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Hate killings of black lesbians in South Africa

- Nechama Brodie

“We only write about them when they are dead."

This extract from the book ‘Femicide in South Africa’ (Kwela) by Dr Nechama Brodie, Lecturer in the Wits School of Journalism and Media Studies, has been published by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism:

“In the 1980s, the country’s ongoing rape crisis had started to take on chilling new aspects, including gang rapes that became known as “jackrolling”. Jackrolling initially involved the selection and abduction of a victim, usually a woman who (her attackers believed) presented herself as if she was “better than them” and “out of reach”. There were echoes of these sentiments in the growing number of stories that began to emerge during the 1990s of black lesbian women being targeted, being beaten and raped by men, supposedly as a means of “teaching them how to be proper women”. This gradually became referred to as “curative” or “corrective” rape.”

“In 2006, not coincidentally the same year of Jacob Zuma’s rape trial, and the year when the National Assembly passed a law recognising same-sex marriage, local newspapers started reporting on murders where black lesbians had been being targeted and killed by groups of men. 

In February 2006, 19-year-old openly lesbian soccer player Zoliswa Nkonyana was at a shebeen in Khayelitsha with another lesbian friend of hers when a group of straight girls taunted them for being tomboys. Zoliswa apparently replied, “We are not tomboys, we are lesbians. We are just doing our thing so leave us alone.”

One of the (straight) women went and summoned a group of men, who pursued Zoliswa and her friend across a field, eventually catching up with Zoliswa (the friend managed to get away) before pelting her with bricks and beating her with a golf club until she died. It would take nearly six years and some 60 court appearances before four of the nine men eventually charged with her killing would be found guilty."

Read the full extract on


'Femicide in South Africa' by Nechama Brodie

Breathing life into bone

- Wits University

An international Wits-led team of scientists used high-powered X-rays to show how an extinct South African dinosaur, Heterodontosaurus tucki, breathed.

The study is published in elife. In 2016, scientists from the Evolutionary Studies Institute (ESI) at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, travelled to the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, to scan the complete skeleton of a small, 200-million-year-old plant-eating dinosaur. The dinosaur specimen is the most complete fossil ever discovered of a species known as Heterodontosaurus tucki. The fossil was found in 2009 in the Eastern Cape of South Africa by study co-author, Dr Billy de Klerk of the Albany Museum, Makhanda, South Africa. “A farmer friend of mine called my attention to the specimen,” says de Klerk, “and when I saw it, I immediately knew we had something special on our hands.”


The team of scientists used scans and new algorithms to virtually reconstruct the skeleton of Heterodontosaurus in unprecedented detail, and thus show how this extinct dinosaur breathed. “This specimen represents a turning point in understanding how dinosaurs evolved,” explains Viktor Radermacher, lead author and former Wits Masters student at the ESI (now at the University of Minnesota, USA).

Mammals, birds, and reptiles all move air through their lungs in different ways. For example, mammals use a diaphragm, lizards use rib movements, and birds rely on rocking their breastbone. However, it has been a mystery to scientists how the herbivorous dinosaurs known as Ornithischians moved air through the lungs, since they have a very different anatomy to other dinosaurs. This study found that Heterodontosaurus was using its oddly shaped ribs connected to its sternum to breathe, but that it also showed the first steps towards a muscle attached to the hips that would inflate the lung – similar to how crocodiles breathe.

Heterodontosaurus is one of the oldest and first-evolving Ornithischians, the group that includes favourites like TriceratopsStegosaurus, and duckbilled dinosaurs. "We've long known that the skeletons of ornithischian dinosaurs were radically different from those of other dinosaurs," explains Dr Richard Butler, from the School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham, UK. "This amazing new fossil helps us understand why ornithischians were so distinctive and successful", he adds.

Heterodontosaurus Skull

This study is the result of a long-standing collaboration between palaeontologists based in South Africa and at the ESRF, where non-invasive techniques have been developed specifically for palaeontological studies. “You could only do this study with a synchrotron,” says Vincent Fernandez, co-author and scientist at the Natural History Museum in London, UK. “The characteristics of the ESRF’s X-rays, combined with its high energy beamline configuration, made scanning this complete turkey-sized dinosaur possible”.

“Studies like this highlight how South Africa’s fossil record once again helps us understand evolutionary origins” said senior author Professor Jonah Choiniere from the ESI.

This is a perfect example of how diversity in the life around us shows that there isn’t a single solution. There are many ways to achieve the same breath.


