Dr Melinda Suchard (BSc 1997, MBBCh 2000; DipTM&H 2004, MMed 2008), Head of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, wrote for The Conversation about why it’s been so hard to eradicate polio.
Professor Miles Markus (BA Hons 1999) wrote for The Conversation about why malaria recurs.
Dr Nilesh Patel (MBBCh 1992) is currently a Harvard South Africa Fellowship Program Fellow. He intends to use the opportunity to learn more about systems and processes that make healthcare more accessible, affordable and sustainable.
Several Witsies were featured in The Young Independents Top 100 of 2018 list of “disruptors” and “influencers”:
Motlatsi Motseoile (LLB 2013) – creating positive images of the African LGBTI community
Emilia Malavoloneque (LLB 2015) – supporting investment in Angola
Puleng Molebatsi (BADA 2011) – shifting perceptions of albinism
Rebone Masemola (BA 2012, BA Hons 2013, MA 2014) – giving young women a voice
Actress Gina Shmukler (BADA 1993, MA 2013) spoke to Sarafina Magazine about her career and her role in Aunty Merle: The Musical.
Paul van Zyl (BA 1992, LLB 1997), Founder of the International Center for Transitional Justice, has been appointed Creative Director of The Conduit club in London. The Conduit is described as “a home for a diverse community of people passionate about social change”.
Bradley Wattrus (BSc 2010, BSc Hons 2011) is one of the group of friends who founded Yoco, a card payment system for small businesses.
Rapper dentist Dr Alexander Rawhani (BDS 2010, MSc Dent 2016), aka “Dr Smile”, was one of Bona magazine’s “Champion Men”.
Books by Witsies
Chartered accountant Jesmane Boggenpoel (BCom 1995, BAcc 1996), a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and a Harvard Mason Fellow, has written about understanding her identity as a Coloured South African: My Blood Divides and Unites.
Urban planner Tanya Zack (BSc T&RP 1986, PhD 2007) and photographer Mark Lewis have produced S’Kop, one of the books in the series Wake up this is Joburg. It’s about the informal meat butchering trade.
Jeff Fisher (BSc 1958, BSc Hons 1958, MSc 1960, GDipEng 1965) is the author of Words on Paper: Reflections of an Incurable Collector.
Forty years on, the bridge is solid
- Colin Little
Civil Engineering Class of 1978 – 40 Year Reunion Dinner
The final year Wits Civil Engineering class of 1978 was one of the largest to graduate. Following on from a 30 year class reunion in 2008 at the Sunnyside Hotel, a regular watering hole back in the day, an organising committee coalesced miraculously in mid-2018 and set about putting together the 40 year version.
Group photo caption:
Front: Dave Spooner, Leon Furstenburg, Danny Martinho, Paul Carlisle, Colin Little, Chris Zweigenthal
Rear: Peter Legg, Patrick Jardine, Kevin Spence, Ian Weir, Gary Theodosiou, Ian Robertson, Mike Brett, Anthony Poorter, Dr Irvin Luker, Keith Small, George Jamieson, Prof Akpofure Taigbenu, Tony Purchase, Wally Mayne, Paul Hillen, John Drennan, Sandow Emmerich
The committee decided on a more formal reunion in the form of a dinner to which the Head of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Professor Akpofure Taigbenu, would be invited. Close scrutiny of the class photo and faculty members revealed that Dr. Irvin Luker, who had the misfortune to have to deal with the rowdy class of 1978, was still on the faculty and was duly invited. Both eagerly accepted.
The dinner was held at the Johannesburg Country Club on 17 November 2018, with 22 of the 67 graduates attending.
Classmates coming from as far afield as Hawaii and UK made it all the more special.
The formal proceedings began with Tony Purchase welcoming the class and guests of honour to the dinner. Mention was made of the great turmoil the country, and indeed Wits University, was experiencing in the mid-70s.
In reply, Prof. Taigbenu spoke with great enthusiasm of the faculty of 2018. He mentioned the increased class sizes after some lean years with over 1000 under- and post-grads, of which a third are female. He also noted the wider scope of civil engineering. In 1978 structures dominated the curriculum whereas today the scope has broadened to include more environmental and hydrology aspects. Dr. Luker remembered our era with great fondness and gave insight into the dynamics of today’s classroom.
Wally Mayne, head of Contractual Affairs at CESA, gave a realistic and hard-hitting overview of the profession – and those who had stayed in the profession agreed that civil engineers need to stand up and be counted, and get paid what they are worth.
Kevin Spence, the Class Rep, then reminded the class how successful they had been in their many diverse careers and called back the past with memories of our graduation dinner at the Old Edwardians Club. In particular, the bail-out we got from the Dean in 1978, Prof. Geoff Blight, who had a small reserve fund to cater for damages.
In closing Paul Hillen paid tribute to class mates who had passed away and a toast was drunk to their memory; Zen Dama, Seth Nkosi and Ronnie Philpott were all well remembered. We also toasted those absent, and vowed to keep in touch.
A small profit was made on the event and it was unanimously agreed to donate the surplus to the Endowment Fund of the School.
Window into the world’s early days
South Africa’s newest UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains, is a place of geological superlatives. Our understanding of why this is so, and the fact that the area is now protected from uncontrolled development, are due largely to the work of Wits University researchers and alumni. This is where we can see some of the world’s oldest rocks and signs of life, beautifully preserved, providing insight into the evolution of the early earth.
Hundreds of papers and several books on the area have appeared over the last 60 years, largely authored by Wits geoscience researchers.
