compelling the Mbeki government to provide Nevirapine to HIV positive mothers which marked a turning point in the governments AIDS policy; and just last year the Law Clinic took up the case of a number of women who had been trapped into fraudulent marriages. A case that many law students were involved in under Professor Phillipa Kruger.

Bonita Myersfeld, did her LLB at Wits, went on to a PhD at Yale. And is back as a professor at Wits and just recently given a National Order of Merit by the President of France in recognition of her work on gender-based violence.

Our economics students consistently excel in the Nedbank & Old Mutual Budget Speech competition, and last year the postgraduate section of the competition was won by our Masters student, Baneng Naape, for his essay on Disciplined Fiscal Policy in South Africa.

Vuyo Jack studied Accountancy here, a CA, and is now the executive chairman of Empowerdex, South Africa’s best known black economic empowerment rating agency. Our school of accountancy is indeed transforming the accounting profession of this country, producing among the highest pass rates in the SAICA CA exams – with numbers of successful African candidate far in excess of universities such as UCT, Stellenbosch and Pretoria.

I guess I could go on and on, and there are many more wonderful examples of successful people in commerce, accountancy and law who sat in the very lecture halls you will find yourselves next week.

I cannot guess how your lives will turn out, but if there is one thing I am quite sure of, looking at the examples that I have just cited, it is very unlikely that your careers will follow the path you are imagining right now.

The next few years of your life will be interesting and challenging and sometimes confusing and sometimes difficult. Some of you may realise quite early that the programme you have registered for is not what you expected, and you will change courses; some of you will fail a course or two and pick up new areas of interest, and many of you will change direction significantly once you complete your degree.

You have the advantage of being in the economic, the political and the technological hub of the country; and at the same time having the best academic minds to guide you through the next few years. You will learn facts, but you will also learn skills and concepts and engage robustly in ideas.

Being able to study here - at Wits - at the top University on the African continent, means that you have risen above thousands, thousands of others. And I want you to also think about what the opportunity means. We have great expectations of you. Your leadership role does not just begin when you graduate from Wits. We expect you to be leaders now. And we want you to use that leadership to effect positive change in our society, our city, our campus, in your classrooms and in your residences.

  • You must be the leaders who tackle inequality. This is without a doubt the biggest crisis facing us as a country, and as citizens of the world. You will see students who are much poorer than you, students who cannot afford 3 meals a day, who cannot afford sanitary pads or stationary. Be generous – with material things and in spirit. Take notice of these inequalities because you are the generation of leaders that can find innovative and interesting ways to address these. Those of you from more privileged backgrounds have a moral obligation to share your resources and your confidence with students who have had to overcome so much more to get here.
  • You must be the leaders that reject sexual harassment and all forms of gender violence. You must turn around the rape crisis in this country. You must be the beacons of hope for vulnerable women, for children in abusive households, for marginalized people. You must be the leaders on campus and in society that speak out and show that you are better.
  • You must be the generation that ends xenophobia. We expect you to embrace the different cultures, races, backgrounds, languages and countries you will find in your peers at Wits, and to make people feel welcomed and included no matter what their backgrounds. Indeed, the diversity of the Wits campus is part of the rich educational experience that make our graduates leaders.
  • You need to practice safe sex.  The HIV infection rates in South Africa should be massively lower than they are now, but too many people continue to behave irresponsibly. You KNOW the dangers of unsafe sex – be the leaders that change that behavior.
  • There is an environmental, climate and water crisis in the world and many parts of our country. This crisis could be much better managed if people change their behaviours. You are the generation that understands the political importance of the environmental struggle; and how connected people are when it comes to issues of natural resources. We expect you to drive a campaign of responsible consumption on our campus.
  • Despite years of expensive advertising and different messaging, our road accident deaths continue to be among the highest in the world. You are the leaders who need to practice safe driving habits, who need to show that it is cool to be safe and that reckless driving (and driving after drinking) is stupid and unattractive and unnecessary. It was your generation that developed technologies like Uber so that you have more options to be safe now.
  • We expect you to be the leaders who insist on being ethical in every single decision you make. The scourge of corruption has crept into all areas of life in our country – it has almost destroyed the dream we had with Nelson Mandela in 1994 to build a better life for all. You are the leaders who will claim back that dream. The generation who will insist that business, government and civil society all act morally to better the lives of all South Africans. You are the generation that will reject bribes, that will not pull strings to help friends or family, that will rely on your work ethic and your strength of character to advance in this world. And that starts with your academic integrity, in the honest manner in which you will tackle and prepare your assignments. Copying from your friends, cutting and pasting solutions from the internet and passing them off as your own. These are not ethical decisions. Those are not the actions of leaders, or Witsies.

Of course, I should also mention that you must prepare for tough times. University is very different from school. You might feel overwhelmed. You might question whether you’ve registered for the right thing. You might feel depressed and lonely. And while it is our job to give you the best guidance, teaching and mentorship possible, it is also our responsibility to give you as much support as possible. Wits has excellent support structure to help you with all of this. We have counseling, we have study support, we have tutors and psychologists and medical people. We have people dedicated to help you navigate the personal and academic challenges that come with studying at university. These resources are all at your disposal to make your journey through Wits as smooth and enjoyable as possible. We want you to be healthy and have balance; to be enriched by your studies; to make new friends and meet interesting new people; to try new activities and stretch your minds.