Authors Viktor Radermacher, Kimberley Chapelle, and Jonah Choiniere were supported by grants from the NRF-African Origins Platform, Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, and the Palaeontological Scientific Trust. South African participation in the ESRF, the European synchrotron, is supported by the NRF and DSI.


Wits tackles water crisis through new water research programme

- Wits University

The Claude Leon Foundation will fund two research chairs and a research programme in water stewardship worth R15.7 million.

The impact of humans on Earth’s life-giving systems is mounting, yet the dire consequences will not affect all people equally. In South Africa – a microcosm of the dynamics of planetary and social imbalance – warnings abound regarding urgent environmental issues, and their disproportionate effect on people living in one of the most unequal countries in the world.

Access to sufficient, safe, acceptable, physically accessible, and affordable water is a human right but water is necessary for all life on Earth. A myriad of anthropogenic pressures threaten the availability of this precious resource at the same time as the impacts of climate change are already being felt and will become more severe. An urgent and comprehensive response is required to secure our immediate future and to safeguard the future of life on Earth. 

“We live in a world characterised by urbanisation, industrialisation, burgeoning populations, globalisation, pollution, and climate change. All of these present myriad, complex, interconnected problems that affect societies already burdened with inequality, poverty and dwindling natural resources,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal. “These challenges require inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary solutions that traverse the natural, technical and social spheres, and universities are well-placed to tackle these challenges.”    

Wits University is at the forefront of water research and development in South Africa and will work with the University of the Western Cape and the University of Edinburgh in the UK to establish the Claude Leon Foundation Water Stewardship Programme to address some of the water issues facing the country. The Water Stewardship programme of research, postgraduate supervision and advocacy is an inter- and transdisciplinary programme that will tackle current and future water challenges, with the aim of finding solutions that will benefit communities in South Africa, and the continent.

The Claude Leon Foundation will fund the Water Stewardship Programme including two Research Chairs, for five years, at a cost of R15.7 million, as part of the Wits Centenary programme that seeks to advance society for good.

Professor Tracy-Lynn Field 

Professor Tracy-Lynn Field, the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Earth Justice and Stewardship explains why this Chair is important: “Our aim is simple – to expand human freedoms while easing planetary pressures. The complex interplay between environmental problems and socio-economic hardships requires collaboration across traditionally separate disciplines such as Science and Law, between institutions in different countries, and it requires academe to interact more with society. The two Chairs will seek to address multi-dimensional, emergent and interconnected predicaments in a manner that addresses global South concerns.”

Professor Craig Sheridan

Professor Craig Sheridan, the Claude Leon Foundation Chair in Water Research, adds: “Life flows from water and water holds all life. Water is precious, an ever-flowing interface between terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the systems undergirding human well-being: food production, shelter, transport, energy, play, industry, and health. And yet water is not with all of us. Globally, among regions, between localities, water is a profoundly unevenly distributed resource and its scarcity prompts hardship, a loss of dignity, conflict, even death. These are some of the reasons why this research is so important in South Africa.”

Three research projects will also be conducted, including:

  • App-based potable water test-strips to promote access to the right to safe water in vulnerable communities and citizen science, and
  • Supporting evidence-based legislative, political, and judicial decision making to protect South Africa’s strategic water source areas, and
  • Accountability mechanisms for system-level failures in South African Water Treatment Plants.

William (Bill) Frankel OBE, Chairperson of the Claude Leon Foundation explains why the Foundation supports the Water Stewardship programme: “Issues relating to the environment and to water are crucial to South Africa and the rest of the world. I am delighted that the Claude Leon Foundation will be partnering Wits University in this important area of research which will also include involvement with the University of Edinburgh and the University of the Western Cape. We are proud that the new Research Chairs at Wits will not only serve as academic research chairs but will also be involved in addressing issues of inequality and social justice in relation to water.”

For more information about the programme, the partners, and the scientists visit

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SA-French research cooperation fostering scientific excellence with CNRS-Wits bipartite agreement

- Wits University

Wits and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) today signed a bipartite agreement of research cooperation to foster scientific excellence.

The agreement was signed by Professor Antoine Petit, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the CNRS and Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

This signing ceremony took place by video-conference in both Johannesburg and Paris and was witnessed by H.E. Aurélien Lechevallier, Ambassador of France to South Africa, and Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Prof. Antoine Petit Chairman and CEO of the CNRS and Prof. Zeblon Vilakazi (r), Vice Chancellor and Principal of Wits sign the MOU for SA-French PhD projects collaboration and Prof. Lynn Morris (below) Wits DVC Research and Innovation witnesses

This framework agreement aims to strengthen the existing successful collaboration between both institutions, to promote collaborative research, to advance international cooperation and to be at the forefront of scientific innovation and transfer of the research results into successful innovation for the benefit of both institutions.

