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Bernie Fanaroff awarded prestigious Jansky Lectureship

- Wits University

The Wits alumnus is among a select group, including seven Nobel laureates, who have received this honour.

In a statement on 29 June 2017, the Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO) said Dr Fanaroff was awarded the 2017 Jansky Lectureship for his exceptional contributions to radio astronomy and his unparalleled leadership through public service.

He is specifically recognised for his work with the South African Square Kilometer Array Radio Telescope Project (SKA). The Jansky Lectureship was established in 1966 by the trustees of the AUI to recognise outstanding contributions to the advancement of radio astronomy and to promote the appreciation of the science of radio astronomy through public lectures. It is named in honour of Karl G. Jansky, who discovered radio waves emanating from the central region of the Milky Way galaxy, which ultimately launched the science of radio astronomy.

Fanaroff's academic and professional career started as an undergraduate at Wits where he first obtained his BSc Physics degree and in 1967 was awarded his BSc (Hons) in Theoretical Physics. He joined Wits again in 1974 as a lecturer in the Physics Department until the end of 1976.

In 2013 Wits conferred an Honorary Doctorate of Science degree on Fanaroff, not only for his tremendous contribution to radio astronomy but also for the pivotal role he as played in the trade union movement and the struggle for freedom during the height of apartheid in the 1980s.

Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Wits alumnus and former director of the SKA SA. © SKA SA

As part of the Jansky award, Fanaroff will give lectures later this year at the NRAO facilities in Charlottesville, Virginia (25 October 2017) and Socorro, New Mexico (3 November 2017). He also will give a lecture at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO) in West Virginia (27 October 2017). His talk will be titled: Observing the Universe from Africa: Linking radio astronomy and development.

Fanaroff also holds a PhD in radio astronomy from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. He also is recognised for the Fanaroff-Riley classification of radio galaxies and quasars, which was published in 1974 and is still in use today.

Among his many accomplishments and awards are honorary doctorates from six South African universities, including Wits University, and the South African National Order of Mapungubwe.

Prior to his most recent positions as co-chair of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Working Group on ICT (Information and Communication Technologies) and High Performance Computing, and a member of the Advisory Committee of the Breakthrough Listen project, Fanaroff also held numerous public service positions in South Africa. These positions include the Deputy Director General of President Mandela’s office and head of the Office for the Reconstruction and Development Program, Deputy Director General of Safety and Security, Chairman of the Integrated Justice System Board, and Chairman of the Inter-Departmental Steering Committee for Border Control. He also was the National Organiser and National Secretary of the Metal and Allied Workers Union and then of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa.

Other recipients of the Jansky award include seven Nobel laureates — Drs Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, Edward Purcell, Charles Townes, Arno Penzias, Robert Wilson, William Fowler, and Joseph Taylor — as well as noted astronomers Jocelyn Bell-Burnell and Vera Rubin

Diabetes poses risk to health gains made in recent years

- Wits University

Wits researchers contribute to the new Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Commission report on diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa.

The report, launched in London in the UK, provides a comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of the burden of diabetes across sub-Saharan Africa, the challenges this burden poses for health systems, as well as potential solutions.

More than 70 experts from around the world, including the Wits researchers, contributed to the report.

The new report proposes that diabetes and its complications have the potential to reverse some of the health gains seen in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years – overwhelming the region’s health systems and crippling patients’ personal finances as they pay for their own healthcare.

According to co-lead author of the Commission and Associate Professor in the MRC/Wits-Agincourt Rural Health Unit, School of Public Health, Justine Davies, “The economic burden of diabetes may be most felt in the South African population.”

The report found that wealthier areas of sub-Saharan Africa seeing more societal changes had the highest costs due to diabetes in 2015, with almost two-thirds of the region’s diabetes costs coming from southern Africa (62%, $12.1 billion), in particular, wealthier South Africa. Less than a tenth of the costs (9%, $1.7 billion) originated from poorer countries in western Africa.

Across countries in sub-Saharan Africa, there are currently huge gaps in healthcare systems’ ability to care for people with diabetes, including a lack of equipment for diagnosing and monitoring diabetes, lack of treatments, and lack of knowledge about the disease among available healthcare providers. These gaps contribute to the fact that half of patients with diabetes go undiagnosed, while only one in 10 (11%) receive the drugs they need.

Davies says: “One of the key findings that came out of this process was how little is known about diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa. Many countries in the region don’t even know the burden of diabetes in their population. For example, 21 countries had no data on prevalence to supply to the most recent WHO estimates for the region. So, we have estimates that are good enough to tell us that prevalence and costs are rising, but they don’t give detailed information necessary for health system planning. This is a major challenge to our research and development community, regionally and nationally.”

“Once you start to look at management strategies, there is even less evidence.” says Davies. “The main reason for treating diabetes is to prevent longer term effects of high glucose, for example, on the cardiovascular system, the eyes, and kidneys.

Most of the guidelines for treating diabetes used in countries in sub-Saharan Africa are based on studies done in people in the USA or Europe, but people in Africa may respond very differently to people in Europe and the USA. In particular, they may be much more sensitive to the long-term effects of glucose due to different genetics, the effects of previous malnutrition on epigenetics, and the effects of a high prevalence of infectious diseases in the region.”

