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Australian Friends of Wits University advance Centenary Campaign

- Wits University

Alumni in Australia have formalised fundraising for Wits in its centenary year with R80 million already pledged by the Zylstra family’s Skye Foundation.

The Australian Friends of Wits University Limited (AFWITSU) was officially launched at the Point Piper Yacht Club in Sydney, Australia, on 26 May 2022.

AFWITSU is a company incorporated in Australia for the purpose of fundraising for Wits and will assist the University to relieve poverty by providing funds to support scholarships and bursaries.

Wits Australia Board and Philanthropy Advisory Committee_BACK LtoR Back: Michael Segerman, Philip Zylstra, Lawrence Jackson Wits Aus Rep, Andy Schmulow, Rob Hamer.FRONT LtoR  Myra Salkinder, Philip Mayers, Lenore Manderson, Graham Craig

Sixty-one Wits alumni in Australia attended the launch of AFWITSU, which was sponsored by the Skye Foundation, an enduring benefactor of the University and whose chairman, alumnus Philip Zylstra, with his wife, Lisa – also a Witsie – were the guests of honour. Stephen Koseff, alumnus, former Investec CEO, and Wits honorary degree recipient, delivered the keynote address.

Australian Friends of Wits University was launched in May 2022 Sydney on

Lawrence Jackson, the Wits Australia representative, acknowledged the indigenous communities in Australia before welcoming guests to the yacht club and online. They included, among others, Wits Chancellor, Dr Judi Dlamini; Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi; Mr Philip Mayers AM*, Chair of the Australian Board of Directors; Mr Graham Craig, Chair of the Philanthropy Advisors Board and former President of the Wits Students’ Representative Council (SRC) in 1972; Mr Robin Margo SC**, former SRC President from 1966 to 1967 and a Rhodes Scholar; and Dr Helmut Heydt, former President of Wits Convocation from 1992 to 1994.

Wits Australia alumni LtoR LtoR Arlene Allardice, Helmut Heydt, Shirley Kalish, Peter Kalish

WATCH an event recording: PHOTOGRAPHS:

Australian Friends of Wits gathered at the Point Piper Yacht Club in Sydney, Australia, on 26 May 2022

The mandate of the Australian Board of Directors is to develop and augment Wits’ philanthropic activities in Australia. The Board members also act as directors of the two fundraising companies – AFWITSU, and Wits Australian Public Health and Medical Research Foundation Limited (WITSAUS).

Mayers welcomed alumni and recalled how Wits was “a formative and transformative time” in his life. Despite a somewhat ad hoc relationship with Wits to date, Mayers said, he was excited that in 2022, Wits’ centennial year, there was “something to rally around”.

“Wits has always meant a great deal to me,” he said, “It doesn’t matter which decade you came from,” and he acknowledged the attendance of alumnus Mr Geoffrey Jochelson, from the class of 1951.

LtoR Wits Australia alumni Jonathan Shapiro, Harold Shapiro, Cecil Hoffman, David Nohr

‘Everything matters when you’re working in South Africa’

Lenore Manderson AM*, Distinguished Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health at Wits and a National Research Foundation of South Africa A1-rated scientist, spoke next to introduce the Vice-Chancellor and Principal.

Manderson is an Australian national whose father was born in South Africa and studied at Wits before he migrated to Australia for political reasons.

Lenore Manderson first came to South Africa in 1995 – coincidentally at the time of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – returned in 2003 as an honorary professor, and then chose to move to South Africa in 2014 to take up the post of distinguished professor.

Lenore Manderson is a Distinguished Professor of Medical Anthropology and Public Health is the Wits School of Public Health

“The best decision I made was to move to South Africa as an academic,” said Manderson. “It was an absolute eye-opener. Everything mattered and everything does matter when you’re working in South Africa.”

Her primary role, she says, is to support young researchers. “It’s a pleasure to work with people at Wits who will take their place as exceptional scholars in SA and globally.”

‘The highest standards of corporate governance’

One such exceptional scholar is Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, whom Manderson introduced. She recalled that she and Vilakazi joined Wits at the same time, the latter in the role of Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research.

Vilakazi “embodies what we all envisage at Wits and work towards in Africa and beyond,” said Manderson of Vilakazi, who on 20 May was appointed as a Fellow of the Royal Society (UK).

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University.