The collaborations will see staff and information exchanges, the implementation and promotion of joint activities and joint programmes, as well as the organisation of joint scientific events.

Collaborations between Wits and CNRS are already active in a diverse array of science fields such as physics, astronomy/astrophysics, palaeosciences, environment and ecology.

The CNRS and Wits this year launched their first call for the Joint PhD programme, which led to selecting and financing new scientific collaborations and training by research in ecology, physics, atmospheric sciences and anthropology.

Covid-19 vaccine research ALIVE and thriving at Wits

- Wits University

The Wits African Leadership in Vaccinology Expertise (ALIVE) has awarded research grants for cross-disciplinary Covid-19 vaccine-related projects.

ALIVE and the University Research Committee awarded funding to three Covid-19 vaccine-related projects during February and April 2021, in virology, human genetics, and public health respectively.

Investigating how the Covid-19 virus dodges human defences

Bliss Muvosi left and Dr Thandeka Moyo-Gwete in Virology are recipients of ALIVE grants

As the Beta variant dominated Covid-19 infections in South Africa during the second wave and the Delta variant currently dominates the third wave, it is important to understand the impact of emerging variants on the current SARS-COV-2 vaccines available.

The SARS-CoV-2 spike protein is the main target of neutralizing antibodies. It’s this spike protein – the ‘corona’ crown of the virus – that facilitates entry into host cells and infection. This spike protein is also continually mutating and ‘escaping’ the antibody response that our bodies produce to fight off infection.

Understanding how this spike protein behaves as it mutates, and how this affects the antibodies we need, is important to vaccine design because these mutations may alter the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics currently in development.

Dr Thandeka Moyo-Gwete in Virology, School of Pathology at Wits and a Senior Medical Scientist in the Centre for HIV and STIs at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases leads a project on mapping SARS-CoV-2 spike determinants of escape from antibodies.

“This project harnesses our existing highly successful HIV-focused expertise and established methodologies in our lab to rapidly identify key viral mutations emerging in SARS-CoV-2 and to determine the neutralizing responses to these viral strains in the context of the Covid-19 epidemic in South Africa,” says Moyo-Gwete, whose research interests started in understanding the nature of broadly neutralizing antibodies that target HIV and HIV vaccine development.

The results from this study will provide insight into the effectiveness of SARS-CoV-2 vaccines in the presence of several viral variants circulating in South Africa.

This research grant facilitated the postgraduate work of Ms Bliss Musvosvi, an MSc (Med) Vaccinology candidate at Wits. “My goal is to serve and help achieve public health objectives through reduction in the mortality and morbidity of vaccine preventable diseases. Other areas of interest include vaccines for the prevention and control of emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” she says.

How does the genetic variation of South Africans influence Covid-19 infection and severity?

Michèle Ramsay, Director of the Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB) and Professor in the Division of Human Genetics at Wits, along with Dr June Fabian, nephrologist and Research Director at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (WDGMC) are co-Principal Investigators on the Host genomic susceptibility to COVID-19 in Black South Africans (COVIGen-SA) project.

L_R Andrew May, Harriet Etheredge, Michele Ramsay, June Fabian and Heather Seymour are recipients of an ALIVE grant to study Covid host genetics in South Africans

The way an individual experiences and responds to Covid-19 differs from person to person; some people get severe disease, some die, and others present with very mild symptoms or are asymptomatic. These varying clinical outcomes are due partly to the genetic factors of the host (infected person).

Understanding how genetic variation affects the way people respond to Covid-19 could inform vaccine development, and improve disease management and therapeutics. Research studies in this area relate to the field of genomic medicine, where the approach to treatment is informed by the person’s genetic variation.

Globally, efforts are underway to describe the role that host genetic variation plays in infection by the novel coronavirus and progression to Covid-19. However, African populations are historically under-represented in global host genetic studies, and this threatens to worsen existing health inequalities.

The COVIGen-SA project is a unique and dedicated initiative to understand the role of host genetic factors in Black South Africans.

“Through collaborations, we aim to collect DNA samples from over 5000 Black South African participants, with varying Covid-19 disease severity. This will serve as a resource for current and future studies investigating the role of host genetics in Covid-19 and could inform more effective treatment and prevention strategies,” says Ramsay, who is a Research Chair on Genomics and Bioinformatics of African populations.