Adds Professor Steve Tollman “this will be the bread-and-butter of primary health care in South Africa and frames much of the health challenge to our envisaged NHI system… indeed, it informs the School of Public Health’s focus on improving nutrition through measures tackling salt and sugar intake.”

In order to counter these issues effectively, the researchers recommend that more research is essential to better understand both the burden of diabetes and find solutions to treating it in the context of Africa. However, it is also necessary to rapidly scale up interventions that have already been successfully trialled in some sub-Saharan African countries, such as community-based care for high blood pressure, patient education, home glucose monitoring, and more education about diabetes for healthcare professionals.

Adds Tollman: “This is a major challenge to South Africa and the region’s health and development community”.

Davies concludes: “We desperately need researchers to focus efforts to address these unknowns if health systems in sub-Saharan Africa are to stand a chance of being able to manage diabetes effectively. Researchers in sub-Saharan Africa are ideally positioned to be able to address these questions that affect healthcare in their countries."


The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Commission on diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa Factsheet:

  • As sub-Saharan African countries struggle to cope with the current burden of diabetes, new estimates suggest that costs associated with the disease could more than double and may reach up to US$59.3 billion per year by 2030 if type 2 diabetes cases continue to increase.
  • Currently, only half of the people with diabetes in populations in sub-Saharan Africa are aware that they have the disease, and only one in 10 (11%) receive drugs they need.
  • The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology Commission on diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa Report estimates that the economic cost of diabetes in sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 totalled $19.5 billion, equivalent to 1.2% gross domestic product (GDP). On average, countries in the region spend 5.5% of their GDP on health.
  • More than half of this economic cost (56%, $10.8 billion) was on accessing diabetes treatment, including medication and hospital stays – and ­one half of these costs were out-of-pocket (paid for by the patients), putting a huge financial burden on people with diabetes. The remaining economic costs were a result of productivity losses, mostly from early death ($7.9 billion), as well as people leaving the workforce early ($0.5 billion), taking sick leave ($0.2 billion) and being less productive at work due to poor health ($0.07 billion).
  • In the projections for 2030, southern Africa is likely to see the greatest increases in annual costs, increasing to between $17.2 and $29.2 billion. However, the authors also predicted substantial growth in costs in eastern African countries (such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania), increasing from $3.8 billion in 2015 to up to $16.2 billion in 2030.

A finger or not

- Wits University

Fewer than 1 in 7 doctors examine the prostate gland for cancer, a new study finds.

The study by Dr Kalli Spencer, urologist from the Wits Medical School, found that doctors with less than seven years’ experience are less likely to test male patients for prostate cancer by conducting a digital rectal examination or DRE.

The study, titled: A finger or not? Prostate examinations by non-urologists at a South African academic institution, was published on 30 June 2017 in the South African Medical Journal.

Spencer questioned 303 doctors, excluding urologists, from three Wits academic hospitals — Charlotte Maxeke‚ Helen Joseph and Chris Hani Baragwanath – to assess whether they test patients for prostate cancer, and if not, why not?

Some of the reasons given for not performing a DRE include the doctors saying their 'fingers are too short’; ‘the examination may pass as sexual harassment’; ‘there is no privacy in the emergency department or admission ward’; or that they 'forgot'.

Spencer found fewer than 1 in 7 doctors examine the prostate gland for cancer using the DRE. This is alarming as the DRE adds to the sensitivity and specificity of serum prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing and is an important component of the assessment for the early detection of prostate cancer.

Where breast cancer is the most common cancer presenting in South African women across the board, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed solid-organ cancer in South African men, according to the According to the South African (SA) National Cancer Registry: with 1 in 26 men developing prostate cancer in their lifetime, five men dying every day, and black men being at higher risk.

TimesLIVE reports Spencer said 18% of cancer cases were detected by a doctor’s finger‚ and digital rectal examination (DRE) was up to 68% effective in men without symptoms of cancer.

Performance rates of DRE and PSA testing by doctors who are not urologists are very low, which may have significant clinical implications. It is recommended that SA prostate cancer screening guidelines are necessary to change practice with regard to this condition.

Still, many men shy away from this type of prostate screening. The Azania Mosaka Show on 702/CapeTalk shared Spencer’s findings and asked listeners to phone in and share their experiences or reluctance for testing for prostate cancer.

No scientific credibility to claim that vaping is 95% safer than cigarettes

- Africa Check

Lancet calls research ‘extraordinarily flimsy’. What do we know about the safety of e-cigarettes?

Africa Check, a partner of Wits Journalism and with the help of research done by Dr Patrick Ngassa Piotie from the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute , this week published their findings after investigating the reliability of a UK research report and its claims that are now being used by e-cigarette companies in South Africa to support claims in their advertising material that their products are “95% safer than traditional cigarettes”:

Tobacco smokers turn to battery-powered electronic cigarettes, some containing nicotine, in places where smoking is banned or to help them quit. Many believe “vaping” is much less harmful than regular cigarettes – specifically on the back of a controversial study.