I wish you well. You will learn wonderful things whether it is in your Bachelor of Accounting Science or your BCom, in your Bachelor of Economic Science or your LLB. I hope your journey here with us will feel enriching and valuable. Congratulations on choosing to study at Africa’s top university and may you be inspired to make your mark in this world and continue the proud tradition of our heroic alumni. Welcome to Wits and to CLM.


Many countries regulate e-cigarettes. South Africa should too

- Laura Rossouw

Opinions differ on how to regulate electronic cigarettes. But dozens of countries are taking action.

In Africa, Kenya already taxes these products, and South Africa is preparing to follow. E-cigarettes don’t contain tobacco, which has harmful health effects. But they often contain highly addictive nicotine and have their own negative health risks.

Some people use e-cigarettes when they are trying to stop smoking combustible cigarettes.

In the US studies have shown that young non-smokers are taking up e-cigarettes in growing numbers. About 1.3 million adolescents started smoking e-cigarettes between 2017 and 2018. Hospitalisations and deaths as a result of lung injury also rose.

The market for e-cigarettes is expanding with a rapid increase in the number and variety of products being sold. In early 2014, there were already 466 e-cigarette brands.

A study done four years ago in South Africa showed that 2% of adult women and 3% of men were using e-cigarettes. This compared with 7% of adult women and 37% of adult men smoking tobacco.

E-cigarettes are unregulated in the country, yet their marketing and sale is proliferating on online platforms. This suggests that the number of e-cigarette consumers in South Africa is likely to grow in line with global trends.

The country can learn from its experience of implementing tobacco controls. In 1990 the government introduced warnings on cigarette packet labels and banned smoking on public transport. It also raised taxes on cigarettes. Between 1990 and 2012, real excise taxes rose by 522%. Over this period, adult smoking rates dropped from 33% to 20%.

A similar approach should be adopted to deter non-smokers from starting to use e-cigarettes.

How to regulate

E-cigarettes don’t fall under the current Tobacco Products Control Act. Technically, they fall under the Medicines and Related Substances Act of 1965. They are supposed to be registered with the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority and sold by prescription only.

In practice they are not being marketed as a way to stop smoking, but rather as a consumer product. They are sold in kiosks and regular shops.

A new tobacco control bill published by the South African health department suggests regulating e-cigarettes as tobacco products.

There are three possible ways to deal with e-cigarettes: banning them, regulating them and taxing them.

Which avenue to pursue should be based on information about user behaviour and long-term effects on health because different kinds of regulation may have different effects on behaviour.

The banning option: In 2019, e-cigarette sales were banned in 28 countries, among them Brazil and India.

The ban is sometimes based on the concern that reintroducing a nicotine product into the market might contribute to normalising combustible cigarette use. There are also concerns about the role that the tobacco industry is playing in the market. Some cigarette manufacturers, such as British American Tobacco and Altria, are buying stakes in e-cigarette companies.

Banning e-cigarettes may be difficult once demand is established.


Our work at a research unit that looks at using taxes to reduce the use of products has shown that taxation is a very cost efficient strategy to discourage consumption of combustible cigarettes. It also creates a stream of revenue for the government. The same would be true for e-cigarettes. The size of the additional revenue stream would depend on consumption numbers, the tax rate and the level of tax evasion.

South Africa’s national treasury has indicated its intention to tax e-cigarettes, but not yet how and at what level.

Several European and Asian countries and some US states have started taxing e-liquids. The impact on consumption has not yet been quantified. One study focusing on six countries in Europe predicted that a 10% increase in the price of e-cigarettes would lead to a drop in e-cigarette use of 2.7% in the short run and 11.5% in the long run. The only African country to have taxed e-cigarettes is Kenya, which imposes a tax of 3,000 Kenyan shillings (around US$30) per e-cigarette device and 2,500 Kenyan shillings per cartridge.

Taxing the liquids used in e-cigarettes could be based on nicotine content or on a value such as production cost or retail price. The trouble with taxing by nicotine content is that it would require regular laboratory testing of products to detect tax evasion. The most practical option for the South African context may be to base the tax on the volume of e-liquid.

After establishing an efficient tax structure, the next step would be to decide the tax level – one that encourages the desired behaviour. This requires a lot of comparable information about products. In the absence of its own database, a country like South Africa could rather follow the example of other countries that tax e-liquid volumes.

Regulation: Before e-cigarettes can be regulated they need to be included under the Tobacco Control Act. This would make them open to regulatory intervention.

Regulations could include: a ban on smoking in public spaces, a ban on sales to minors, banning advertising (including promotion, product placement and sponsorship) and including health warnings on packaging.

An additional option would be to regulate the characteristics of products. The European Union’s approach has been to limit the nicotine concentration in e-liquids and the volume of an e-liquid refill and disposable cartridges. This would prevent high-nicotine products from entering the market.

Next steps

South Africa’s National Department of Health is considering the draft bill on tobacco products and electronic delivery systems. This would include e-cigarettes as tobacco products, opening the door to being able to regulate and tax them.

This should become law as soon as possible to prevent a rise in demand. And it should be accompanied by a clear policy from the National Treasury on the structure and level of taxing e-cigarettes.

Delaying adoption of these policies is a missed opportunity to tackle the problem while it is still manageable.


This article was originally published in The Conversation.