Dr Harriet Etheredge is a medical bioethicist and health communication specialist at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre. She is responsible for implementing and overseeing a robust ethical and regulatory structure for COVIGen-SA.

Dr Andrew May, a postdoctoral fellow in the SBIMB will coordinate the COVIGen-SA project. May’s research interest is in how genetic variation impacts individual differences in health and behaviour.

Ms Heather Seymour will conduct doctoral research in the COVIGen-SA project. Her PhD in the SBIMB follows her MSc (Med) dissertation on Mutation profiling in South African patients with Cornelia De Lange syndrome phenotype using targeted next generation sequencing.

Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy among healthcare workers

Dr Janan Dietrich, Director of the Biobehavioural Research Centre in the Perinatal HIV Research Unit (PHRU), and Dr Fiona Scorgie, an anthropologist and Senior Researcher at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (Wits RHI) are co-Principal Investigators on a study researching Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy amongst healthcare workers in South Africa.

Fiona Scorgie left and Janan Dietrich are recipients of an ALIVE research grant to explore COVID vaccine hesitancy amongst SA healthcare workers

In 2019, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. Now, evidence is emerging globally of vaccine hesitancy (delay or refusal of vaccination despite availability of vaccines) in relation to newly developed Covid-19 vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy has the potential to undermine vaccination efforts to bring the pandemic under control in South Africa.

Healthcare workers have been prioritized for vaccination in South Africa and are likely to be key in promoting vaccination amongst the public and countering misinformation about the vaccine. However, the attitudes of South African healthcare workers to Covid-19 vaccination have yet to be studied.

“We aim to explore knowledge and acceptability of Covid-19 vaccines among healthcare workers – both as recipients and providers of the vaccine – and to develop a novel method for addressing vaccine hesitancy in this population using AI [artificial intelligence] technology,” says Scorgie, a social anthropologist with expertise in vaccine acceptance and qualitative research.

The study combines multinational and complementary expertise across the social sciences, clinical trial expertise, digital health, AI, and biostatistics at Wits.

Data will be collected through a quantitative online survey, qualitative interviews, and a review of online vaccine sentiments. Categorised according to belief awareness; perceptions of vaccines; vaccine safety; and disease outbreaks, these data will inform the development of a targeted, vaccine-specific chat-bot to address vaccine hesitancy.

“Local online data will also be accessed with assistance from the Vaccine Confidence Project full-text media archive, and historical and real-time anonymized Google, Twitter and Facebook data via the Meltwater Social Media Monitoring platform,” says Dietrich, who is a research psychologist with experience in HIV vaccine research and digital health. “We envisage that the online chat-bot will address vaccine hesitancy by providing accurate, transparent information to healthcare workers and to members of the public.”

Wits graduates awarded start-up capital for pharmacy innovation

- Wits University

Wits Pharmacy graduates were awarded seed funding for their automated, antimicrobial-surface coated pill-dispensing innovation, Ra-Pill.


Ra-Pill is an automated, digital small-scale, countertop, tablet and capsule counter for pharmacies. It assists in the rapid and accurate counting of tablets/capsules dispensed to patients, reduces the risk of human error and the potential for contamination in the dispensing process, through self-cleaning mechanisms.

Mbuso Thwala and Mpho Maake secured the top prize of R100 000 in seed funding as part of the Prospector@Wits course run by Wits Enterprise. The Ra-Pill innovation trumped five other pitches with its novel self-cleaning mechanism, laser counting accuracy, and antimicrobial coating.

This achievement builds on the success of the initial conceptualisation and prototype development of Ra-Pill, from the (then) students’ BPharm 3 project for the PharmApprentice programme.

The initial Ra-Pill student group, comprising Mbuso Thwala, Mpho Maake, Zinitha Mahlangu, Nabeelah Lambat and Salehah Moola, were runners-up in the PharmApprentice programme in 2019.

PharmApprentice programme instigates innovation

The PharmApprentice programme is implemented by the Division of Pharmacy Practice including Mr. David Bayever, Ms. Zelna Booth, Ms. Stephanie Leigh De Rapper, Mr. Andrew Jones, Dr. Gillian Mahumane and Ms. Rubina Shaikh, in partnership with Aspen Pharmacare, to facilitate pharmaceutical business leadership development and a growth mind-set for entrepreneurship and innovation in pharmacy.