Recently, South Africa’s advertising watchdog ordered electronic cigarette seller Twisp to pull a radio ad saying its products are “95% safer than smoking”. Yet the claim still appears on its website.

It’s also on the website of a Twisp competitor, Vaperite. Both say it was the conclusion of an agency of the UK’s department of health, Public Health England.

To be clear, the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa did not judge whether the Public Health England review was credible. It ruled that the claim was not “adequately substantiated” for the products advertised.

In this fact-check, we’ll take over where the advertising authority left off. Is there sound evidence that the smoking of e-cigarettes – more commonly called vaping – is 95% safer than regular ones?

Cigarettes scored 99.6% ‘maximum relative harm’

The Public Health England report, titled “E-cigarettes: an evidence update”, was published in August 2015. However, its conclusion was based on a research report published the year before in the journal European Addiction Research.

The Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs, a UK charity, got together a panel of 12 international experts in London in 2013. The panellists had expertise in a variety of disciplines to do with nicotine and tobacco research, such as medicine, psychiatry, policy and law. (Note: Dr Kgosi Letlape, president of the Health Professions Council of South Africa was one of the panellists.)

During a two-day workshop, the experts used a model called multi-criteria decision analysis (MCDA) to estimate the harm of products that contain nicotine. When faced with an important decision, a group of people using the MCDA method will select the “best” or “most preferred alternative” among a set of options. Such a decision is made after analysing multiple criteria thoroughly and weighing their importance.  

Using this method, the panel rated electronic nicotine delivery system products such as e-cigarettes to have only 4% “maximum relative harm”. Cigarettes were ranked as the most harmful nicotine product with a score of 99.6%.

Limitations: Lack of data & selection of panel

Before you reach for an e-cigarette, it’s important to read on to two key limitations the panel itself pointed out.

The first is that they had to deal with a lack of data. E-cigarettes are fairly recent products and have therefore not been researched thoroughly when it comes to dependence, illness and associated death. Subsequently, one could expect that e-cigarettes would score very low on those key health-related criteria.

The second is that the expert panel wasn’t selected based on formal criteria, meaning bias could have crept in. This problem is compounded by the conflicts of interest some panellists disclosed.

For instance, Riccardo Polosa, a professor of internal medicine, reported serving as a consultant to Arbi Group Srl, an e-cigarette distributor. Another author, Dr Karl Fagerström, has served as “a consultant for most companies with an interest in tobacco dependence treatments”. One such company is Nicoventures, which was set up by British American Tobacco to develop and commercialise non-tobacco nicotine products.

Lancet calls research ‘extraordinarily flimsy’

Though the vaping horse had bolted, criticism quickly followed. In an editorial a week after the Public Health England report was published, The Lancet medical journal called the research “extraordinarily flimsy”.

This was for the reasons pointed out earlier: the absence of evidence, the way the experts were selected and the multiple conflicts of interest.

The Lancet concluded that “the reliance by Public Health England on work that the authors themselves accept is methodologically weak, and which is made all the more perilous by the declared conflicts of interest surrounding its funding, raises serious questions not only about the conclusions of the Public Health England report, but also about the quality of the agency’s peer review process”.

Two weeks later, the British Medical Journal followed suit. In an analysis, two British professors described the research from which the claim was extracted as “a single meeting of 12 people convened to develop a multi-criteria decision analysis model to synthesise their opinions on the harms associated with different nicotine-containing products”.

The deputy vice-chancellor for research at the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in South Africa, Professor Lekan Ayo-Yusuf, has written extensively on tobacco control and usage in sub-Saharan Africa. He told Africa Check that is “questionable” whether the same percentage difference would be obtained when researchers used accepted risk assessment principles, compared to the panellists’ value judgements.

Vaping and smoking  

What do we know about the safety of e-cigarettes?

So, the paper which was the basis for the claim that “vaping is 95% safer than smoking” has a number of holes. But are there perhaps other, thorough scientific studies to back it up?

Most reviews suggest it’s too early to say for sure. The Cochrane network of health researchers considered all studies up to January 2016 where e-cigarettes were used to help people stop smoking tobacco.

The reviewers wrote: “Expert consensus broadly holds that, based on all available evidence, electronic cigarettes are considerably safer than traditional cigarettes, but further studies are needed to establish their safety profile compared with established smoking cessation aids.”

An earlier review published in the journal Preventative Medicine – looking more widely at the health effects of e-cigarettes – evaluated studies published up until 14 August 2014. It concluded that “due to the many methodological problems, the relatively few and often small studies, the inconsistencies and contradictions in results and the lack of long-term results, no firm conclusions can be drawn on the safety of e-cigarettes. However, they can hardly be considered harmless.”

Because the jury is still out, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved e-cigarettes containing nicotine as a product to help people quit smoking.

Ultimately, the World Health Organization reported in August 2016 that “no specific figure about how much ‘safer’ the use of these products is compared to smoking can be given any scientific credibility at this time”.

