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Johannesburg turned into live laboratory to measure 'killer' lightning

- Wits University

DEHN AFRICA donates R500 000 to the Johannesburg Lightning Research Laboratory at Wits University to support pioneering research in lightning protections.

Live lightning events captured striking the Telkom Tower in Hillbrow (left) and the Sentech Tower in Brixton (right) in Johannesburg. © DR CARINA SCHUMANN_JLRL_WITS UNIVERSITY

Lightning is one of the biggest weather-related killers in the world. In South Africa, more than 250 people are killed annually by lightning, whereas 24 000 people worldwide die each year. Thousands more are injured, and according to the South African Weather Service, the estimated insurance claims in South Africa amount to more than R500 million each year. 

Southern Africa as a climate change hotspot is likely to see increased lightning activity, making the study of lightning in Johannesburg paramount to mitigate the dangers to human safety and economic sustainability.

“As we move more towards renewable energy systems such as solar panels and wind turbines that are highly susceptible to lightning damage, we have to learn how these are affected by lightning and how to protect them better,” says Dr Hugh Hunt, Senior Lecturer and Head of the Johannesburg Lightning Research Laboratory (JLRL) in the School of Electrical and Information Engineering at Wits University.

To build on Wits University’s rich history of pioneering research into lightning and as part of the Wits Centenary programme that seeks to advance society for good, the JLRL has partnered with lightning protection company, DEHN AFRICA, and Sentech to support research into the protection of renewable energy systems from lightning.

The research involves installing a custom-built DEHNdetect lightning current measurement device –intended for measuring lightning currents to wind turbines – on the Sentech Tower in Brixton, Johannesburg.

(Watch the first measurement of a lightning current to the Sentech Tower….. wait for it…)

“The best way to study lightning is to measure real lightning which cannot be simulated in a high voltage lab as the distances between clouds and the ground are not great enough,” explains Hunt.

Together with colleague Dr Carina Schumann, who made the first high-speed videos of lightning in Africa in 2017, postgraduate students and collaborators from around the world, the JLRL is turning Johannesburg into a laboratory where live lightning events can be measured and characterised through the use of high-speed cameras, direct current measurements, fast electric field measurements, field measurements and comparison with lightning location systems.

“Lightning is measured in flashes per square kilometre per year and Johannesburg averages a high flash density of 15 flashes/km2/year compared to Europe with an average of 3 flashes/km2/year.”

“It is rare to find a country’s economic and industrial centre in such a high lightning risk zone and Johannesburg is ideal to study lightning events because of its extremely unique characteristic of having a high cloud base, six kilometres on average, making it possible for us to film a full lightning flash. No other location where lightning currents to tall towers are measured can correlate the measurements with high-speed footage as well as we are able to do in Johannesburg,” says Hunt.

The JLRL made the first measurements using the DEHNdetect device over the 2020 to 2021 Johannesburg summer thunderstorm session, high-speed filming and measuring an astounding 50 lightning currents. This has spurred DEHN AFRICA to further donate R500 000 to the JLRL for future research around the protection of renewable energy systems from lightning.

“It is an absolute pleasure to extend our partnership even further with Wits University. As education and research are critical components to our economy we as DEHN are truly excited to take the partnership to new levels," says Hano Oelofse, Managing Director of DEHN AFRICA.

The money will go towards installing more DEHNdetect devices on high infrastructure in Johannesburg as well as to providing bursaries for MSc and PhD students working in light protection research, and growing the research capabilities for the JLRL.

Lightning striking the Sentech Tower_© DR CARINA SCHUMANN_JLRL_WITS UNIVERSITY_870x400px

Professor Estelle Trengove, Head of the School of Electrical and Information Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment says the JLRL is one of the School’s flagship projects for the #Wits100 celebration next year. 

"Although much is known about lightning, there is much that we still need to learn. The JLRL is working at the cutting edge of lightning physics today, and the School is grateful for the generous donation from DEHN that has allowed it to expand this project further.

“At present, the Sentech Tower is equipped with current measurement equipment, but in future, we would like to equip the Telkom Tower and other tall structures in Johannesburg with measurement equipment, to get a more complete picture of lightning activity over Johannesburg,” she says. 

International Conference on Lightning Protection 2022

To add to the celebrations, the International Conference on Lightning Protection – the premier lightning conference in Europe – will be hosted in South Africa next year thanks to the successful bid by Professor Ian Jandrell, a renowned expert in the field of lightning, high voltage engineering and forensic engineering, and currently the Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Systems and Operations at Wits University. 

FEBE100 Club

The Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment (FEBE) is also celebrating its centenary in 2022 with companies, global and local, that are 100 years and older. It is doing so through the establishment of its FEBE100 Club that honours companies that have invested financially and otherwise, into the sustainability of the Faculty and its myriad of pioneering projects and research. DEHN AFRICA is one of the first companies to join the FEBE100 Club as part of the University’s centenary celebrations.

About #Wits100

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) is a leading African university ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world. In 2022, Wits celebrates 100 years of academic and research excellence, social justice, and the advancement of the public good. In our pursuit to positively impact humanity, our innovative technology-driven research aims to transform and prepare society for a collective and common digital future. Our research output has doubled in the past five years and offers new ways to impact society for good, as well as astounding ‘moonshot moments’ that give us hope and inspiration. Visit #WitsForGood

Burning of fossil fuels directly impacts dung beetles

- Wits University

Elevated carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere negatively affects dung beetles size and survival.

Climate change is a truth of the 21st century that is difficult to avoid. The burning of fossil fuels in industry, for transport, and other everyday life activities of Homo sapiens has resulted in elevated levels of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere. Extreme weather conditions as seen in recent flood, drought and fire events worldwide are some of the most obvious ways in which increasing CO2 levels are changing our world. But there are some serious effects that CO2 is having on our ecosystems that are less easily observed.

A new study led by Wits University post-doctoral researcher, Dr Claudia Tocco, provides evidence that elevated CO2 levels directly affects the development and survival of tunnelling dung beetles (Euoniticellus intermedius). The study, published in the international journal, Global Change Biology, presents a possible explanation for the current ‘insect apocalypse’ – a global decline in insect populations that is still not well understood.

Dung beetle statistics

Serendipitous science

“The idea to investigate the effects of elevated CO2 levels on dung beetles was a result of ‘serendipitous science’,” says Tocco. “My labmate and colleague at Wits, Mr Nic Venter, was growing cacti under different CO2 conditions to investigate how these plants may be affected under future scenarios in our changing world.” Venter was looking at CO2 levels under four scenarios: pre-industrial (~1750), modern-day, 30 years into the future, and 50 years into the future. “We thought, why not put some dung beetles under the same conditions and see what happens?,” says Prof. Marcus Byrne, senior author of the paper and Dr Tocco’s postdoctoral advisor. What they found came as a surprise.