Since early 2019, during the PharmApprentice programme, Ra-Pill’s development has been a collaborative effort, demonstrating Wits’ emphasis on nurturing cross-disciplinary innovation and entrepreneurship. For example:

  • The self-cleaning aspect of the device was proposed by Professor Pradeep Kumar and Mr. David Bayever in the Wits Department of Pharmacy in the Faculty of Health Sciences.
  • Wits Enterprise, through adjudicator assistance and provision of a lecture on pitching skills and intellectual property searching.
  • Ms. Zelna Booth introduced the Ra-Pill concept to Dr. Michael Lucas in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, who had just won the prestigious Prix Hubert Tuor Innovation Award in Switzerland for his Antimicrobial Coating Technology as part of his PhD with Professor Sandy van Vuuren in the Department of Pharmacy.
  • Lucas provided inputs on how the Ra-Pill design would facilitate efficient coating of the device.
  • Financial support from the Wits Department of Pharmacy and Aspen Pharmacare enabled the purchase of the materials needed for the 3D printing of the Minimum Viable Product prototype.

Prospector@Wits course enables entrepreneurship

Pharmacy graduates Maake and Thwala decided to take the Ra-Pill innovation further and applied to participate in the Prospector@WITS course. The course exposes researchers and postgraduate students to innovation and entrepreneurship, focuses their attention on better appreciating end-users’ needs, and raises awareness of the journey towards successfully commercialised products and services based on their research.

The Prospector@Wits course provides an introduction to key tools – such as unpacking the value proposition through the Business Model Canvas – and directs participants to engage in structured engagements with end-users and stakeholders by using Design Thinking and Customer Discovery methodologies.

Both Maake and Thwala, who graduated from Wits with a Bachelor of Pharmacy degree in 2020, agreed that the PharmApprentice programme geared them toward success  in the Prospector@Wits course, where PharmApprentice adjudicators – both academic staff in the Department of Pharmacy, as well as external entrepreneurs, experts and practicing pharmacists – gave input to improve their innovation:

Professor Yahya Choonara, Chair and Head of the Department of Pharmacy and Pharmacology at Wits, says: “PharmApprentice is a new curriculum innovation on our BPharm degree at Wits – a first on the African continent – to build the spirit of innovative thinking in solving real-world challenges.”

Dr Stavros Nicolaou , Group Senior Executive: Strategic Trade, at Aspen Pharmacare, has supported the PharmApprentice programme from its inception by providing a series of commercialization lectures, entrepreneurial mentorship, and sponsoring prizes.

Nicolaou says: “It lays the foundation for aspiring pharmacists to embrace entrepreneurship. Aspen is committed to youth empowerment and economic growth, and the PharmApprentice programme builds business capability among pharmacy graduates.”

Ms Anne Gabathuse, Senior Innovation Support Manager at Wits Enterprise, says: “We congratulate the Ra-Pill team on their success so far. They earned their spot as runner-up in the 2019 PharmApprentice Programme, and naturally progressed to participate in the Prospector@Wits course. The team clearly benefitted from the Prospector course, and really impressed the Prospector@Wits pitching panel. It is also exciting to see that within the University there is a continuum from entrepreneurship development at undergraduate level, to the development of commercialisable products that draws on the rich and diverse research conducted at Wits”.

Maake was surprised that their innovative idea won in the Prospector@Wits course: ‘‘I did not expect it but I was super happy about it!” says Maake.

The budding entrepreneurs plan to be making a profit within the next two years, however, they are realistic about what it will take.

“We feel like we just finished the easy part. Now the hard work begins; we have to justify the funding to the investors,” says Thwala.

With support from Wits Enterprise and the Wits Department of Pharmacy, the next step is to secure further funding and a partner to help them build a working prototype.

Re-inventing the Doppler effect

- Wits University

Wits and HUST researchers report a new form of the Doppler effect.

The research was published this weekend in Nature Communications, a prestigious on-line journal of the Nature group.

Contributing author Professor Andrew Forbes from the Wits School of Physics explains how their findings paves the way for enhanced metrology and measurement of moving objects with structured light.

“Measuring the speed of a moving object would seem a simple task, but surprisingly, we can’t measure speeds directly. GPS systems, popular with runners and cyclists, measure a distance and a time to work out the speed, while laser speed traps used by traffic police use a frequency shift in light to infer the speed.”