In the final instance, “harm to others” must also be considered when evaluating evidence, not only the relative harm at the level of an individual smoker, Prof Lekan Ayo-Yusuf told Africa Check.

“While e-cigarettes might be an ‘efficient’ nicotine-delivery device for an individual smoker, it remains unknown how ‘effective’ this would be in reducing population harm,” he said. When e-cigarettes are available without regulation, possible community harm may include the re-normalising of regular cigarette smoking and the promotion of smoking among young people.  

Conclusion: The claim is unproven

The idea that smoking e-cigarettes are “95% safer” than regular ones comes from a research report that was published in 2014. It was catapulted to public prominence through a 2015 review by an agency of the UK department of health.

The review was quickly lambasted by two leading medical journals, The Lancet and British Medical Journal. Both highlighted that there isn’t yet enough data on this fairly new product to rate its safety and that it was essentially based on the opinion of 12 experts.

Furthermore, the deputy vice-chancellor of a South African medical school told Africa Check that it is “questionable” whether such a difference can be replicated using established techniques.

More research is needed to say with scientific credibility whether e-cigarettes are safer than regular smoking.

Patrick Ngassa Piotie (@PatNgassa) is a medical doctor hailing from Cameroon and has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Pretoria. He currently works as a researcher at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute.

This article was used courtesy of Africa Check, a non-profit organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate. Twitter @AfricaCheck and © Copyright Africa Check 2017

Overcrowding, disease and torture

- Africa Check

[FACT SHEET] The state of South Africa’s prisons.

This fact sheet was compiled by Africa Check with research done by Gopolang Makou, Ina Skosana and Ruth Hopkins from Wits Journalism and the Department of Media Studies in the School of Language, Literature and Media at Wits:

South Africa’s most famous ex-prisoner wrote in his autobiography that “no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails”. In this factsheet, we provide data to show what’s going on inside South African prisons.

In December 2015, the United Nation general assembly adopted the first update to minimum standards on treating prisoners in 50 years – and named it in late South African president Nelson Mandela’s honour.

The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners – known as the Nelson Mandela rules – contain 122 rules which “represent, as a whole, the minimum conditions which are accepted as suitable by the United Nations”.

The assembly further decided that Nelson Mandela International Day, celebrated on 18 July each year, be used to promote humane conditions of imprisonment.

In this factsheet, we provide an overview of South Africa’s prison sector and list the biggest pressure points.

Prison facilities

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services is the body tasked with overseeing South Africa’s correctional services and inspecting and reporting on how inmates are treated.

(Note: Two advocacy groups have launched a court bid to ensure the inspectorate enjoys the institutional independence that the constitution requires. It is currently receiving its budget from the department of correctional services and is administratively and operationally linked to it, making it very difficult for the inspectorate to hold the department accountable for violations.)

The inspectorate’s most recent annual report notes that South Africa had 236 operational prisons at the end of March 2016, with 7 “under some form of renovation” at the time.

SA prison facilities
Total number of prisons 243
Operational prisons 236
Female prisons 9
Youth facilities 14

Source: 2015/16 Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services report

Two of South Africa’s maximum security prisons, Mangaung in Bloemfontein and Kutama Sinthumule in Limpopo are privately run, a spokesman for the department of correctional servicesTshifhiwa Magadani, told Africa Check.

Inmate population

At the end of 2016, South Africa’s inmate population stood at 157,013 people, Singabakho Nxumalo, spokesman of the department of correctional services, told Africa Check. Most were men (152,889), with women making up 2.6% of inmates.

A quarter of prisoners in the 2015/16 financial year were remand detainees, defined as people awaiting trial or those awaiting extradition. The number of these inmates has decreased slightly over the last 6 years, while the overall population remained relatively stable.

  Remand detainees Sentenced offenders Average inmate population
2010/11 47,757 112,934 161,096
2011/12 45,898 113,044 158,942
2012/13 45,730 104,878 153,968
2013/14 44,858 107,696 152,553
2014/15 42,077 115,064 157,141
2015/16 42,380 116,951 159,331

Source: Department of correctional services annual report for 2015/16

Nxumalo also provided Africa Check with a racial breakdown as at the end of 2016.

Prisoners by race
Race Number %
Black 125,006 79.6
Coloured 28,568 18.2
White 2,559 1.6
Asian/Indian 880 0.6

In answer to a June 2017 parliamentary question, the minister of justice and correctional services said that 11,842 foreigners were being held in South African correctional facilities. Of these 7,345 had been sentenced and 4,497 were awaiting trial, with 1,380 being prosecuted for being in the country illegally. The majority were Zimbabweans (41.5%), followed by Mozambicans (24%).

Masutha also said that during the 2016/17 financial year it would cost an estimated R133,805.35 to house a prisoner. Considering the inmate population of 157,013 at the end of 2016, this adds up to R21 billion for the year.

Problems plaguing SA prisons

  1. Lack of accurate data

In his 2016 budget vote speech, correctional services minister Michael Masutha said that the auditor-general “still has serious concerns about the credibility of our records”.