Beetles grown under heightened levels of atmospheric CO2 experienced lower survival rates, and were smaller in size. “When raised under CO2 levels predicted for the year 2070, a third fewer beetles emerged and were 14% smaller in size when compared to pre-industrial CO2 levels,” says Tocco.

“When we first found this result, we were surprised!,” says Byrne. “We were not expecting such a drastic effect. In fact, we were not convinced at first that this result was real, and so we repeated the experiment – but we kept getting the same result”. “We knew that increased CO2 levels can affect insects indirectly by changing plant quality,” says Venter, “but did not expect such a direct effect on the beetles themselves”. 

The proof is in the soil

“Dung beetles like many insects, spend a large portion of their lives in the soil – as larvae, pupae and as adults,” says Dr Blair Cowie, another of Tocco’s colleagues and fellow labmate in Prof. Byrne’s research group. “Most people perhaps do not realise that increases in atmospheric CO2 levels also affect the soil, and our study shows that this can in turn affect animals that live in soil”.

The team suspects that the negative effects experienced by dung beetles under scenarios of heightened CO2 in this study may be a result of increased competition between the beetles and bacteria in the soil. “Our next steps are to conduct further experiments to tease apart whether it is the CO2 levels in the dung ball, the brood balls, or the soil in general that is affecting dung beetle development,” says Cowie. 

“It is the fact that the lives of dung beetles are so closely tied with the soil that makes them such excellent model organisms to investigate changes in soil ecology,” says Tocco. “If atmospheric CO2 is affecting dung beetles, it is affecting other insects too”. 

Explaining the insect apocalypse

The findings from this study may provide new insight into the cause of global insect declines. So far, other explanations put forth have been questionable, and there are no universally accepted justifications. Changes in climatic conditions vary across the globe, and some temperature changes may in fact be beneficial to insects. The use of insecticides is also patchy, and not ubiquitous across the planet. “Our findings of how heightened CO2 levels affect dung beetles presents a plausible explanation for the insect apocalypse, since the increases in CO2 are consistent across the planet,” says Tocco.

These new findings are hot off the heels of another recent breakthrough finding by Byrne and team, in which they found that light pollution negatively affects the ability of dung beetles to orientate themselves. “Whereas a solution to light pollution is easy – we just have to switch off our lights – the CO2 problem is a bigger battle to fight,” says Byrne. “We need to seriously support the movement away from fossil fuels, and invest in renewable energy – or else we stand to lose the vital ecosystem services that insects provide us free of charge.”

Wits leads ambitious partnership to drive AI in Africa

- Wits University

The AI Africa Consortium partners with Cirrus AI to bring large-scale AI infrastructure capacity and expertise to the African research community and industry.

The AI Africa Consortium

“We embark on these great undertakings because we remain optimistic about the future of our country and our continent”– Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), Johannesburg

Wits University today invited Africa’s research community to join its newly formed AI Africa Consortium which aims to develop a collaborative network focussed on the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) and the application of AI in research and innovation. [Read or download the AI Africa Consortium brochure.] 

Addressing the virtual opening of AI Expo Africa 2021, the largest business-focused AI event in Africa, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University, announced the ambitious partnership, saying AI and machine learning (ML) “offers huge opportunities for development and progress in Africa”.

“For us to fully participate in the 21st Century, we must use this ‘scientific renaissance’ to drive innovation and foster the growth of a strong scientific ecosystem. In so doing, we can play an active role in achieving true progress and help steer the socioeconomic trajectory of the African continent,” Vilakazi said.

It is for this reason that Wits University has partnered with Cirrus AI, a private sector-led initiative that aims to bring large-scale AI infrastructure capacity and world-class expertise to the doorstep of African universities, research institutions, researchers, and industry collaborators. Cirrus was announced at the AI Expo Africa in 2019.

“Cirrus is an initiative that aims to secure funding to establish among other things, the first AI supercomputer hub in Africa which will be located on Wits University’s campus. Cirrus has already formed partnerships and relationships with stakeholders in the AI space throughout the world,” explained Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of Innovation Strategy at Wits University. He is the project leader for the AI Africa Consortium.

“This partnership will promote and drive AI innovation and entrepreneurship through the infrastructure, engineering capacity, and learning programmes that will be set up. Student participation and training will be central in our efforts to develop AI skills in Africa,” he said.

Help us grow Africa’s research footprint

The Consortium will also lead engagement and coordination with government agencies and non-profit research institutions on the adoption of Cirrus. It will support data science practices across research fields and aid local academic and research institutions to stimulate AI research and advance the application of AI in industry.

“Wits University has Africa’s largest grouping of researchers and postgraduate students working in the disciplines of data science, AI and ML. We invite all members of the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) as well as from other universities and research institutions in Africa to join the AI Africa Consortium and help us grow Africa’s footprint on the global research output map,” Professor Lynn Morris, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, said in her address at the Africa AI Expo.

Looking ahead

“We embark on these great undertakings because we remain optimistic about the future of our country and our continent. There are huge opportunities to create economic activity and solve problems drawing from AI and ML. This will guarantee the future of our society for generations to come,” Vilakazi said.

How will the AI Africa Consortium work?

Tier 1 Consortium members will each appoint an ‘ambassador’. These ambassadors will participate in what will be known as the ‘Ambassador Advisory Network’, responsible for building the network and negotiating benefits on behalf of the members of the Consortium. 

What will the benefits be in joining the AI Africa Consortium?

“Through international collaborations already established by Cirrus AI, the Consortium will link members with the global AI network,” Dwolatzky explained in his presentation to the AI Africa Expo.

Other benefits include:

  • Providing researchers with access to hardware / software / data and machine learning engineers. Although it is implied it is often overlooked that infrastructure is useless without the supporting engineering to assist in making use of it.
  • Access to state-of-the-art computing capability where members will have free access to the powerful supercomputing platform housed at Wits University;
  • A ‘Digital Asset Locker’ where members will have access to ample storage capacity to store data for use in ML and activities in AI;
  • A ‘Sandbox’ where researchers can try out concepts and ideas;
  • Co-development programmes for AI research and learning;
  • An annual summer and winter schools programme to build AI skills;
  • ‘Saloons’ and ‘Teatime’ talks to share information across Africa and beyond;
  • The right to host events at Consortium forums;
  • Inclusion in Consortium-led proposals and contracts to take part in continent-wide bids for research grants and funding in the field of AI.