The close association between Wits and the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains began in 1957 when the Economic Geology Research Unit (EGRU; later EGRI) was established under the late Professor Des Pretorius, focusing on gold mineralisation. Researchers in this field have included Ned Poole, Carl Anhaeusser, Morris Viljoen, Nick Gay, Richard Viljoen, Rudolf Saager, Mike Wuth, Chris Roering and Trevor Pearton.
Many other lines of research developed over the years and were carried out through international projects, among them the Upper Mantle Project (from the early 1960s) and the International Geodynamics Project (from the late 1960s).
The Viljoens’ mapping of the Komati River valley, in the southern part of the Barberton Mountains, revealed a remarkably well preserved succession of rocks which were unlike any other volcanic rock that had been described at that time. The rocks’ very high magnesium content and distinctive texture put them in a new class of their own, and they are now recognised as an important part of the story of the early earth. They are found in the oldest segments of all the continents. Known as komatiites, they were formed when lava crystallised at a much higher temperature than other lavas, and they are associated with nickel and gold deposits. The Viljoens jointly received the Lindgren Award of the Society of Economic Geologists in America in 1979 for the discovery of komatiite.
The exceptional preservation of the rocks of the Barberton Mountains attracted worldwide attention in the mid to late 1960s. In 1967 Prof. Preston E Cloud Jnr from the University of California, Santa Barbara and Dr Keith Kvenvolden, a geoscientist from NASA, were introduced to the area by the Viljoens. Signs of organic material representing primitive life forms were identified in black carbonaceous, silica rich sediments (cherts). Since that time researchers, mainly from the USA and Europe, have carried out numerous studies on these ancient sediments, many of which are sandwiched between komatiitic lava flows. Abundant evidence of microbial communities akin to present day cyanobacteria and algae have been described. It is surmised that there could well be an important link between the ultra-magnesium rich nature of the earth’s oldest komatiitic oceanic crust and the early life forms producing magnesium-based chlorophyll. The process of photosynthesis of the earliest life forms produced the first free oxygen in the oceans.
Wits geoscientists were also heavily involved in the South African contribution to the International Geodynamics Programme, which took place mainly during the 1970s. The main aim of the programme was to obtain an understanding of the early crustal evolution of southern Africa. Outstanding contributions were made by Wits’ Carl Anhaeusser and Laurence Robb, complemented by the studies of Dave van Nierop. Other Wits geoscientists who were involved in the Geodynamics project from time to time included Jay Barton, Rod Fripp, Maarten de Wit and Ian Stanistreet.
Sedimentary rocks interlayered between komatiite lava flows have yielded important clues as to the evolution of the early earth. Studies by Ken Eriksson established how some of the sediments were laid down in a tidal setting at a time when the moon was far closer to the earth than at present.
Uwe Reimold described evidence for the oldest known meteorite impacts on the planet and Carl Anhaeusser described stromatolites formed in an environment dominated by hot spring emissions and evaporite brines.
Many of the significant sedimentary features can be seen on the recently established Makhonjwa Geotrail which traverses the Barberton Mountains. Visitors can see bands of rock rich in iron oxides formed when the planet got its first taste of free oxygen. The earliest life, microbial mats preserved as black carbonaceous slivers, is visible along the trail. Excellent interpretive plaques and a guidebook by Tony Ferrar and Christoph Heubeck provide a superb overview.
Carl Anhaeusser, who succeeded Prof. Pretorius as Director of EGRU and spent many years carrying out research in the area, suggested that parts of the Barberton Mountain Land needed protection and should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He provided a list of 300 sites together with descriptions and motivations.
Tony Ferrar, an environmentalist and tour guide, and Dion Brandt, a Wits geology PhD graduate, drove the preparation of the application to UNESCO. Besides the geology, other components such as cultural heritage, fauna, flora and existing protected sites such as nature reserves and conservancies were incorporated into the application.
The World Heritage Site was proclaimed in June 2018 – and Wits researchers continue to work on understanding more about this global treasure.
The Viljoens have a passion for geoheritage and geotourism, helping people to understand the influence of geological features on nature and on human activity. Their efforts include leading walks in the Kruger Park (a book is in production) and producing explanatory material about the Vredefort Dome for visitors to Parys.
The 50th anniversary of the discovery of komatiite and the recent establishment of the World Heritage Site will be celebrated in August 2019 with a geoheritage trip to Barberton, organised by the Geological Society of South Africa.
[To see picture captions, place cursor over images.]
A book by Witsie Jeff Fisher (BSc 1958, BSc Hons 1958, MSc 1960, GDE 1965)
Words on Paper: Reflections of an Incurable Collector
by Jeff Fisher
Tracey McDonald Publishers, 2017
“This book is about a collection of handwritten original letters, antique documents, manuscripts, old share certificates, fire insurance policies, photographs and maps,” writes Jeff Fisher in the introduction to his book Words on Paper. It’s “a book of stories about letters, and letters that tell stories”, to be enjoyed by readers who “like true stories about real people, are intrigued by serendipity, curious about curiosities”.
Fisher, a physical chemist by training and a businessman through life’s twists and turns, has been a collector of these sorts of papers ever since he was a young man working in London in 1965. When he returned to South Africa in 1967 he began to haunt the Johannesburg dealers Thorold’s, Bakker and Collectors Treasury. By 1978, he was involved part-time in the diamond industry, while also working as an insurance consultant. He started collecting material related to the history of gold and diamonds – such as a letter from Cecil John Rhodes which reveals his ambitions. His collection of share certificates includes one for the South Sea Company (established 1711), of stock market bubble infamy.
