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First African civil engineer inducted into Wits Wall of Fame

- Wits University

Dr Solomon Lefakane, the first African to obtain a Civil Engineering degree in 1961, is the first Wits alumnus to be inducted into the Engineering Wall of Fame.

Dr Solomon Lefakane has become the first Wits alumnus to be inducted into the Engineering Wall of Fame

The Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment unveiled its honorary Wall of Fame as part of Wits University's Centenary celebration.

Former Witsie Dr Solomon Isaac Lefakane is the first alumnus to be featured on one of the gold plaques fixed to the honorary wall. 

Lefakane was the first African to receive an engineering degree in South Africa in 1961 after obtaining his Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering.

The momentous occasion was attended by various Heads of Schools and former First Lady and Witsie Zanele Mbeki.

Dr Solomon Lefakane with former First Lady Zenele Mbeki on his right

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation, Professor Lynn Morris, opened the ceremony and reflected on Wits' achievements over the last 100 years.

"It has really been a wonderful year for Wits. We've been celebrating excellence at all levels at this great university. We've reflected on our past achievements and reconnected with old friends and alumni all over the world," said Morris.

"This faculty has produced several outstanding engineers, architects, town planners, construction economists and real estate experts who continue to make South Africa and the world proud."

She praised the institution for making a remarkable contribution to Lefakane's great legacy.

"At the time of his graduation, Wits University was the only university institution in South Africa that accepted black people in engineering. An incredible display of foresight on the part of the institution and we are very proud that we played a role in that historic moment."

Dr Solomon Lefakane has become the first Wits alumnus to be inducted into the Engineering Wall of Fame

Keynote Address

Lefakane later took the stage on the ground floor of the Chamber of Mines building situated on West Campus to deliver his keynote speech.

The former Witsie reflected on his life as a young pupil attending school at Soweto and the difficulties of receiving a proper education during South Africa's system of institutionalised racial segregation.

Dr Solomon Lefakane has become the first Wits alumnus to be inducted into the Engineering Wall of Fame

He noted a time when he used to sell sweets on the train to assist his family who was struggling financially.

"Due to my financial circumstances, tertiary education was not something I even considered. My high school principal assisted me to apply for a Johannesburg City Council Civil Engineering scholarship. In 1956, I was one of four pupil engineers that received those scholarships."

"My first day as a student of this University was at the Douglas Smith residence. The residence was established to accommodate black students. One of the most exhilarating experiences for me was being able to be in the city after the 8 pm curfew. I felt good about sharing a room with a black medical student."

The Douglas Smith House was located on Showground Road (today Enoch Sontonga Avenue) and was opened in 1946 for 30 men and six women – unique amongst Wits residences in that it accommodated both men and women. 

"The Douglas Smith residence exposed us to some of the amazing live musical dances. For many of us, the dance entertainment provided an opportunity for us to rub shoulders with well-known Johannesburg musicians," said Lefakane.

Dr Solomon Lefakane has become the first Wits alumnus to be inducted into the Engineering Wall of Fame

The 84-year-old was one of only four black civil engineering students in his first year in 1957. By the time he reached his 4th year of study, he was the only black student left as the rest of his peers were excluded.

"One of my lecturers, the late Professor Jeremiah Jennings was an expert in soil mechanics and foundation engineering. He used to take student groups to construction sites that he was working on. He provided practical and useful information in his field of expertise."

Lefakane praised Jennings for his contribution to the field and his support in Lefakane's achievement of becoming the first African civil engineer to graduate from Wits University.

"It is because of his teachings and professional ethos, that I developed the dream of studying soil mechanics at a postgraduate level. A dream which I later fulfilled at Stanford University in California," said Lefakane.

Life after receiving a Civil Engineering degree

As a newly qualified Civil Engineer, he offered his professional services to the Soweto Housing Division. During the interviewing process, the conversation of remuneration came up; the salary discrepancy between him and his white colleagues was alarmingly high. 

He left South Africa for Swaziland, where higher rates of pay were available for African professional men. 

In 1966 he left Swaziland for the United States of America after obtaining a scholarship from the African American Institute to study for a Master's degree in Civil Engineering at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California. He obtained the degree in June 1968.

Immigration issues resulted in a change of career which was supported by a Federal Government Medical Scholarship, which enabled him to obtain a junior medical degree from the University of Arizona, Tucson in May 1974. 

In 1978 he returned to the African continent and became a general practitioner in Maseru, Lesotho. After his return to South Africa in 1984, he applied for specialization in Pediatrics at the Medical University of South Africa and obtained an MMed degree in 1988. He then joined the private practice at the Brenthurst Hospital, Tshepo Themba and Dr SK Matseke Memorial Hospital, until his retirement in 2020 at the age of 82.

Dr Solomon Lefakane has become the first Wits alumnus to be inducted into the Engineering Wall of Fame

"As I look at South Africa today, I am deeply disappointed. Throughout my primary and high school years in the 1940s and 50s, I studied under candlelight followed by some great gains made in the years of democracy. How can it be that we have now regressed to a point where once again, millions of South African children study under candlelight?"

Lefakane said that it was disappointing that municipalities are not led by professionals and called out to Wits to intervene in ensuring more qualified graduates take up these positions to make a positive impact on South Africa's uncertain future.

The retired medical doctor later watched on as the red curtain revealed his name on a golden plaque on the Chamber of Mines Wall of Fame. He shared the moment with his wife, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.