AI @ Wits

Stay updated with the latest research news in AI/ML and technology/digital innovations at Wits University: 

African Research on Kidney Disease begins in Mpumalanga

- Wits University

It’s South African Kidney Awareness Week from 6-10 September and the ARK Consortium has begun a unique African study.

The African Research on Kidney Disease (ARK) Consortium is a collaboration between researchers at centres of excellence in South Africa, Malawi, Uganda, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

ARK aims to better understand kidney disease in sub-Saharan African populations – working in Uganda and Malawi as well as South Africa – and to determine the burden of kidney disease, its causes, and potential for prevention in these communities.

Dr June Fabian is the co-principal investigator (co-PI) of the South African arm of ARK and a nephrologist (kidney doctor) and clinical researcher at the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre (WDGMC) in Johannesburg.

 Dr June Fabian of Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre is co Principal Investigator in the ARK study

“The work ARK is doing is unique in Africa because it is population-based. This means we can better understand kidney disease in people living in rural Mpumalanga, rather than relying just on data from high-risk groups and people hospitalized with advanced kidney disease,” says Fabian. “Population-based research gives a good sense of what the burden and risks really are.”

The importance of kidney disease studies in Africa

While the causes of kidney disease are well described in high-income countries, relatively little is known about the risk factors that lead to kidney disease and how common these are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Additionally, severe kidney disease treatment is costly, requiring either chronic kidney dialysis or a kidney transplant.

These medical procedures are often out of reach of the poor or medically under- or uninsured, rendering this condition fatal – which it need not be.

The genetics of advanced kidney disease in rural South Africa

Fabian has led the South African arm of ARK since 2016, working with rural communities around Agincourt in the Bushbuckridge sub-district of Mpumalanga Province.

She works closely with co-investigators Professor Stephen Tollman of the Medical Research Council/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt) and Professor Michèle Ramsay of the Sydney Brenner Institute of Molecular Bioscience (SBIMB) at Wits.

The MRC Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit in Agincourt and Community Advisory Board meet on ARK Pilot Study

ARK aims to identify genetic risk factors that cause kidney disease in a typical rural population in Agincourt, Mpumalanga.

“Very little research has been done on the genetics of diseases in Africa. Although we can theorise that hypertension [high blood pressure], for example, contributes to advanced kidney disease, these findings are based on data from high-income countries,” says Fabian.

ARK has partnered with Variant Bio to investigate the genetic and metabolomic [small molecule] profiles of advanced kidney disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Variant Bio is a biotech company based in Washington state, U.S., which develops therapies to improve global health by studying the genes of people with exceptional health-related traits.

“Combining genetic and metabolomic analyses creates a very powerful research tool for exploring inherited susceptibility to kidney disease, how our genes interact with our environment, and ultimately how this influences the small molecules our bodies make,” says Fabian. “We can then compare a group of people with poor kidney function to a group with good kidney health, and investigate differences between the groups. This potentially unlocks ways in which we could treat, or even prevent kidney disease in African populations.”

Testing for chronic kidney disease

Fieldwork for the ARK study in Agincourt_Study nurse Phumzile Dlamini does a home visit for a blood sample to assess kidney function in a consenting participant_Pic Sandra Maytham Bailey 600x300

Diagnosing advanced kidney disease in sub-Saharan Africa is critical to understanding its prevalence.

Urine dipstick tests could be valuable tools to rule out kidney damage in under-resourced settings where access to central laboratory services is limited.

For this reason, ARK advocates point-of-care diagnostics – where a nurse in a rural setting can test and treat a patient immediately and on site.

In March 2021, Fabian, Tollman, et al, published a study in BMC Nephrology, which aimed to evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of point-of-care urine dipsticks to detect markers of kidney damage.

The study shows that point-of-care urine dipstick tests are effective for screening those at risk for kidney disease, which includes those with diabetes, high blood pressure, and people living with HIV.

Another chronic kidney disease diagnostics study, published in Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine in March 2021, evaluated point-of-care technologies for estimating kidney function using creatinine [a compound the body makes and then utilizes to store energy]. Again, in resource-limited settings, the point-of-care devices can be used for screening.

Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine shows promise in protecting people with HIV


The Wits Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytical (VIDA) research unit conducted the phase 1B/2A clinical trial.

The findings, published in Lancet HIV on 17 August 2021, show that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine is likely to work as well in people living with HIV compared with people who are HIV negative.

These interim findings are vital for informing the clinical management of people with HIV during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clinical trials that evaluate the safety and immunogenicity of Covid-19 vaccines in people living with HIV are limited generally and virtually non-existent in Africa. This is despite the overwhelming prevalence of HIV infection in Africa and in South Africa particularly.

“We searched PubMed for peer-reviewed articles published between 1 January 2019 and 29 June 2021, using the terms ‘safety’ and ‘Covid-19’ and ‘vaccine’, but we did not find any reports that evaluated safety and immunogenicity of Covid-19 vaccines in this population,” says Shabir Madhi, Professor of Vaccinology and Director of Wits VIDA, which led South Africa and Africa’s first Covid-19 vaccine trial in June 2020.

Understanding Covid-19 vaccination in people with HIV in SA

People with HIV are at greater risk for infectious diseases and are at higher risk of dying when admitted to hospital for severe Covid-19 than are the general population.

Furthermore, compared with HIV-negative individuals, people with HIV are at greater risk for infectious diseases, such as influenza, including during antiretroviral therapy (ART).

Risk factors for severe Covid-19 in people with HIV include more advanced stage of HIV/AIDS, the HIV-1 infection not being virally suppressed, and CD4 counts below 500 cells per microlitre.

About the HIV study in the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa

The study was an interim analysis of a randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, phase 1B/2A trial.

Between 17 August and 12 November 2020, 104 people living with HIV were enrolled in the trial. Seventy HIV negative people were enrolled between 24 June and 29 July 2020.

Eligibility criteria for people with HIV included being on ART for at least three months, with a plasma HIV viral load of less than 1000 copies per microlitre.

The HIV study, which was a unique addition to the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial, aimed to assess safety and immunogenicity of this vaccine in people with HIV and HIV-negative people in South Africa.

The primary endpoint in both HIV-negative participants and people with HIV was the safety, tolerability, and reactogenicity profile of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.

Reactogenicity refers to the property of a vaccine of being able to produce common adverse reactions.

The interim findings show that the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was well tolerated and showed favourable safety and immunogenicity in people with HIV, including heightened immunogenicity in SARS-CoV-2 baseline-seropositive participants.