The Internet has made it much easier to research the context of items, thus adding to the fascination of his pursuit. Eventually Fisher started cataloguing his collection so as to help his heirs one day, and the result is this book.
The fun part, he says, is the quest for authenticity of an item, such as a lock of Lord Nelson’s hair. Collecting also tends to result in serendipitous meetings and unexpected friendships. A reader of this book gets a sense of the excitement and joy not of owning a valuable document but of making connections and discoveries. The people behind the documents – such as the hairdresser turned highwayman, the polar explorer, Charles Dickens, Neil Armstrong, Thomas Edison, Olympic athletes and many more – lead the imagination down all sorts of paths, which sometimes cross. One of the letters is from Wits’ first Principal, Jan Hofmeyr, to Oliver Schreiner, dated 1939 – replying to a letter that’s in Wits’ Historical Papers Archives.
“My collection has taken me on adventures never dreamed of,” says Fisher, “finding such riches for the spirit and the mind as to make me want to share my strange wanderings in this book.”
The physical book, a 384-page hardcover edition, is as beautiful as you’d expect from a connoisseur of documents. The images are so clearly reproduced, with a 3D effect, it’s like having the originals in front of you. The design of the pages and the well edited, conversational style of the writing make the book easy to enjoy, either in bites or in a binge-read. In the age of email, it reminds us of the slow pleasures of stationery – as well as the wonderful, infinite world online.
Fisher registered at Wits in 1953, at the age of 16, and stayed in Dalrymple House. “After a rather dismal start … I enjoyed six glorious years of university life,” he writes. He was on the SRC, the All Sports Council and the Rag committee, and chaired the Athletics Club.
Nobody is the Other
A book by Witsie Jesmane Boggenpoel (BCom 1995, BAcc 1996)
My Blood Divides and Unites
by Jesmane Boggenpoel
Released internationally on 8 January 2019
South Africa needs a second phase of truth and reconciliation. This is the view of Jesmane Boggenpoel, a chartered accountant by training who has recently published a book about the benefits of coming to terms with apparently conflicting identities and histories.
Somehow she approaches the subject in a gentle way that sees divisions and pain and power struggles but looks beyond them to freedom and peace – personal or interpersonal.
“I am a proud and complete mixed-race woman whose genes represent a panoply of colours, of hues and shades, pastels and psychedelics, blended together to produce the beautiful mosaic of humanity that is me,” she writes in the introduction to My Blood Divides and Unites. But this pride took time to develop.
Brought up in the tough neighbourhood of Westbury in Johannesburg, which wasn’t a strong enabling environment for someone to stand out from the crowd academically, she nevertheless had the family support that helped her onto a path towards success.
Arriving at Wits, she was initially disappointed to find relatively few fellow Coloured students, but she made friends with all kinds of people. “I broadened my horizons but did not develop a keener sense of what it meant to be Coloured and felt even more cut off from my roots.”
A successful business career unfolded for Boggenpoel, including a Master’s degree from Harvard University’s JFK School of Government, being honoured as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and subsequently working for the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.
In her mid-30s, while she was building her career, her curiosity about her mixed-race identity started to awaken. In 2016 she took a DNA test and was surprised – and emotionally moved – by the results. What she learned about herself as a mixture of people from far-flung parts of the world and opposite sides of conflicts allowed her to reframe her narrative. She was able to “kick aside the apartheid-imposed tale of nothingness and shame, and to replace it with a rich heritage. … Wherever I travel, whoever I meet, I feel a kinship. No-one is the ‘other’ for me…”
In her book she writes: “I came to realise that being of mixed race meant that there was much beauty and value in my blood and in my past, an infinite variety of people and cultures, languages and customs, heroes and villains, oppressors and people who have been oppressed. I realised that my blood told the story of my past, of my nation’s past, and in many respects of humanity’s past. I discovered that in my blood was the means to finally and truly understand who I was … and to draw tremendous hope and sustenance from doing so.”
She tackled the apparent contradictions that she embodied, and found peace.
“The issues I grappled with are universal, which is why I believe the same process can be equally helpful to individuals, groups and nations as they struggle to build inclusive, harmonious and prosperous futures for themselves and their constituent parts.”
She calls on people to listen to each other and try to understand the pain that drives others to anger and violence. She further calls on corporates to set aside budgets to help staff deal with residual pain from the trauma of apartheid or other racial wounds.
Ignoring or covering up historical experiences like slavery in South Africa has contributed to a lack of empathy for the Coloured community in the struggle with gangs and drugs, she notes.
“Lack of reconciliation is a festering sore that hampers the social, economic, and other advances needed to propel South Africa into a prosperous, harmonious future.”
At the launch of her book, Boggenpoel explained that she wanted to inspire others from disadvantaged communities. She also wanted readers from other countries to be able to understand the South African concepts and context that she discusses. And she wanted her story to play a global role in uniting and healing people.
Asked by fellow Witsie author Fred Khumalo at the launch about her take on the notion of Coloured identity, she replied that she wouldn’t presume to speak for all Coloured people, and that everyone should be given the freedom to work out their own identity. As a student at Wits in the early 1990s, she identified more with her Black roots, but for the purpose of expressing her unique upbringing in the book, she used the term Coloured.
The book also includes international perspectives which are so often lacking from South African discussions. It records interviews with people from Mexico, Rwanda, Nepal and other countries.