The latter exploits what is known as the “Doppler effect”, that change in tone/pitch of a siren that you hear as an ambulance zooms past. Discovered in 1842, the Doppler effect is a universal wave phenomenon that has been widely applied to acoustic and optical metrology in astronomy, oceanography, medicine, engineering, and many other fields. In particular, as for light wave, because of its ultra-high velocity, large bandwidth, and perfect directionality, the Doppler effect of light has spurred a myriad of applications, from cooling atoms to monitoring traffic flow. This effect originates from the relative motion between a wave source and an observer, resulting in a shift of the wave frequency.

The problem is that the Doppler effect only tells you how fast the object is moving, but not in what direction it is moving in.

“It only measures speeds of things coming towards or away from you, not objects moving sideways or on some weird trajectory, for example, a rocket tracing a curve in space. This is why the traffic police officers are always facing you head-on when they take the measurement. There are many applications where the direction matters, such as telling the difference between spinning, orbiting and lateral movements of objects,” says Forbes.

The HUST-Wits team added a vectorial twist to the tale, structuring the light in how it looks so that it can extract more information from the moving object.

“What we have done is to re-invent this old idea and add more functionality to it, so that now we have a Doppler approach that can measure the speed in all directions,” says Forbes.

The team realised that to know the “directions of the speeds”, what physicists call a velocity vector, the light itself would have to be a vector, imbued with lots of local directions in the electric field. The team showed that they could track a micro-particle moving across the beam, at each instant knowing both its position and speed, crucial for monitoring flow in micro-fluidic systems used in health care and for fluid flow in 3D.

The work is a collaboration between the top optics university in China, the Wuhan National Laboratory for Optoelectronics and School of Optical and Electronic Information, Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) and the Wits School of Physics.

Forbes is a Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics at Wits and holds an honorary professorship at HUST. He is also heads up the Structured Light Laboratory at Wits and has recently been appointed as Director of WitsQ, a strategic initiative of Wits to be a driver of quantum technologies in Africa.

'Grand Geek' to lead Wits’ Innovation Strategy

- Wits University

Professor Barry Dwolatzky has been contracted as Director of Innovation Strategy.

Professor Barry Dwolatzky

Known as the ‘Grand Geek’ of digital innovation in South Africa, Dwolatzky joined the office of the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation headed by Professor Lynn Morris on 1 July 2021.

“Professor Dwolatzky brings a wealth of experience and knowledge, as well as a network of local and international collaborators, that will help drive the strategy that supports the important relationship between research, innovation and entrepreneurship at Wits,” says Morris.

Dwolatzky is an Emeritus Professor in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment. He is also the Director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) and the founder of the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct, the University’s digital innovation hub located in Braamfontein.

He plans to consult with various stakeholders and experts to aid in developing an effective innovation strategy for Wits. “I will draw on the Wits community and the large network of collaborators and friends I have around South Africa and the world to develop an innovation strategy that is suitable for Wits as we enter our second century,” says Dwolatzky.

He echoes the bold agenda for Wits set by Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal, that now is the time for the University’s ‘moonshot moment’ to be a leader of change both in the continent and in the world.

“The next 100 years will not simply be a continuation of the last 100 years. All organisations and institutions, including universities, will change and the change will be rapid and profound. The best of these will position themselves to lead this change both internally and externally,” he adds. 

Moving beyond the digital

Wits alumni, researchers and students have shaped the digital landscape locally and abroad through major digital innovations outside of the University. “Wits has some of the brightest and most creative digital innovators in the world. An innovation strategy would nurture and grow them further,” he says.

A Wits alumnus, Dwolatzky has a wealth of experience in the digital field. He started his studies at Wits in Electrical Engineering in 1971, and after a 10 year stint in the 1980s as a postdoctoral researcher in the UK he joined Wits again as an academic. “I’ve travelled extensively and had the opportunity to develop an understanding of where, how and why innovation within an academic institution works best. I’ve also seen many examples of where it works least,” he adds.

Using this experience and his huge institutional knowledge as a guide, he now wants to step out of the bubble of digital innovation to develop a much broader scope that covers all of Wits’ diverse disciplines and communities. “We need a dedicated strategy to encourage innovation within Wits.”

He says innovation has a different meaning to different people and through his new role hopes to define it. “I want to develop a working definition for innovation within the Wits context that spans all research and innovation entities at the University. The aim is to draw on Wits’ huge world-class research output to convert some of it into a form that can directly meet the needs of society. This will include products, services, policies, processes or new organisations and businesses,” he says. 

The aim is that the Innovation Strategy will contribute to the new strategic plan for Wits, the development of which is being spearheaded by Professor Martin Veller, former Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Dwolatzky remains Director of the JCSE and will divide his time between that role and his new role as Director of Innovation Strategy.