“These interim findings are vital for informing the clinical management of people with HIV during the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Madhi. “As the delta variant continues to dominate in South Africa – and the C.1.2 variant emerges as a variant of concern – vaccination remains the only option to avoid hospitalisation and death from Covid-19.”

Wits to coordinate South Africa’s national quantum initiative

- Wits University

The South African Quantum Technology Initiative (SA QuTI) aims to drive local quantum technology research and innovation.

Wits University today announced it has successfully secured R8 million in seed funding from the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) towards implementing Phase 1 on behalf of the South African Quantum Technology Initiative (SA QuTI).

Approved by the DSI earlier this year, the SA QuTI is a national undertaking that seeks to create the conditions in South Africa for a globally competitive research environment in quantum technologies and to grow the local quantum technology industry.

Wits University, a leading quantum research institute in Africa through its newly formed WitsQ initiative, is the official host of the SA QuTI and will administer and manage the funds. It will also coordinate the implementation of the SA QuTI.

“The objective is to move South Africa into a quantum future where government, industry and academia work together for the development and deployment of quantum technologies,” says Distinguished Professor Andrew Forbes, Director of WitsQ and Director of the Structured Light Laboratory in the Wits School of Physics.

“It is a very exciting time to be in quantum, and I believe that Wits has an important role to play in this field. We are regarded as world leaders in high-dimensional entanglement, we have unique experimental facilities, and our WitsQ initiative is home to an enthusiastic quantum community that has no traditional discipline boundaries,” he adds.

Dr Robin Drennan, Director for Research Development in the University's Research Office, says Wits is proud to act as a host for the SA QuTI and looking forward to working with all the partners from several universities and research institutes across the country that are part of this national initiative.

“This initial grant from the DSI is received with deep gratitude. Quantum technologies offer a new frontier of research and innovation, and this grant shows a clear and confident vision expressed by the Department.”

“It is so important to support the existing research efforts in this budding area to ensure that South Africa remains competitive in these areas of endeavour. It will of course also add impetus to Wits’ efforts in the field of quantum technologies and our access to a 50 qubit quantum computer,” says Drennan.

Wits University has a unique quantum advantage through its partnership with IBM Research by becoming the first African partner on the IBM Q Network and has access to its 50 qubit quantum computer.

Dr Solomon Assefa is the Vice President | IBM Research: Africa & Emerging Market Solutions (left) with • Professor Zeblon Vilakazi is Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs at the University of the Witwatersrand with a 3D printed IBMQ quantum computer

Dr Solomon Assefa is the Vice President | IBM Research: Africa & Emerging Market Solutions (left) and Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University, with a 3D printed IBMQ quantum computer. © WITS UNIVERSITY

Consortium partners

The SA QuTI will be a consortium of five universities. Wits University will act as the main contracting site and is also one of the main centres together with Stellenbosch University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The two emerging centres are the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and the University of Zululand. The Centre of High-Performance Computing (CHPC) will provide the quantum computing infrastructure.

First steps

In Phase 1 the funding will be used, among other projects, to support quantum technology development initiatives at Wits University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, and the National Metrology Institute of South Africa. The SA QuTI has pre-allocated some of the funds towards supporting identified undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral students in quantum technologies from various universities.

In Phase 2 the SA QuTI aims to create critical mass in quantum technology research leadership across the country through senior and emerging research chairs. It also seeks to achieve greater diversity and demographics in quantum technology research emanating from South Africa by creating new centres of quantum research in previously disadvantaged institutions.

Side-stepping the competition

“South Africa cannot compete with the billions of Euros invested in quantum technology development in other countries. That is why we have to be strategic by bringing together our quantum community – research, academia, government and industry – to save decades in time and money,” explains Forbes.

Three years in the making, this national roadmap to drive quantum technology research and innovation, have three main focus areas:

  • quantum communications
  • quantum computing
  • quantum sensing

Each focus area will have one flagship project that serves to drive science through to technology and allow for faster uptake by commercial partners.

“The philosophy of SA QuTI is to side-step the competition.  Take the smartphone industry: you don’t have to be a smartphone manufacturer to be part of the smartphone revolution – the economy of smartphone apps is huge, perhaps even bigger than the phone industry itself (think Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter and so on). We see an analogous situation in quantum.  In quantum computing, for instance, we will not be building a quantum computer but rather develop ‘quantum apps’, a faster and cost-effective way to make an impact that leverages on our capabilities in software development,” says Forbes.

In quantum communications the idea is to focus on technology integration from partner institutes across South Africa, comprising sources, detectors, protocols and networks, to establish local quantum secure links between universities, key government sites, and strategic industry locations such as banks.

The flagship project in quantum sensing will leverage South Africa’s well developed and sophisticated medical industry.


As a consequence of the investment, WitsQ, the new quantum initiative at Wits gets a R2-million seed fund injection.

“I am very excited that WitsQ has some seed funding so that we can grow our internal community to leverage off the national programme. We plan to use the funds to grow the Wits quantum community by seeding small projects, and bringing new students into the fold,” says Forbes.

About #Wits100

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) is a leading African university ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world. In 2022, Wits celebrates 100 years of academic and research excellence, social justice, and the advancement of the public good. In our pursuit to positively impact humanity, our innovative technology-driven research aims to transform and prepare society for a collective and common digital future. Our research output has doubled in the past five years and offers new ways to impact society for good, as well as astounding ‘moonshot moments’ that give us hope and inspiration. Visit #WitsForGood

Wits humanities scholar a Falling Walls winner

- Wits University

Professor Dilip Menon’s transnationalism research earns him prestigious Falling Walls Award.

Professor Dilip Menon, Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits University, has won the prestigious international Falling Walls Award for his transnationalism research.

Menon has been selected in the Social Sciences and Humanities category in the 2021 Falling Walls Science Breakthrough of the Year hosted by the Falling Walls Foundation, Berlin.

He was among 10 internationally renowned scholars who were shortlisted in this category. The Falling Walls Foundation announced the first science breakthroughs today, 15 September 2021.

Menon, who is also the Mellon Chair in Indian Studies, was honoured for his work on transnational and oceanic histories in the Global South, which he has conducted over the last decade. His research has produced two published books, Capitalisms: Towards a Global History (Oxford 2020) and the forthcoming edited volume Changing Theory: Concepts from the Global South (Routledge 2022), which will be translated into Mandarin next year.

Professor Dilip Menon

“The first theme focuses on the connections in the world moving beyond colonialism and nation states, the second argues that we need to think beyond Euro-American paradigms of social theory. We cannot write our stories with histories that come from elsewhere,” he says.