The auditor-general’s report for 2015/16 stated that the department’s reported performance information for its incarceration, rehabilitation and care programmes wasn’t reliable “when compared to the evidence provided”.

This calls into question several crucial indicators, such as the number of inmates who had escaped, died unnaturally or were injured in an assault.

  1. Overcrowding

At the end of March 2016, South Africa’s prisons only had 119,134 bed spaces available for its 161,984 inmates.

“The main driving factor behind overcrowding is the remand detainee population,” Clare Ballard from the advocacy organisation Lawyers for Human Rights told Africa Check.

Legal Aid South Africa’s Wilna Lambley told the Wits Justice Project that about 8,000 people who can’t afford bail are in prison awaiting their trial. Clogged-up court rolls furthermore lead to delays and jam-packed communal cells.

Prisons in urban areas have the worst overcrowding rates. In the 2015/16 financial year, Johannesburg Correctional Centre’s Medium B was 233% full, which translates into a shortage of 1,736 beds.

Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town had the biggest shortage of beds (2,448) in 2015/16 financial year. Following a court challenge by Sonke Gender Justice and Lawyers for Human Rights, the Western Cape High Court held that the conditions in Pollsmoor’s remand detention centre were unconstitutional. Leptospirosis, a disease spread by rats, had by then claimed two lives.

The court ordered that government reduce overcrowding to 150% within 6 months.

“Government met the ruling. As of 26 June, their statistics showed that overcrowding levels were 149%,” national prison specialist at Sonke Gender Justice, Ariane Nevin, told Africa Check.

In the end, Ballard added, the cause of overcrowding “is a poorly functioning criminal justice system – we’re simply not prosecuting crime at the rate and pace and with the effectiveness we should be”.

  1. Infectious diseases

Rule 24 of the Nelson Mandela Rules states that the healthcare of prisoners is the government’s responsibility. This includes the treatment of infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis (TB).

In a landmark constitutional court case, the state’s responsibility to take care of prisoners’ health was solidified.

Dudley Lee contracted TB while he was an awaiting trial inmate at Pollsmoor prison between 1999 and 2004. Lee sued the minister of correctional services for failing to implement the measures required by law to decrease the risk of disease in prisons.

After a seven-year court battle, Lee won his case and was awarded R270,000 in damages.

“The Lee case requires an overhaul of health services and prevention in prisons. There has been an unprecedented influx of international funding from the Global Fund and PEPFAR for TB screening and testing in prisons,” John Stephens told Africa Check. Stephens is a senior legal researcher at the activist organisation, Section27.

The department’s 2015/16 annual report claimed that 1,239 of the 1,485 prisoners with TB in that year were cured, a rate of 83.4%. (Note: As for HIV, the department reported that 21,722 of the 22,142 prisoners who tested positive for HIV were on antiretroviral therapy, a rate of 98%.)

“Screening, testing and treatment are critical, but unless we deal with the issues of overcrowding and ventilation we are throwing money away,’’ says Stephens.

  1. Human rights violations

The first of the Mandela Rules states: “No prisoner shall be subjected to, and all prisoners shall be protected from, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, for which no circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification.”

Assault & torture

Dr Malose Langa, a lecturer in the psychology department of the University of the Witwatersrand,conducted an analysis of torture in South Africa. He focussed on cases reported in the annual reports of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) and the Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JICS) between 2007 and 2011.

Langa found that assault by prison officials was one of the most common complaints reported to the JICS (6,000 cases) and IPID, which received 1,778 complaints of assault and 89 of torture in the same time frame. According to Langa’s analysis, more than 200 inmates died of unnatural causes such as suicide and assault in the period.

In 2013, the Prevention and Combating of Torture of Person’s Act was introduced, which criminalised torture in South Africa. The Act’s definition of torture includes any act that causes severe mental or physical pain or suffering with the aim of extracting information or a confession from a person; or as a form of punishment or coercion.

Langa said that the introduction of the act has not “changed anything in the prosecution of officials who torture inmates”. IPID’s 2015/2016 annual report listed that 3 police officials were prosecuted for torture under the new act.

Despite JICS documenting 15 complaints of torture in its latest annual report, Luvuyo Mfaku, spokesperson for the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), couldn’t provide the Wits Justice Project with the number of torture cases that have been prosecuted since the introduction of the act.

“We don’t categorise crimes in a specific database if they fall under general prosecutions,” he said.


Apart from assault, segregation – formerly known as solitary confinement or isolation – is one of the most common methods of torture used in prisons, according to Langa.

The Correctional Services Act defines solitary confinement as “being held in a single cell with loss of all amenities” which “may be for part of or the whole day”. It also lists the conditions under which segregation is permissible:

  • if a prisoner requests to be placed in segregation;
  • to give effect to the penalty of the restriction of amenities;
  • if prescribed by a medical practitioner;
  • when a prisoner is a threat to himself or others;
  • if recaptured after escape and there is reason to believe that he will attempt to escape again; and
  • at the request of the police in the interests of justice.”

The prisoner furthermore needs to be visited by a medical practitioner every day and it may only be imposed for a period of 7 days, with prolonged isolation is only possible under strict conditions.