South Africa is still healing from apartheid, Boggenpoel argues, and its pain manifests as anger, often with a racial dimension. Another root cause of conflict, she suggests, is “fear of lack” (i.e. a fear of not having).
“We need to be intentional about creating an environment in which to build social capital – a second phase of truth and reconciliation. We should focus on forming an emotional connection with each other through the telling of stories.”
Reframing of stories can be applied to any group that feels marginalised or threatened, she says, and can empower them to move on from places of tension and hopelessness.
Michael Jennions, Biologist, BSc 1990, BSc Hons 1992, MSc 1993. Location: Australia
Michael Jennions is a professor at the Research School of Biology and leader of the Jennions Group in Behavioural and Reproductive Ecology at the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra. His story of world research and travel begins with a frog condom he designed during his Master’s at Wits.
He explains the condom was used on male foam-nest frogs during research in Mkhuze Game Reserve in northern KwaZulu-Natal. “I look back in wonder that we were working at night in an area full of rhino, armed only with torches and enthusiasm.”
The male foam-nest frogs appeared to be cooperating in the frenzied building of the foam nests, whereas evolutionary theory suggests that unrelated males generally don’t cooperate; they compete to get access to the female. Michael wanted to find out if the foam-nest frog was a rare, sexually cooperative male. So he fashioned a condom from a plastic sandwich bag and slipped it between the female and the male jockeying her to stop him from shedding sperm and fertilising her eggs. Yet the eggs still got fertilised.
“What we discovered is that every time the female releases eggs she churns her legs to whip up the foam. At this exact moment, all the males in the vicinity swivel their bodies to move their groins closer to the female’s cloaca, whipping up more foam in the jostle. And so, while the jockeying male is in ‘pole position’, the others are right there, opportunistically increasing their chances of fertilising the eggs as they are released. Their foam-whipping simply creates the illusion that they are helping.”
Since then, Michael’s research and presentations on the reproduction and sexual selection behaviour of frogs, crabs, fish, insects and mammals have taken him all over the world, including Mozambique, Tanzania, Japan, Australia, Panama, the UK, Spain, New Zealand and China.
Deservedly so, as he is an exceptional scholar. He was the recipient of the Wits Chancellor’s Medal for the most distinguished graduate across all faculties in 1990 and was then selected as a Rhodes Scholar to Oxford University, where he did his doctorate from 1992 to 1996 on “Signalling and Sexual Selection in Animals and Plants”. The man should have his own TV show; we could all learn from him. It certainly worked for him as he and Pat Backwell (BSc 1983, BSc Hons 1984, PhD 1991), an equally illustrious scientist (they met at Wits), married in 1996. She, too, is a professor at ANU, and leader of the Backwell Group in the Behavioural Ecology of Fiddler Crabs.
She and Michael work in the same research area and in the first year of their marriage fiddlers and cichlids took them to the Smithsonian Tropical Research Station in the forests of Panama until 2001. Michael elaborates: “We lived in a small settlement here called Gamboa, halfway between the Pacific and Caribbean, with a rainforest on our back doorstep, full of wildlife – sloths, toucans, tamarin monkeys, howler monkeys, opossums, capybaras … it was amazing.”
He adds that they were “pretty broke” when they got there and lived on a very tight budget, eating a basic local diet, mainly beans, rice and plantains, and living in a dilapidated “weird old colonial-style plantation house on stilts with a massive hole in the floor in the bathroom. You had to remember it was there or you risked falling through it in the middle of the night.”
Okinawa in Japan was next on their research travels. “We were in the far north in a village called Motobu. Okinawa is famous for its sweet pork, made into a broth with noodles, and we ate lots of this. The people live to be very old here; many are over 100. Possibly it’s the sweet pork or their ice cream made of red beans, which is really good.”
In 2001 they moved to Canberra. The trusty fiddlers have afforded them several outings from there, including trips to Mozambique and Zanzibar.
They also spent a year in Berlin, where Michael got a fellowship to the Institute for Advanced Study at Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. “While there, between writing papers, I decided to do a crazy project: to walk all the streets in Berlin inside the Ringbahn – the 37.5km long railway line around the city – and to map my walk.
“It took me about nine months and I covered 2000km because I zigzagged back and forth. I would colour in the section I had walked each day on the map with a pink fluorescent pen. It appealed to me as quite a systematic person, and it was like a bit of performance art. I got to know the city and it was really fun.”
Michael describes Canberra as “an easy place to live in. It’s peaceful and pristine, with embassies and film festivals. Because most of the people are middle class it doesn’t have the vibrancy of Berlin or Johannesburg. If everyday living is consistently easy you lose track of time and the years pass.”
Michael and Pat enjoy the odd sortie to the local Polish club, The White Eagle. “They do delicious Polish dumplings or pierogi, and the décor is all orange and brown and 70s or vaguely East European and comfortably tasteless. I like this because so much of Australia is so super cool and hipster,” says Michael.
Come vacation time, they head for South Africa or Europe. “I miss the wildlife, natural beauty and the people and diversity of South Africa. I am pleased to see that my South African colleagues are also doing well. Would I come back? Of course, but that’s just nostalgia talking, it’s not on the cards.” Unless, of course, the local fiddlers irresistibly wave and call!
Alumni in the news
Roundup of Witsie news and views for February 2019
University of Melbourne Emeritus Professor Harold Luntz (BA 1956, LLB 1959), who was a Senior Lecturer in the Wits Law School from 1962 to 1965, has been made an Officer of the Order of Australia. This is in recognition of his “distinguished service to legal education, as an academic and editor, to professional development, and to the community”.