Menon’s work into languages and intellectual traditions seeks to create and restore a “sense of wholeness”. “Thinking about the world entails that we enhance the scope of our languages to include the world at large and not only ourselves and our nations,” says Menon.

The book volume, Changing Theory: Concepts from the Global South includes essays on words from 16 languages ranging from Arabic to isiZulu that argue for a theoretical vocabulary from the Global South.

Regarding his contribution, the adjudicating panel remarked that Menon deserves recognition for “Breaking the Wall to a Paracolonial Paradigm” through his research.

Menon, through his research, has created breakthroughs by producing concepts and conceptual vocabulary from the Global South and engaging with languages across Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The Falling Walls Science Breakthroughs is an initiative of the Falling Walls Foundation, Berlin. This is a science-driven creative organisation with an international and interdisciplinary focus, which seeks to connect science, business and society. It honours researchers who have impacted humanity and created breakthroughs across borders and disciplines.

Menon’s anonymous nomination for the Falling Walls Prize cited his paper, Walking on Water: Globalization and History (2020) which addresses questions of globalisation, global warming, the displacement of people, and art in the era of climate change.

Menon says he is humbled to be recognised alongside leading humanities scholars.

“I am deeply honoured to be nominated and to be awarded the Falling Walls Prize. The distinguished cohort of nine other scholars are all located in universities in Europe and America. Coming from India, and located now in South Africa, and the fact that my work has achieved recognition underscores the fact that I do not need to be located in the global North is of crucial importance for me. I think the Falling Walls recognition of this fact is something that matters and touches my heart.”

He will present his work to a global audience at the Falling Walls Science Summit in November alongside the nine nominees in the Social Sciences and Humanities category. These include distinguished historians Sven Beckert and Naomi Oreskes and the sociologist Michelle Lamont, all at Harvard University. The Summit is a leading forum that convenes global science leaders from academia, business, politics, the media, and civil society to debate the potential of scientific breakthroughs to solve grand challenges and shape a sustainable future.

Let’s DIY future democracies for good

- Wits University

#DIYAfrica 2021 creates space for Africans to “Do It Yourself” and realise the potential of new and emerging technologies to bring about change.

#DIYAfrica 2021 - #CTIF and #Jamfest conference

“Africa at some point will need to lead the digital transformation, particularly to address a wide range of societal issues that have an impact on us, the continent and the world,” said Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University.

 “It is an opportunity to ensure that our intellectual labour maximally translates for the benefits of the continent. Civic tech and media innovation are showing that a future democratised, digital government and social order that is sustainable is achievable.”

Vilakazi announced that as part of Wits’ centenary celebrations next year, the University will establish a new African Centre for Excellence in Digital Technology and Government. This Centenary Flagship programme and the newly established Wits Centre of Journalism (WCJ) will be platforms for robust engagement between research, academia, society and government.

He addressed the opening plenary for #DIYAfrica 2021 – a collaboration between the Civic Tech Innovation Forum (#CTIF2021) and #JamfestAfrica2021. The CTIF is an annual event presented by the Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) in Wits University’s School of Governance that seeks to connect practitioners, researchers, experts and decision-makers with interests in civic tech and provides a platform for them to learn, share knowledge and experience and collaborate.

Jamfest is an African media and information festival directed at a diverse set of African media makers and media publics, presented by the Journalism and Media Lab (Jamlab), a project of Wits Journalism that supports more and better innovation in journalism and media in Africa.

The virtual #DIYAfrica 2021 conference has brought together civic tech and media innovators and stakeholders to connect around the ways in which digital innovators, innovations, initiatives, and their support structures are playing out across Africa in the spaces of journalism, media, civic activism, and public services, particularly in this pandemic era. The “Do It Yourself” approach is offered as a frame for exploring the potential for a more democratised society – one where technology enables empowerment, participation, critique, and even resistance.

“The role of society and social enterprises are increasingly important drivers of the digital exponential, a process of rapid technology changes and disruptions in the way we do business, life and work. The flow of information is moving faster than the speed of which the producers and the curators of knowledge can anticipate. And with that comes the challenge of how we manage and curate data and information,” said Vilakazi.

He said Wits is proud to host the CTIN, Jamlab and many other innovative digital transformation programmes.

“The University is at the forefront in driving the development of cutting-edge digital technologies for the 21st Century, from artificial intelligence to machine learning, quantum computing and technologies, data sciences, blockchain and many others. We are helping organisations and businesses to go digital and are pioneering the adoption of innovative digital technologies in education, finance, arts medicine, journalism, and government.”

“The new Centre for Digital Governance will also assist countries across the continent to meet the critical means needed for the development of the appropriate policies and regulatory frameworks needed in this rapidly exponential changing space of e-government,” Vilakazi said.

About #Wits100

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) is a leading African university ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world. In 2022, Wits celebrates 100 years of academic and research excellence, social justice, and the advancement of the public good. Wits is a catalyst for change that creates hope in society, and our founding values remain: We uphold no distinctions of class, wealth, race, or creed and cherish academic freedom and the discovery of truth. Visit #WitsForGood

Remote work a win for South Africa's ICT professionals

- Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE)

JSCE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey results will be released on 28 September 2021.

The Covid-19 pandemic brought with it some unexpected benefits for the South African ICT sector, including increased productivity and the potential for employers to reduce their operating costs.

This is one of the findings in the first South African ICT Skills Survey to be carried out since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

The JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey assesses skills demand and supply from both a corporate and practitioner perspective, to identify the most pressing skills needs and current skills capacity. The 2021 edition of the survey also set out to assess the impact the pandemic has had on ICT skills in South Africa.

The report’s co-authors, Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE, and Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, report that the survey uncovered the pandemic’s impact on the work environment, prospects for a Gig economy, and developments in ICT skills development to meet local business needs.

The full results will be released by the report’s co-authors at an online launch event on 28 September at 12h00.

 To attend the free ICT Skills Survey launch event, register here

Oppenheimer donation advances African Future Studies at Wits

- Wits University

The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) has donated R15 million towards the African Future Studies Initiative at Wits University.

The OMT grant will through the African Future Studies Initiative at Wits, fund one Rising Star Fellowship and four postdoctoral scholarships over five years.

Africa’s complex current problems will influence the future of its development – political, technological, socioeconomic, and environmental challenges continue to hinder continental growth.

These challenges require interdisciplinary solutions engineered by world-class intellectuals to build a hopeful African future.

Africa shows great potential to thrive through cutting-edge research and innovation that will propel its development in the future.

The OMT R15 million grant to the African Future Studies Initiative will capacitate Wits University, as a leading research-intensive university, to tackle some of the challenges in Africa.