Despite these provisions, 4 civil society organisations operating in South Africa submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee that “there is reason to conclude” that solitary confinement as a form of punishment “still occurs under the guise of ‘segregation’”.

With thanks to the Wits Justice Project, which use investigative journalism to expose miscarriages of justice, for input and guidance in putting this factsheet together.

This article was used courtesy of Africa Check, a non-profit organisation which promotes accuracy in public debate and a partner of Wits Journalism.  Twitter @AfricaCheck and © Africa Check 2017

'Invasive' species have been around much longer than believed

- Wits University

Pollen record of plant, that is currently being eradicated, extends much further back than the 100 years it is believed to be growing in the Lesotho Highlands.

The DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Palaeoscience funded researchers based in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies and in the Evolutionary Studies Institute of the University of the Witwatersrand have used fossil pollen records to solve an on-going debate regarding invasive plant species in eastern Lesotho.

Their study, Chrysocoma ciliata L. (Asteraceae) in the Lesotho Highlands: an anthropogenically introduced invasive or a niche coloniser?, published in Biological Invasions, confirms that a shrub believed to be an invasive in the eastern Lesotho Highlands has been growing in the region for over 4,000 years.

Dr Jennifer Fitchett of the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies, and her co-authors Professors Marion Bamford (ESI, Wits), Stefan Grab (GAES, Wits) and Anson Mackay (University College London Environmental Change Research Centre and Geography Department) have been investigating the palaeoenvironments of eastern Lesotho through the use of pollen, diatom and sedimentary records.

Chrysocoma ciliata and microscope images its pollen grains © Jennifer Fitchett | Louis Scott

In a case of ‘accidental science’, the group discovered the pollen of Chrysocoma cilliata at intermittent locations throughout the depth of the sediment profile they were studying. This was unexpected, as Chrysocoma ciliata is believed to be an invasive species introduced to the eastern Lesotho Highlands by cattle herders at the turn of the 20th century. The species was found to extend much further back in the pollen record than the 100 years that it is believed to have been growing in the region.

Chrysocoma cilliata came to the attention of environmental managers as it proliferates under drought conditions, and rapidly colonises degraded landscapes. In particular, the plant grows easily in abandoned cattle stations, where over-grazing has resulted in the loss of both top soil and vegetation. As the shrub was believed to be an invasive species, introduced to the region from the South African Karoo to the west, the primary management response was to attempt to eliminate the crop.

In recent years, Dr Clinton Carbutt of Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife suggested on the basis of vegetation surveys that the species may in fact not be an invasive, but rather a species that thrives under conditions that the more typical alpine wetland groups struggle to survive. The pollen evidence for Chrysocoma cilliata dating back to 4,000 years before present supports this hypothesis.

Although this study proves that the species was not introduced to the region 100 years ago with the introduction of cattle grazing, as has previously been suggested, it is not possible at this stage to prove that it was not accidentally introduced by early inhabitants of the eastern Lesotho highlands. Archaeological records provide evidence for settlement in the eastern Lesotho highlands by Stone Age groups as far back as 80,000 years ago.

There is strong archaeological evidence to suggest that these groups migrated both seasonally and inter-annually to warmer regions, with water providing the primary attraction of the otherwise uninhabitable cold highlands. It is thus possible that they may have accidentally transported seeds of this plant into the region. If this were the case, the plant would be more accurately classified as an archetype invasive. However, until the presence or absence of this species prior to 80,000 years ago can be confirmed, Chrysocoma ciliata can most accurately be termed a niche coloniser, most probably native to the eastern Lesotho highlands.

This study highlights the importance of palaeoscience research in addressing global change challenges. In addition to determining the provenance of plant species, and hence resolving debates regarding their status as invasives, the analysis of plant and animal fossils can provide valuable information relating to climate change, and critical biological thresholds under changing conditions.

SA child living with HIV maintains remission without antiretroviral drugs since 2008

- Wits University

A 9-year-old South African diagnosed with HIV at a month old who received antiretroviral treatment during infancy has suppressed the virus for almost 9 years.

Dr Avy Violari, head of pediatric research at the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU) in the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand, reported the case today at the 9th International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Science in Paris, France.

Violari co-led the Children with HIV Early Antiretroviral Therapy (CHER) trial, in which the case emerged, with Dr Mark Cotton, head of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and director of the Family Infectious Diseases Clinical Research Unit at the University of Stellenbosch.

“To our knowledge, this is the first reported case of sustained control of HIV in a child enrolled in a randomized trial of ART [antiretroviral treatment] interruption following treatment early in infancy,” says Violari.

Before starting ART, the child had very high viral loads, but at about nine weeks old, the ART suppressed the virus to undetectable levels. Investigators halted treatment after 40 weeks as per the trial randomization. They closely monitored immunity and the child has remained in good health during years of follow-up examinations.

Although it was not standard practice in South Africa to monitor viral load in people who were not on ART, recent analyses of stored blood samples taken during follow-up visits showed that the child has maintained undetectable levels of HIV-1 since treatment interruption.