Engineering alumni Adam Pantanowitz, Rushil Daya and Michael Dukes are co-authors of a paper under review for publication in the journal Communications in Information Systems, describing research into connecting two computers through the human brain.
Education Professor Emerita Hilary Janks (BA 1970, BA Hons 1971, PDipEd 1972, BA Hons 1987, MA 1989) recently became the first recipient of the Literacy Association of South Africa’s Significant Contribution to Literacy Award. In this article, she shares her teaching journey, and what excites and troubles her about SA education.
Senior lecturer Dr Fiona Horne wrote for The Conversation about teaching languages at university.
Claire Johnston (BA 1990) spoke to Channel 24 about 30 years of singing with Mango Groove.
In this video, Judi Sandrock (BSc 1987) speaks about the MEDO SPACE programme and its impact on girls studying science, technology, engineering and maths at school.
Lufuno Mbau (BSc Eng 2018) has designed a sensor that gives smallholder farmers information about soil conditions. He and his business partner won grant funding to take the project further.
Beverley Butkow (Silverman) (BCom 1989, BAcc 1991) made a career switch from accounting to fine art. She told City Press about her new line of work.
Shaking up the old patterns
Deakin University Vice-Chancellor Jane den Hollander reflects on academic leadership, the university student experience and what she learnt at Wits
When you’re a proud Witsie, it feels good to point to other Witsies’ achievements. That’s why Dawn Joseph, who teaches music at Deakin University in Australia, alerted Alumni Relations to the inspiring career story of Deakin Vice-Chancellor Jane den Hollander(formerly Carragher), saying she “has made a huge impact and difference to the university during her term of office”.
Professor den Hollander is a Witsie trained in zoology, specifically cell biology (BSc 1975, BSc Hons 1976, MSc 1977). She obtained her PhD from the University of Wales in Cardiff with assistance from the Wits Fantham Memorial Scholarship, and was Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Curtin University in Western Australia before joining Deakin. Having served two terms as Vice-Chancellor of Deakin, starting in July 2010, she is due to retire in June 2019.
Deakin University credits den Hollander with leadership in “harnessing the power, opportunity and reach of new and emerging technologies” in higher education. In 2017 she received an Order of Australia for her distinguished service to tertiary education.
During her time at Deakin, the university has improved its rankings in the AWRU system to 211th in the world and has been number one for graduate learning satisfaction in Victoria for eight successive years, a rare accolade. The University has excelled at the digital frontier, with its growing Cloud campus now attracting 25% of its 60 000 students. The Australia Export Award in 2018 (unusual for a university to win) recognised Deakin’s international partnerships and the university’s innovation in digital learning technologies has attracted numerous national and global awards. Deakin has prospered over the past decade.
Professor den Hollander told one interviewer that a highlight of her career had been “the privilege of working with clever, focused people who work with good intent to make a difference in whatever they do”. One of the things she had learned as a leader was that “your demeanour is as important as what you say or write. Being optimistic, interested and accessible are also essential.”
Her advice to her younger self would be: “Stress less and don’t waste time worrying what everyone else thinks about you. Do not hesitate to grab the opportunities when the chance presents itself. Always remember where you came from and what you stand for—so be humble and grateful and get that education under your belt.”
Prof den Hollander was born in Zambia. Her father was a gold miner and her family was living in Carletonville when she became the first of them to enrol at university. She says she had few ambitions other than to get away from Carletonville and see the world. “Wits became that world for a formative part of my life.”
“I went into the great all-girls residence called Sunnyside (in the days before the grand expansion). There were lots of fabulous students, some very wealthy, who were privately educated, people who would have come from very different backgrounds to my own,” she told International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education in an interview. “Of course, it was quite fabulous getting into the social life of Jo’burg, the time of my life, as it is for most young students who leave home, go to the city and meet people who have different views from their own. But I was as poor as a church mouse. … My first semester was a real challenge, just getting to understand what a university was about, not having any familiarity and knowing absolutely no-one.”
After a “blur” of a first year at Wits, she said, early in her second year she encountered a study unit (cell physiology) which she suddenly understood, thanks to her favourite teacher of all time, Professor Emeritus Barry Fabian, who showed her what might be possible. “He represented the best of education and what I learnt there I have used all my life: pay attention to detail, ask questions and have fun while you are doing it. He was the mentor to generations of biologists. I was fortunate to learn from him.”
Yet she is hesitant to draw on her own first-year experience too much now. “What you can draw on is, I think, the experience of the unknown, of how one deals with the unknown, and making sure that we start to diminish ignorance or explain those parts of the university that might be foreign or different to other people.”
“I was at Wits during the peak of the apartheid era and that experience and dark shadow has informed who I am to this day. I believe in democracy, in access and inclusion and in the right of everyone to participate and be heard. I learnt from my experiences at Wits and now am intolerant of exclusion. As a consequence I have pretty much altered the student experience at Deakin so that our students are ‘true north’. All Deakin staff understand that educating the next generation is our core purpose, and they do it brilliantly – number one for learning satisfaction in our State for the last eight years so far is the badge of honour for the work we have done.”
Owning your idea
Reflecting on what she has learnt in her career, she recommends that you “own your idea and speak up for it”. “Try to be inclusive and not to judge others too much. You never know where the best idea is going to come from. Always work in teams. And everybody should fail at something at least once. Learn from it and move on.”