The African Future Studies Initiative will, through multi, inter, cross- and trans-disciplinary research, explore human and societal pathways that may exist as possible futures in social, health, political, and economic life.

Africa Tech

“We predict that the future challenges of the 21st Century will be immense. Yet, universities often flourish in times of flux. Research-intensive universities have an important role to play in galvanising our collective strength to find solutions to these challenges. The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust grant, through the African Future Studies Initiative presents one such opportunity,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal. “We are grateful to the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust for this grant, which will help researchers at Wits to investigate transformative solutions, for good.”

Wits University celebrates its centenary in 2022 and the OMT grant will contribute to shaping excellent scholarship in the future.

The OMT grant will support research in four areas that are envisaged to address Africa’s future prospects:

  1. Technologies: 4IR [the fourth industrial revolution] and the future of work (including data science, Artificial Intelligence, labour trends, the world of work, and the nature of being human)
  2. Environments: Climate, contagions, and catastrophes (including global change, public health, and the Anthropocene)
  3. Systems: Inequality, democratic futures, and the political economy of the post-Covid-19 world (including social movements, political formations, democratic [im] possibilities, and new global economic configurations); and
  4. People: Mobility, migration, and cosmopolitanism (including spatial and city organisation, transnationalism, and the future of the State).

“The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust has a long tradition of investing in higher education and building the local academy. Given the ever-changing context we live in, it is imperative that we focus on developing a generation of researchers, scientists and academics that will ensure South Africa remains competitive and relevant in the 21st Century,” says Tracey Webster, Chief Executive Officer of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust. “The Rising Star Fellowship is a prestigious award attracting the brightest young minds who bring fresh thinking, drive interdisciplinary collaborations, and have demonstrated the potential to be leading academics in the future. We commend Wits University for this timely initiative and we are delighted to be associated with it,” says Webster.

A rising star in gender, sexuality and place-making research

Associate Professor Peace Kiguwa

Professor Peace Kiguwa in the School of Human and Community Development in the Faculty of Humanities at Wits is the recipient of the OMT grant funded Rising Star Fellowship, effective 1 July 2021.

Kiguwa was awarded for her interdisciplinary research, which spans studies across race, gender, sexuality, identity politics, social movements, and gender based violence.

Her Rising Star Fellowship grant will enable research in place making on how people take geographical spaces and places and make these home as well as research on the politics of gender and sexuality.

This research falls under the People theme of the African Future Studies Initiative, where Kiguwa seeks to investigate how people live and make meaning of their lives.

“The questions that I seek to engage include understanding how lives are organised and to what end. I am interested in how people make communities, how systems of influences intersect and align with psycho-social and affective forces to configure livelihoods in particular ways and what the forces are that influence people’s imaginations of the future,” says Kiguwa.

About #Wits100

The University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University) is a leading African university ranked in the top 1% of universities in the world. In 2022, Wits celebrates 100 years of academic and research excellence, social justice, and the advancement of the public good. As a leading research-intensive university, Wits is a gateway to intellectual achievement in Africa. In our pursuit of seeking new knowledge, our research output has doubled in the past five years and offers new ways to impact society for good, as well as astounding ‘moonshot moments’ that give us hope and inspiration. Visit #WitsForGood

A rising research star

- Wits University

The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust (OMT) has awarded the Rising Star Fellowship to Associate Professor Peace Kiguwa.

Peace Kiguwa, Associate Professor in Department of Psychology, has been awarded the fellowship as part of the OMT African Studies Future initiative grant that seeks to explore alternative futures and reimagine Africa’s future developmental pathways. The fellowship provides support to rising talent in academia with potential to be leaders and advance interdisciplinary scholarship. Kiguwa will expand her research into gender and sexualities and place making where she will investigate how these intersect and manifest in society.

Kiguwa’s research interest has expanded into various disciplines and has solidified her as an interdisciplinary scholar since 2014 when she obtained her PhD from Wits, that explored racial subjectivity within the South African academy. Her research interests include social movements, race, gender and sexuality, diversity and ethnic conflicts in South Africa and Africa.

There is a growing amount of scholarly research produced in Africa on ethnic, racial, sexual, and gender diversity, and to a limited extent on queer theory. While there is acknowledgement of this burgeoning field of study, what seems to be amiss is the focus on localised knowledges that speak to different areas and contexts across the continent, says Kiguwa. In light of this, Kiguwa says she is interested in “developing this new lens in conducting localised and regional research illuminating localised epistemologies and creating critical knowledge rooted in local contexts with a regional and global reach.”

Associate Professor Peace Kiguwa

Kiguwa has a prolific publication record having published over 35 journal articles, 12 book chapters and edited four book chapters. She has supervised masters and PhD students. Her research has covered four main areas: methodological issues; theoretical issues; teaching and learning and the complexity of activism in knowledge creation. Over the years these focus areas have often co-existed in different research outputs.

Her interdisciplinary work and research spans editorial board member duties on three accredited Journals; Psychology In Society (PINS), African Studies (AS) and the International Journal of Critical Diversity Studies (IJCDS). While her research has been interdisciplinary in nature, she has also remained active in her home discipline, Psychology and is currently the coordinator for the psychology master’s programme. She is also current Chair of the Sexuality and Gender Division of the national Psychological Society in South Africa (PSYSSA).

Kiguwa has been awarded a number of awards, scholarships and grants for her academic citizenship including the 2016 Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching and Learning Award. The Rising Star fellowship will also enable her to pursue another interest of hers, mentoring young promising academics, says Kiguwa. As an academic and researcher, she has actively developed, and nurtured young researchers interested in the field of sexualities, genders, queer studies, and race studies through several research thrusts such as the Women Intellectuals Transforming Scholarship in Education (WITSIE), and the Narrative Enquiry for Social Transformation (NEST), a project coordinated by Professors Jill Bradbury and the late Bheki Peterson. Several of her mentees have completed their master’s degrees and some are currently under her supervision for their PhDs.

“What I want to do and what has always been my interest as an academic is to mentor scholarship. Over the years that interest has included being part of initiatives and projects that has focussed on building young scholarship,” she says.

Professor Garth Stevens, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities congratulated Kiguwa for being a recipient of the Rising Star Fellowship and said this is a big achievement for the Faculty of Humanities.

“The Rising Star Fellowship focuses on excellence, but is directed towards a scholar who shows exceptional promise. It is important for us as a Faculty that the award has been made to an extraordinary scholar like Professor Peace Kiguwa, as this signals the importance of the Humanities in contributing centrally to resolving the important human challenges of our time. We wish Professor Kiguwa well as she rises to these challenges and boldly engages new knowledge architectures that have become illuminated in a changing world and charts her way through new fields of development,” says Stevens.