Professor Caroline Tiemessen, the senior author of this case and Research Professor in Virology in the School of Pathology at Wits University, led the key laboratory investigations.

“We believe there may have been other factors in addition to early ART that contributed to HIV remission in this child. By further studying the child, we may expand our understanding of how the immune system controls HIV-1 replication,” says Tiemessen, who is also the NRF/DST Research Chair in HIV Vaccine translational research and head of cell biology at the Centre of HIV and STIs of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg.

The South African child was diagnosed as HIV-1 positive during 2007 at 32 days old and was then enrolled on the CHER clinical trial, funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The NIAID provided funding for the CHER trial as part of a Comprehensive International Program for Research on AIDS-South Africa grant.

HIV-1 infected infants in the trial were assigned at random to receive one of three treatments – either deferred ART or early limited ART for 40 or 96 weeks. The South African child was assigned to receive early ART (AZT, 3TC, Lopinavir/ritonavir) for 40 weeks.

When this child was nine-and-a-half years old, investigators conducted laboratory and clinical studies to assess the child’s immune health and the presence of HIV-1. They detected a viral reservoir that had integrated into a tiny proportion of immune cells but otherwise found no evidence of HIV-1 infection.

The child had a healthy level of key immune cells, a viral load that was undetectable by the routine laboratory diagnostic assays, and no symptoms of HIV-1 infection. The researchers detected a trace of immune system response to the virus but found no replication competent HIV-1.

Researchers confirmed that the child does not have genetic characteristics previously associated with spontaneous control of HIV-1 in adults, suggesting that the 40 weeks of ART provided during infancy may have been key to achieving HIV-1 remission in this case.

Dr Anthony S. Fauci, NIAID director, says, “Further study is needed to learn how to induce long-term HIV remission in infected babies. However, this new case strengthens our hope that by treating HIV-infected children for a brief period beginning in infancy, we may be able to spare them the burden of lifelong therapy and the health consequences of long term immune activation typically associated with HIV-1 disease.”

Worldwide, this case appears to be the third reported instance of sustained HIV-1 remission in a child after early, limited ART. The first case, the “Mississippi Baby,” born with HIV-1 in 2010, received ART beginning 30 hours after birth, stopped therapy around 18 months of age, and controlled the virus without drugs for 27 months before it reappeared in the blood.

The second case, reported in 2015, described a French child who was born with HIV-1 in 1996, started ART three months after birth, stopped treatment sometime between five-and-a-half and seven years, and continued to control the virus without drugs more than 11 years later.

Reference: A. Violari, M. Cotton, L. Kuhn, D. Schramm, M. Paximadis, S. Loubser, S. Shalekoff, B. Da Costa Dias, K. Otwombe, A. Liberty, J. McIntyre, A. Babiker, D. Gibb and C. Tiemessen. Viral and host characteristics of a child with perinatal HIV-1 following a prolonged period after ART cessation in the CHER trial. 9th IAS Conference on HIV Science, Paris, France.

Cultural flexibility was key for early humans to survive extreme dry periods in southern Africa

- Wits University

Early human's ability to survive through prolonged arid areas in southern Africa developed from their ability to innovate and adapt.

The flexibility and ability to adapt to changing climates by employing various cultural innovations allowed communities of early humans to survive through a prolonged period of pronounced aridification.

 The early human techno-tradition, known as Howiesons Poort (HP), associated with Homo sapiens who lived in southern Africa about 66 000 to 59 000 years ago indicates that during this period of pronounced aridification they developed cultural innovations that allowed them to significantly enlarge the range of environments they occupied.

Technology developed by early humans in Still Bay and Howiesons PoortThis cultural flexibility may have been the key to success for modern humans, says a team of international researchers, made up of archaeologists, paleo climatologists, and climate modellers from the French CNRS1 and the EPHE PSL Research University, Bergen University as well as Wits University. Their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“The most distinct of the many cultural innovations in the HP culture were the invention of the bow and arrow, different methods of heating raw materials (stone) before knapping to produce arrow heads, engraving ostrich eggshells with elaborate patterns, intensive use of hearths and relatively intense hunting and gathering practices,” says Professor Christopher Henshilwood, one of the team members from Wits and Bergen Universities.

Howiesons Poort is a techno-tradition in the Middle Stone Age in Africa named after the Howieson’s Poort Shelter archaeological site near Grahamstown in South Africa. It lasted around 5 000 years between roughly 65 800 and 59 500 years ago.

Using paleo climatic data and paleo climatic simulations, the researchers of the current study found that the HP tradition developed during a period of pronounced aridity.

This paleo climatic data and the distribution of archaeological sites associated with the HP, as well of that of the Still Bay tradition, which existed in the same environments about 5 000 years before (76 000 to 71 000 years ago), enabled the researchers to model the emergence of these traditions with two predictive algorithms that permitted them to reconstruct the ecological niche associated with each tradition and determine whether these niches differed significantly through time.

The results clearly indicate that HP populations were capable, despite the pronounced aridity that characterised the period in which they lived, to exploit territories and ecosystems that the preceding Still Bay people did not occupy.