You don’t have to learn everything you need in a hurry at a young age, especially as people are living longer now. “I wonder why we rush everything so much. We need to be more flexible about how people leave and continuously come back to their learning and how we make it accessible to people at different stages of their own life as we go forward. I think universities will be very different places in another generation and that’s a good thing.”
Still plenty to do
These days, she says, “my major interests are all about disruption and ensuring diversity and advantage for everyone. How do we educate students in a digital, hyper-connected world of artificial intelligence and smart machines? Can we use data analytics and smart personalisation techniques to enable better targeted learning, ‘just for you and what you need’? Universities are no longer the owners of knowledge and Google is now the routine go-to for every question, so the value that universities add to the world must be reconsidered and delivered differently.
“My other interest is to look at research translation, most particularly in the advanced manufacturing and health spaces.
“These are the things, alongside the mentoring of women, that I will focus on when I retire later this year.
“I reflect now that Wits was a glorious moment in time for me as a young, curious woman in a divided country. I left with a broadened view of the world and a well trained mind. That is what universities do and I hope we continue to do that for generations to come.”
About Dawn Joseph:
Dawn Joseph (HDE 1987, BMus 1989, BEd 1991, MEd 1995) is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University. She also has a PhD from the University of Pretoria. She taught music at Roedean and St John’s schools and moved to Australia in 2000. “On my first day I found work looking through a newspaper” – teaching keyboard at five schools for a term. She then started at Deakin as a music lecturer and has worked her way up the academic ladder at the university.
“It is strange how the mind works,” writes Dawn. “Sometimes I slip up and say I am off to Wits when I mean Deakin! I guess I spent many years there; my dad did his BEd at Wits; my uncle studied for a BA in the early 60s at Wits before he moved to the UK to do Dentistry; my brothers also started their studies at Wits and so did my cousin Joanne Joseph (a journalist). So, Wits for me has been and will always be a great institution. It gave me a solid higher education grounding and opened my mind’s eye. I had outstanding lecturers (music and education).”
Clarke, John. (2011). Interview with Jane den Hollander, Vice-Chancellor of Deakin University. The International Journal of the First Year in Higher Education. 2. 10.5204/intjfyhe.v2i1.70.
A person I wish could be alive today
- Denis Hirson
Letter to Wits Review
One person I wish could still be alive today would be turning seventy on May 5th 2019, yet she died at the age of thirty-five under unspeakably terrible circumstances. You can follow her path up to that moment on the internet: from Vice-President of NUSAS in 1972 to a moving force behind the Western Province Workers’ Advice Bureau, founder of the Industrial Aid Society and archivist at the Institute for Race Relations, from arrest in 1976 under Section 6 of the Terrorism Act to the inevitable flight out of South Africa to Botswana after marrying another banned person whom she had no legal right to even meet, ex-political prisoner Marius Schoon.
Not feeling safe there, they moved on to Lubango in northern Angola. That was where Jenny Curtis, as we knew her, was killed along with her six-year old daughter Katryn on 28th June 1984, when, in her own kitchen, she opened the parcel-bomb sent to her by Craig Williamson. Her then three-year old son Fritz, who was also in the kitchen, still lives with the traumatic shock of that moment.
Would anyone on the Wits campus in the repressed yet turbulent, wild-edged atmosphere of the late 1960s and early 1970s have been able to predict that Jenny might lead such a richly engaged life, with such a violently abrupt end? And though she was already an activist on campus, how many of us could have guessed at the political resolve and utter determination behind her shy smile and quiet words, always caring, rarely speaking of herself before inquiring about others?
I did not know Jenny well enough. But the Curtis home in Johannesburg, where she grew up alongside her brother Neville – a much appreciated NUSAS president who died at no more than 60 years old in 2007 – was a place so many including myself enjoyed for its warm and easy hospitality and convivial parties. I will take a glass from a table there and raise it now to Jenny, making the sharply bitter-sweet wish that those who knew her then, and throughout her life, might celebrate the day she turns three score years and ten.
Denis Hirson, Paris
Alumni get a special introduction to book art
Select Wits alumni were invited to meet Jack Ginsberg at the opening of his collection of book art at the Wits Art Museum
A special alumni event was held on 27 March 2019 to showcase the new Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts at WAM, presented by Jack Ginsberg himself, who gave personal insights into the collection and spoke about the highlights of his collecting journey.
The event was conceived as an exclusive and intimate opportunity to acknowledge alumni who have contributed to Wits in some way. (See photos here.)
A triangular book; a movable book; a round book; a glass book; a metre wide pop-up book; a 10 metre long folding book. These are a few of Ginsberg’s favourites in the collection. Artists’ books are artworks in the form of books, rather than books about art.
Art collector and philanthropist Jack Ginsberg (BAcc 1979) began collecting in this field in the early 1970s, almost from the inception of this contemporary art form. He has recently donated his world-renowned collection to Wits Art Museum, to make it accessible to future generations of students and researchers.
The collection is unrivalled in Africa and in the Southern Hemisphere and includes more than 3 000 artworks, plus a unique archive of an additional 3 000 items on the history and development of the book art genre. A dedicated centre has been established at WAM to accommodate the collection.
Professor Ivor Sarakinsky supplied a welcome note of humour at an elections-themed alumni networking event on 11 April 2019 when he quoted Groucho Marx’s definition of politics: “the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies”.
The Wits School of Governance professor was in conversation with Lumkile Mondi of the Wits School of Economic and Business Sciences at the Wits Club. Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, also of the Wits School of Governance, was the facilitator. All three are regular public commentators on the South African political and economic landscape.