Wits-educated billionaire launches R3-billion vaccine development project in SA

- Wits University

It will help to establish two research centres to boost cancer and vaccine research at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Wits University alumnus and South African-born biotech billionaire, Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong,

Wits University alumnus and South African-born biotech billionaire, Dr Patrick Soon-Shiong, has officially launched the ambitious R3-billion initiative to build capacity for advanced health care in Africa. 

Wits is one of the leading universities to benefit from this partnership that will focus on the rapid clinical development of next generation vaccines for infectious diseases, including Covid-19 vaccines, and cancer at centres of excellence across the country. 

Wits has already identified the establishment of a new Centre of Excellence in Oncology and the Wits Infectious Diseases Research Institute in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

The initiative is driven by NantAfrica, a division of NantWorks which is Soon-Shiong’s multinational, California-based conglomerate that is leading the digital revolution in healthcare, technology and media through the harnessing of science, digital infrastructure, supercomputing and communication.

“Wits University is honoured to partner with NantWorks to advance the research and clinical development of vaccines, and training and technological innovation in oncology, infectious diseases, immunology, molecular medicine, and related disciplines, in Africa. This will ultimately result in improving the lives of many people,” says Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Professor Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist, and world-leader in his field.

“This collaboration will provide further growth in the world-class research undertaken by Wits scientists in the field of infectious diseases, and provide opportunities for cutting edge research in the field of immunotherapy in the management of cancer.”

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, welcomed the collaboration, saying this relationship is “particularly special as both Dr Soon-Shiong and his wife Michelle are Wits alumni, who met on our campus.”

“This collaboration speaks directly to the priorities of Wits University as we approach our centenary – to improve health care using the latest technology and innovation, to benefit broader society, and to advance the public good. We look forward to working with the team to conduct research at the frontiers of science, that addresses the pressing challenges of the 21st Century, and that ultimately advances better healthcare for humanity,” says Vilakazi.

Professor Shabir Madhi had a discussion with Dr Soon-Shiong in March 2021 about COVID-19, his thoughts and ideas on vaccine development in South Africa, and how scientists can be engaged.


NantAfrica also wants to tap South African medical expertise in treating diseases that are prevalent in the country such as HIV, tuberculosis, human papillomavirus and cervical cancer.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa it’s an opportunity to address the public health challenges experienced in South African and the continent and leapfrog to cutting edge technology.

“It is a game changer for our country. This technology transfer, including manufacturing biologics, will reinforce vaccine equity sorely needed globally,” he said during the online media conference.

NantAfrica also wants to tap South African medical expertise in treating diseases that are prevalent in the country such as HIV, tuberculosis, human papillomavirus and cervical cancer.

Read the full press release here.

SA ICT sector navigates pandemic unscathed but skills gaps remain

- Wits University

The 2021 ICT Skills Survey results were released on 28 September 2021.

2021 JCSE-IITPSA ICT Skills Survey

South African ICT employers and practitioners appear to have adapted well to the Covid-19 pandemic and associated lockdowns, with little to no negative impacts on working conditions or ICT skills demand and supply. However, significant digital skills gaps remain.

This emerged in the 2021 ICT Skills Survey carried out by Wits University’s Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) in partnership with the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA). The survey, the 11th since 2008 and the first since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, assessed what impact the pandemic and lockdown have had on working conditions and skills supply and demand in South Africa.

Report co-authors Adrian Schofield, production consultant at the IITPSA, and Professor Barry Dwolatzky, Director of the JCSE, said in releasing their findings: “The surprising finding is that there are no surprising findings! The survey shows that the ICT industry has coped well in these disruptive times without needing to change much or re-invent itself. ICT companies and ICT professionals have coped well with new working conditions. They have not needed to scurry around hunting for new technologies and skill sets. Everything required for the “new normal” was already in place.”

Almost 60% of employer respondents felt that the pandemic had not affected skills availability, and overall respondent sentiment about the impact of work from home arrangements was positive. Employees have adapted to work from home, and many companies report an improvement in productivity, saying this model would likely remain in place in the long term.

Dwolatzky said: “If there’s any profession that should lend itself well to making digital transformation of the workplace possible and dealing with it comfortably, it is the ICT community. It is interesting to speculate that a ‘job’ has changed – where it was once attendance at a workplace for a number of hours a day, people working from home now need to be managed in a very different way and jobs no longer mean attendance by numbers of hours a day, but rather completing a collection of tasks or ‘gigs’. This raises the question of whether the ‘Gig Economy’ becomes possible. One of the things we probed was whether we are beginning to see the emergence of a ‘Gig Economy’. The conclusion is that this is not happening.” (Read: Skills survey finds SA ICT not moving to gig economy - yet)

However, he noted: “It’s still early days in terms of the changes we’ve seen since 2019, and the next few years may see new trends emerging.”

Skills Survey reveals most in-demand IT skills

Reported in the latest MICT SETA Sector Skills Plan, the top occupations with hard to fill vacancies in the MICT sector are Software Developers, Computer Network Technicians, Developer Programmers, ICT Communications Assistants, Computer Network & Systems Engineers, ICT Security Specialists, ICT Systems Analysts and Web Technicians.

The same report indicated the programming languages most in demand were found to be .NET, C#, C++, Java and VB, with a decline in demand for people to maintain legacy systems, such as COBOL developers.  The report noted that many companies were adopting the agile project management methodology, resulting in scrum masters being in demand. However, there are very few people in the country that have certified qualifications to work with the method.  The Survey report listed Java, Python, Javascript, C# and PHP as the top five languages.

The report noted that while the MICT sector includes over 30,000 companies, more than half of ICT practitioners work in other non-MICT sectors.

According to the report, the top occupations with hard to fill vacancies in the MICT sector (and the quantity needed) were:

  • Software developer (2 434)
  • Computer Network Technician (1 948)
  • Developer Programmer (823)
  • ICT Communications Assistant (755)
  • Computer Network & Systems Engineer (731)
  • ICT Security Specialist (713)
  • ICT Systems Analyst (676)
  • Web Technician (514)
  • Systems Administrator (405)
  • Programmer Analyst (397)
  • Management Consultant (Business Analyst) (359)
  • Advertising Specialist (224)
  • Telecommunications Network Engineer (164)
  • Database Designer & Administrator (114)

Schofield noted the increase in vacancies since the 2019 report and highlighted the challenge of relating an occupation to the core skills required to carry out the tasks thereof. He emphasised the comparison with the top priority skills listed by employers participating in the survey overall, which were:

  • Information security/cyber security
  • Big data design/ analytics
  • DevOps
  • AI/ML
  • Application development
  • Data management
  • Test automation/performance testing
  • Internet of things
  • Connectivity

Skills gap persists

On the question: is there a digital skills shortage? Schofield said: “Yes, there is and it’s ongoing. From the practitioners’ perspective, the skills gaps are real, measured in thousands locally and millions globally. We are still not seeing sufficient numbers coming through the skills pipeline.”