Vilakazi thanked Jackson and AFWITSU for the “incredible gumption put into this initiative.” He said Wits alumni have made distinct contributions to Johannesburg, to Africa, and to the world and that Wits is “a beacon for society with a stellar and enduring legacy as an institution steeped in scholarship, and a commitment to academic excellence”.

This ethos must and will continue, he said, and he reassured alumni that these core values would not be compromised, that the University commits to the South African Constitution, and to upholding the highest standards of corporate governance.

The Vice-Chancellor acknowledged and thanked the donors and supporters, which Wits relies upon.

“Something new will come out of Africa, something magical will come out of this continent,” he said, concluding with former President Nelson Mandela’s words, ‘it always seems impossible until it is done’.

‘Job-ready’ a hallmark of a Wits education

Mr Graham Craig, Chair of the Philanthropy Advisors Board, was Wits SRC President in 1972 when the University turned 50 and he is a former Rhodes Scholar. Craig told alumni that his parents had met at Wits Medical School 80 years ago and “like my father, I married a Sunnyside resident”.

Craig’s wife, Helen, preceded him on the SRC. Craig’s siblings, too, were at Medical School while Craig, an engineering graduate, spent 20 years at Anglo American before relocating to Australia.

Craig recalled that 1972 was a period of maximum resistance on campus with students frequently deported. But Wits graduates were sought after due to their stellar education. A hallmark of a Wits education was that it made you ‘job-ready’ on graduation, he said. He confirmed that his Wits education had stood him in good stead as a Rhodes Scholar.

Craig introduced alumnus Stephen Koseff, recipient of an honorary degree from Wits in 2017 and former CEO of Investec, which is a listed company in Johannesburg and London.

‘Eliminate corruption’, Afro-optimist urges

Wits Australia Stephen Koseff left Lawrence Jackson Australia repright

Koseff congratulated Wits on its centenary and said he was struck by the quality of alumni who have made it on the global stage – he named Natie Kirsh, Patrick Soon-Shiong, Brian Joffe, Patrice Motsepe, and Adrian Gore, amongst others. He acknowledged Wits alumni Professors Glenda Gray, Shabir Madhi and Barry Schoub who helped South Africans navigate the Covid-19 pandemic.

Koseff reminisced about his time at Wits in the 1970s, when he read for a BCom and then an MBA. The ‘70s were traumatic in South Africa, he recalled, when Wits was at the forefront against apartheid.

“We used to drive from Benoni to Johannesburg, get takeaways from Pop’s, and had cops with hats hitting us with batons.” Fonder memories included meeting his wife of 45 years at Wits.

Post-apartheid South Africa had made significant progress since the early ‘90s, but the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8, and the change of the ruling party leadership in South Africa in 2009, had consequences. Echoing sentiments expressed in the speech he delivered on receipt of his honorary degree, Koseff reiterated that SA would flourish only if corruption was eliminated and the workforce educated.

He stressed that Wits values and demonstrates strong governance and that the University is already playing a role in education and in relevant skills development. With the support of alumni around the world, he said, Wits could help put the country on the path to prosperity and inclusive growth so that it can serve as an education hub and business centre for Africa.

“My optimistic side says South Africa will prevail – we have come back from the dark days of cops running across campus and RAU students throwing rocks at us. South Africa can be a beacon to the world – we have enough will and enough good people around. Wits gave us a hell of a lot to set us on a path to [success]. We all have an obligation to help and support,” he said.

In pursuit of profit with purpose

Wits Chancellor, Dr Judy Dlamni is herself an eminent businessperson and a medical doctor. She is an alumna of UKZN Medical School (1993) and, like Koseff, earned her MBA at Wits Business School (WBS), in 1999. In April this year, she graduated with a Wits Postgraduate Diploma in Education.

Wits Chancellor Dr Judy Dlamini graduates again in 2022 with a PGCE

Dlamini said that Australia is home to the third highest number of Wits alumni internationally (after Africa and the UK), and includes the likes of Gail Kelly, the first female CEO of one of Australia's big four banks.

Dlamini, who is “quite big on women getting their rightful place” – she established the Female Academic Leaders Fellowship (FALF) at Wits – stressed the importance of “profit with purpose”. She assured alumni that Wits has good leadership and remains locally relevant while pursuing global excellence.