The discussion provided some well-informed views of the upcoming national election and what kinds of challenges would remain or emerge afterwards.
Alumni and guests used question time to raise issues such as the prospect of coalitions, representation of the youth, and the difference between rural and urban voters.
“There’s lots of noise [from political parties] and little attempt to persuade voters through evidence,” said Sarakinsky. “This is not a bad thing.” He said election noise was a useful way of ventilating people’s emotions and showing those in office what people were thinking and feeling. A calm pre-election mood would be a problem, he said. South Africa should be proud of the Independent Electoral Commission, he added; the country’s election processes are robust enough to deal with issues after the results are out, unlike countries where faulty processes are often blamed and violence follows. In South Africa, the result is incontestable.
Sarakinsky estimated what support the main parties might achieve in the 8 May election and suggested some of the reasons for and possible consequences of this showing.
Mondi retraced developments in the political scene from about 2007, when South Africa’s economy was growing at over 5% a year, benefiting from global cycles and local policies. It then entered a phase during which the state and state-owned enterprises were “hollowed out”, he said. This “radical economic transformation” was really a form of accumulation, Mondi said, and the money accumulated left the country instead of circulating in the South African economy. Corruption is now institutionalised, a normal part of doing business or getting a service, he said. When institutions are ruined, how can redress be achieved? Only organised business appeared to be fighting back. “We’re all on a wing and a prayer, hoping it comes right,” Mondi said, adding that he was disappointed with the silence on corruption from those who speak out about other issues such as decolonisation.
Durban reunion April 2019
The Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Adam Habib, and the Chancellor, Dr Judy Dlamini, met Wits alumni at an event on 3 April 2019 in Durban.
Several alumni received national orders from the Presidency: Benjamin Pogrund (BA Hons 1971), Mathatha Tsedu (BA Hons 2008), Anthony Trew (BA 1963), Yosuf (Joe) Veriava (MBBCh 1968) and Ari Sitas (BA 1978, BA Hons 1979, PhD 1984). The School of Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering’s Professor Thokozani Majozi also received the Order of Mapungubwe in Bronze for his outstanding contribution to science.
Wits lost two eminent alumni in April: Dr Sydney Brenner (BSc 1945, BSc Hons 1946, MBBCh 1951, DSc honoris causa 1972), whom we recently featured in Wits Review, and Professor Lorna Jacklin (MBBCh 1973, MSc Med 1998).
South African Medical Research Council President Professor Glenda Gray (MBBCh 1986) received an honorary doctorate from Rhodes University and Wits Chancellor Dr Judy Dlamini (MBA 1999) was similarly honoured by the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The actor Jerry Mofokeng (BADA 1987) is to receive an honorary degree from the University of the Free State in June.
Professor Mike Belfort (MBBCh 1981) led a team that performed an anaesthetic on a foetus – the first such procedure in Africa – so as to operate on the unborn baby’s spine.
Dr Patrick Deane (BA 1978, BA Hons 1979), currently the President and Vice-Chancellor of McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is to become the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, in July.
Wits Art Museum’s new Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts featured in Wanted magazine. Read more about the special opening event for alumni here.
The new appointments to the SABC board include four Witsies: Marcia Socikwa (BA 1994, BA Hons 1995), Mamodupi Mohlala-Mulaudzi (LLB 1996, LLM 1998), Saths Cooper (BA Hons 1984) and Benjamin Lekalakala (BA 1992, LLB 1994, HDip Company Law 1996).
Charl Bassil (BSc Eng 1994) has been appointed vice-president of global marketing for Absolut vodka.
Sibanye Stillwater CEO Neal Froneman (BSc Eng 1981) spoke on the The Money Show about his attitude to money.
The Financial Mail got to know Bank Zero CEO Yatin Narsai (BSc 1987, BSc Hons 1989) better in a Q&A.
Trends shaping 2019 and beyond
Strategist Abdullah Verachia was the guest speaker at an alumni networking event on 25 June 2019
Almost 100 Witsies braved a cold evening to hear global strategist and Wits Master of Management graduate Abdullah Verachia, the guest speaker at a Wits alumni networking event on 25 June 2019 at the Wits Club. His topic was disruption, especially what it means for Africa’s future.
All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership. – economist JK Galbraith
Starting with this quotation, Verachia spoke about how the public discourse in South Africa was dominated by the media. The daily headlines can be an overwhelming source of anxiety, but we should think about society beyond the headlines: the way global events and trends ripple out and affect people and places that are not in the media. What’s happening to China’s economy, for example, has consequences for every South African.
And global context is relevant for every country. South Africa has its challenges but is actually punching above its weight in many important ways, including freedom of the press.
It’s a hypercompetitive, data-driven world and people’s expectations are changing, he said. Consumers demand simple, user-friendly experiences which are made possible by complex information. But what this supposedly technological revolution also needs, Verachia said, is people who understand the human element. The things that cannot be digitised become more valuable in this world. He urged us to put technology aside sometimes, talk to people who are different from us, be optimistic, travel, try new things, be curious, and think about our impact.
Wits alumni, he said, received a great education and have a responsibility to look beyond the headlines and work hard to make the society they want to live in.
Alumni in the Faculty of Commerce, Law and Management:
Thandeka Ngoma is the marketing head of Bridgestone. She was interviewed by Business Times.