“The future is still about the foundations: education, getting more people comfortable with STEM subjects, ensuring that people have the aptitude for STEM and ICT subjects, ensuring that people gain practical experience, and we must approach the question of gender equality in the sector much more robustly,” he said.

Schofield noted that Continuing Professional Development would remain critical. “Employers consistently say they need to reskill employees, and vendors must identify competencies that will be replaced so they can also show where practitioners can be moved to new areas. All the practitioners participating in the survey say they want to learn new skills, but they need to know how and where, and how to choose from the menu.”

“Skilling is an investment for employers and practitioners, for long term sustainability. Government’s challenge is the industry’s challenge:  funding the investment required in education and training to support the investments in infrastructure and services. We need to combine thinking and resources in government and industry to ensure these investments are channelled, coordinated and productive.”

Future-proof qualifications

The report noted growing concern among young people about what to study to prepare for 4IR careers. Dwolatzky said: “Learning ‘coding’ seems to have become something of an obsession in recent years. We have also seen a mushrooming of coding academies and “Coding Bootcamps”. I would question whether the mass acquisition of skills in coding and robotics should be our priority in preparing South Africa for 4IR. Coding is hard to master and frustrating if you only learn it superficially.”

His advice for future-proof qualifications was to first strive to complete a university degree – any university degree. “Over the three years of an undergraduate programme you will learn to learn, communicate and sell. With a degree under your belt, learn the foundational skills required in the 4IR-related job you may wish to be doing. These foundational skills can be acquired via a good set of online courses or other alternative learning pathways. But remember that technical skills such as software development require many hours of practice,” he said.

Download the full report.

R70m to transform the ‘Bara Burns Unit’ into a world-class facility

- Wits University

New specialised Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit will treat burn survivors and will create a high-tech skin bank and tissue engineering laboratory in Soweto.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi and Mr Roy McAlphine at the sod-turning ceremony of the new Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit

More than 250 adults and 500 children with severe burns are admitted to the Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital (CHBAH) annually, from Soweto, surrounding areas and the continent, due to the highly specialised service offered by the Burns Unit. However, due to the increasing number of critically ill burn patients who are unable to access essential care, an extension of the facilities and services is urgently required.

To address this problem, a new wing of the Burns Unit, a partnership between Wits University and the CHBAH, will be built thanks to a donation of R70 million from the Roy McAlpine Foundation. This generous contribution will dramatically increase the Unit’s ability to provide quality healthcare to patients, and will advance training and innovation in this particular area of healthcare, for the public good.

The Burns Unit is the only public health, specialised, burns unit located in Gauteng that serves all patients who cannot afford treatment at private facilities. The new building was officially announced at a sod-turning ceremony on 29 September 2021, where ground was broken on the building site in the CHBAH precinct. The Unit will be named the Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit after its benefactor.

Professor Martin Smith, the Head of the Department of Surgery in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits University, says that the CHBAH plays a vital role in the healthcare of communities in Gauteng and its neighbouring provinces, and explains why the new facility is essential: “Burns are unfortunately a common component of our epidemic of trauma.

The Burns Unit is a unique facility that serves as a referral centre for the treatment of severely burned patients. It also provides essential training for all healthcare professionals involved in the complex care of severely burned patients and important evidence to assist in advancing the modern management of patients. This donation will greatly enhance each of these activities and improve access for many more patients. This donation is hugely appreciated by the Department of Surgery and all who work with burn patients.” 

Founded in 1991, the Unit is regarded as the pre-eminent burns treatment facility in Africa and is jointly managed by Wits University and the Gauteng Department of Health, which oversees public hospitals in the province.

Director of the Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit, Professor Adelin Muganza, whose research interests include skin substitutes for burn injuries and new technologies, explains the importance of the donation: “The Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit is the start of realising our dream to establish a Centre of Excellence that will treat more patients and enhance research and training. One of our goals is to have a skin bank and a tissue engineering laboratory where synthetic and skin tissue for wound cover can be developed. This will greatly enhance the Unit’s capacity and also allow for research to be performed to enhance the science and treatment of burns.”

Architectural representation of the new Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit

Architectural representation of the new Wits Roy McAlpine Burns Unit


The donation is the largest ever made by the Roy McAlpine Charitable Foundation, which also bestowed a substantial amount to the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in 2019. The Foundation is invested in health and education and deems these important aspects in promoting equality. “This project is the largest project undertaken to date by the Roy McAlpine Charitable Foundation. The project fulfills one of the stated objectives of its founder, Roy McAlpine, namely the expansion and improvement of health facilities available to the South African public and the training of medical professionals. It also represents an expression of faith by the Foundation in the future of the country during these trying times,” says Jamie Ingils, Chairman of the Foundation.

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal,says: “We are grateful to Mr Roy McAlpine and the Charitable Foundation for this contribution that will undoubtedly save lives, advance healthcare and innovation on the continent, and benefit humanity. This is a major project for Wits in the lead up to our centenary in 2022, which demonstrates the value of public-private partnerships with academia, and we look forward to opening it in the near future.” 

The Acting CEO of the CHBAH, Dr Stephen Mankupane adds his gratitude to the Foundation: “The CHBAH again expresses its gratitude for the massive support from the Roy McAlpine Foundation. This will help the hospital in its mission to consolidate excellence in the clinical care of patients. This donation helps the hospital in our ambition to remain one of the best in the world.”

Professor Shabir Madhi, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Vaccinology at Wits also welcomed the donation.

“We are delighted to embark on this partnership with the Roy McAlpine Charitable Foundation and the Gauteng Department of Health. This donation represents a substantial commitment to furthering the cause of quality healthcare for all, and will provide the much needed access to resources that so many of the Province’s most vulnerable citizens deserve,” said Madhi.

The Roy McAlpine Burns Unit at CHBAH demonstrates the importance of goodwill and philanthropy in improving society. Wits University as an institution with a history steeped in advancing the public good is working on a number of public-private partnerships in health that has the potential to transform the lives of South Africans. The trajectory of Wits University, which celebrates its Centenary in 2022, is tied to the success of South Africa, the continent and her people.