While the Still Bay era is also characterised by highly innovative technologies – including engraving of ochre, use of personal ornaments, manufacture of highly stylised bone tools, heating silcrete (red rock) to produce better material for knapping bifacial points (spear points) using hard hammer and finally pressure flaking technology – the research team points out that HP’s ecological niche expansion coincides with the development of technological  innovations that were both efficient and more flexible than those of the Still Bay.

“It seems from the little evidence that we have that the population of Homo sapiens in southern Africa was considerably larger during the Howiesons Poort period,” says Henshilwood.  

Shells used as jewellery during the Still Bay"There are many more HP sites than Still Bay sites in southern Africa and their location is widespread across southern Africa. Note that neither the Still Bay or HP is found outside of southern Africa.”

Henshilwood says the Still Bay people did not disappear. There just seems to be a gap between 72 000 years ago to 66 000 years ago, where there is almost no evidence of any people in southern Africa.

This study, which documents the oldest known case of an eco-cultural niche expansion, demonstrates that the processes that allowed our species to develop modern behaviours must be examined at regional scales and in conjunction with past climatic data. 

About early human development:

The emergence of our species (Homo sapiens) in Africa, at least 260 000 years ago, was not immediately accompanied by the development of behavioural characteristics of more recent prehistoric and historically documented populations. For tens of thousands of years after their emergence (anatomically), modern human populations in Africa continued to use technologies that differed little from those of the non-modern populations that preceded them or that inhabited other regions both inside and outside the African continent.

A number of archaeological discoveries during the past twenty years have shown that from at least 100 000 years ago some populations in Africa, especially those in southern Africa, made pigmented compounds, wore personal ornaments, made abstract engravings, and manufactured bone tools. It is within this period, and those that follow, that archaeologists are able to recognize distinct techno- traditions, to determine with a certain degree of precision their age, and place these time periods within their proper climatic contexts.

Aardvarks’ tragic fate points to worrying consequences for wildlife as a result of climate change

- Wits University

The aardvark will become increasingly rare as the world warms and dries, and the consequences go well beyond a decline in aardvark safari encounters.

The aardvark, a highlight for anyone on a game-viewing African safari, will become increasingly rare as the world warms and dries, and the consequences go well beyond a decline in aardvark safari encounters.

According to researchers studying this elusive mammal, sometimes classed as one of the “Shy 5”, in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, aardvarks prove to be highly susceptible to the warmer and drier climates that are predicted for the western parts of southern Africa, in the future. During the study of a number of aardvarks by researchers of the Brain Function Research Group at the University of the Witwatersrand, all but one of the study animals – as well as other aardvarks in the area – died because of a severe drought, with air temperatures much higher than normal and very dry soil in the area.


“While unusual now, those are the conditions that climate change is likely to bring as the new normal,” says Professor Andrea Fuller, the Research Group’s director.

Dr Benjamin Rey studied the aardvarks as part of his postdoctoral studies. Along with his colleagues, he used the new technology of “biologgers” (miniature sensors attached to computer chips and implanted into the aardvarks by wildlife veterinarians), to study the activity patterns and body temperatures of aardvarks living in the Kalahari. The researchers were not to know that during the year of their study there would be a severe drought, which led to the death of the study animals.  

“It is not because the aardvark’s body can’t take the heat, but that the termites and ants that they rely on – not just for food but also for water – can’t take the heat and aridity of changing climates,” says Rey.

Aardvarks usually sleep during the day in burrows that they have dug, and emerge at night, to feed on ant and termites, using their long, sticky tongues to sweep up thousands of insects. However, during the drought, the termites and ants, on which the aardvark depends for body energy, were not available.

“As a result, the aardvarks’ body temperatures fell precipitously at night. The aardvarks tried to compensate by shifting their search for ants and termites from the colder night to the warmer day, so that they would not have to use energy to keep warm, but that was not enough to save their energy stores,” says Dr Robyn Hetem, a co-worker on the study. “We believe the aardvarks starved to death.”

The aardvark progressively became skinnier and bonier. They even tried sun-basking to save energy, but many ultimately died. Their body temperatures dropped to as low as 25°C just before they died.

Rey says that this curious-looking creature – described as having the snout of a pig, the ears of a rabbit and the tail of a kangaroo – is much more than just a curiosity to be checked off a bucket list.

“Many species of African birds, mammals and reptiles use the burrows dug by aardvarks to escape cold and heat, to reproduce, and to avoid predators. They can’t dig these burrows themselves. Without aardvarks, they would have no refuge. Worryingly, they could face the same fate as the aardvark.”

Climate change in southern Africa affects animals through the direct effects of increasing air temperatures and aridity. Wild dogs, for example, reduce hunting activity as temperature increases. But the indirect consequences of heat and aridity may be more pervasive. Disappearance of aardvarks, and with them the burrows that they dig, will have knock-on effects for many other animals.

“Populations of many animals in South Africa are already declining as a result of habitat loss and over-exploitation,” says Fuller. “Climate change adds an additional threat, which may push species to extinction faster. By 2050, the aardvark may not be the only species removed from tourist checklists”.