“There is no doubt in my mind that the next 100 years [at Wits] will be better, not only because our VC, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, is now a Fellow of the Royal Society, but also because he has centred his leadership in innovation that serves society. As we harness the tentacles of Witsies all over the world, we will be stronger together. We need your support and collaboration,” she said, and extended special thanks to the Zylstra family and the Skye Foundation for their R80 million pledge to Wits and their generosity in agreeing to match any contributions made this year to the Australian funds.

‘Find and help those people that will change the world’ 

Philip Zylstra, Chairman Skye Foundation

“My parents met at Wits and if it wasn’t for that I wouldn’t be here either!” engineering alumnus Mr Philip Zylstra and Chair of the Skye Foundation told alumni. Like his parents, Brian and Dorothy, Zylstra met his wife, Lisa, at Wits.

Zylstra’s father, Brian, studied accountancy while his mother, Dorothy, studied teaching.

“[My father] didn’t really speak any English until he started studying at Wits,” said Zylstra. “It changed his life in so many ways. Not only did he complete his CA which gave him the skills and training to run and build businesses, but he made lifelong friendships, opened his eyes to the world, and gave him the gift of an education that he carried with him all his life.”

Similarly, Wits instilled in Zylstra’s mother a lifelong love of learning. He said, “[My mother] is now 85 and still attends French lessons! She went on to obtain multiple degrees over many years at Wits.”

Brian Zylstra established the Skye Foundation in 1997 and his son, Philip, took on the role of chairman when his father passed away in 2012. The foundation funds excellent postgraduate students in any discipline, anywhere they would like to study.

Today the foundation has joint scholarships with Oxford and Cambridge and an honours scholarship programme at Wits and at the University of Cape Town. The foundation has funded over 300 students over the past 28 years.

“We have always felt that the greatest gift and privilege is education and the only way to make some kind of difference is to find and help those people that will change the world – education is the key,” said Zylstra.

Ripples of philanthropy and the Skye’s the limit

Zylstra shared the story of Jeremy, a scholarship recipient who chose to study at Cambridge University. The foundation originally funded a master’s degree for Jeremy.

“We were then asked by Jeremy’s supervisor at Cavendish to fund his PHD. We generally don’t fund subsequent degrees but in this case we decided to do so, as Professor John Ellis wrote to us with a personal request in which he said, ‘I can only say that I have been doing research now since 1985 and Jeremy is the best student/prospective researcher at any level I have come across or heard of in any meaningful way’. After such a glowing reference it was a simple decision!”

Zylstra shared with Australian alumni the letter from Professor Ellis who wrote on confirmation of the PhD scholarship, which included these words: ‘I am always impressed by the way he [Jeremy] seeks out the important, the fundamental, the far reaching, but in a realistic, totally non pretentious way.’

“One never knows where the ripples of philanthropy flow!” said Zylstra.

Skye Foundation matches donations, makes a WiSH come true

Zylstra has fond memories of beers at the Boz after class, rugby matches on Saturdays, and playing in the Raikes Memorial rugby nights in front of mates.

“My father was very thankful for what Wits gave him, and gave back when he was able to,” said Zylstra, whose father was a Wits Rugby Blue. 

Tribute montage to Brian Zylstra of the Skye Foundation from Wits Sport

The Skye Foundation has also funded sports scholarships at Wits, an initiative which began when Zylstra was working at Wits Sport in 1988.

“Our foundation has decided to fund the construction of a building which will house a new Wits Institute for Sport and Health [WiSH]. This will be the home for a world leading sports research, training and clinical service centre for all sports. It will be available to international sports teams as well as for collaboration with leading sports science research projects across the world. It is an R80 million commitment that we hope gives Wits Sport a home to do wonderful work over many years,” said Zylstra.

“Realising the importance of alumni networks to the future of universities, and the projects this Australian alumni network has set as a goal to fund, we have also agreed to match any contributions made this year to the Australian funds.”

If you would like to make a gift to support deserving students who cannot afford to pay University tuition and residence fees, and double your impact in the process, you can do so by donating to Australian Friends of Wits University Limited, which contributes to scholarships provided by Wits. Click to donate.
* Member of the Order of Australia. In the Australian honours system appointments to the Order of Australia confer the highest recognition for outstanding achievement and service. The Member of the Order of Australia is awarded for service in a particular locality or field of activity or to a particular group.
** Senior Counsel