Professor Raymond Wacks (BA 1968, LLB 1969) has published a new book, Protecting Personal Information: The Right to Privacy Reconsidered (Hart Publications, 2019), with Italian lawyer Andrea Monti. Wacks is a leading international authority on privacy.
Steven Collis was ranked 10th in Fortune’s list of top CEOs.
Layve Rabinowitz was promoted to partner at Stonehage Fleming.
Alumni in the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment
Mpumi Zikalala has been appointed MD of De Beers Group Managed Operations in South Africa and Canada.
Neo Hutiri won the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. Read more.
Joseph Muchiri Githiria is Kenya’s first mining engineering PhD graduate.
Alumni in the Faculty of Health Sciences
Dr Alan Richards received a teaching award from his students at the University of Nebraska.
Dr Selma Browde’s role in electrifying Soweto was featured in the SA Jewish Report.
Multitalented dentist Dr Alexander Faizí Rawháni, aka “Dr Smile”, featured in the Roodepoort Record.
Alumni in the Faculty of Humanities
Among the Witsies whose work was on show at various venues were Gina Waldman, William Kentridge and the late Judith Mason. Gordon Froud was artist-in-residence at the Ebenezer Estate in Plettenberg Bay.
Judy Naidoo has a new film about two young Indian boys: Kings of Mulberry Street.
Tanya Farber has written a book about female murderers: Blood on Her Hands.
Marcus Byrne and colleagues continue to discover more about dung beetles.
The International Insurance Society has designated four universities as Global Centers of Insurance Excellence (GCIE) in 2019 — University of Central Arkansas, University of Colorado Denver, Universität Hamburg, and the University of the Witwatersrand. The GCIE certification programme recognises outstanding risk management and insurance programmes that play an integral role in promoting insurance knowledge and research. The GCIE designation is awarded to universities and colleges that meet stringent criteria focused on student qualifications, course offerings, graduate and industry employment rates, as well as professional involvement.
Innovator elected to lead Convocation
Stacey-Lee Bolon is the new President of Convocation as of 1 August 2019
Stacey-Lee Bolon has been elected unopposed as President of Convocation, the statutory body that represents graduates and academic staff in the affairs of the University of the Witwatersrand. She takes office for a four-year term on 1 August 2019.
“I am delighted to be taking on the Role as President of Convocation at Wits – a world-class, research-intensive University that is ranked first or second in Africa in all major global rankings,” she says.
Stacey has been an elected member of the Executive Committee of Convocation since 2011, serving two terms.
The outgoing Acting President of Convocation, Dr Maurice Goodman (MBBCh 1983, MBA 1987), will continue to serve on the Executive Committee of Convocation. Stacey paid tribute to his leadership, saying: “I wish to thank Dr Maurice Goodman, Chief Medical Officer of Discovery Health, for his loyal and distinguished service as Acting President. Maurice has been a long-standing and dedicated member of the Convocation Exco, initially as a representative of the Wits Business School Alumni Association and later as a co-opted appointee based on his expertise and standing in the community. Dr Goodman has a long track record of loyal service to the University, including serving on the University Council. Maurice led the Convocation Executive team through an important time in the education sector where his guidance was always aimed at finding common ground and constructive solutions.”
Stacey is an industrial psychologist and has earned several degrees from Wits: BA in Human Movement Science (2007), BA Hons in General Psychology (2008), BA Hons in Industrial Psychology (2009), and MA in Industrial Psychology (2010).
She is the Innovations Manager for FNB’s Business Banking Division, where she manages a team who are responsible for driving and embedding a culture of innovation at every level of the business. In addition, she is the Managing Director of an education technology startup called Early is Best, which aims to improve access to early childhood education via digital technology and gaming. Stacey is also a Director of Venture Network, a registered non-profit company which powers entrepreneurial networks through startup pitch evenings that connect entrepreneurs and investors.
In her role as President of Convocation, Stacey will lead the executive team of Convocation and will be a member of Council (the governing body of the University). She will work in collaboration with the Chancellor, Dr Judy Dlamini, the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, the Alumni Relations Office and the Development and Fundraising Office in promoting Wits in the run up to the University’s centenary in 2022.
Stacey is passionate about preparing people to participate in the digital economy.
I believe that the state of an education system is a reflection of a country’s ability to succeed. South Africa needs to become the generator of more disruptive thought-leadership and innovation; and I believe this will be done through a shift in mindset by those who set the academic agenda. Wits University has a responsibility to maintain its esteemed reputation through equipping students to produce ground-breaking work and make a positive impact, during their studies and beyond.
The University has an exceptional leadership and management team who are committed to the evolution of our education system. We are on the brink of something great!”
Wits University currently has about 180 000 graduates and is expected to reach 200 000 by its centenary year, 2022.
When a problem is your answer
Entrepreneur Phillipa Geard was the guest speaker at a careers event for Wits students and alumni on 16 July 2019.
Geard is the founder of two innovative recruitment platforms, RecruitMyMom and RecruitAGraduate. She is a passionate marketer whose career experience includes working in a big company as well as consulting to businesses and setting up her own enterprise.
RecruitMyMom meets the need of skilled workers for flexible, part-time employment and the needs of employers. This idea and Geard’s execution of it have won several awards for entrepreneurship. Founded in 2012, the service already has more than 60 000 workers on its platform.
In March 2019, Geard launched RecruitAGraduate, matching graduates and interns with opportunities.
Geard told the audience the story of how she became an “accidental entrepreneur” and shared some of her thoughts about the Fourth Industrial Revolution. (“Be as human as you can – that’s how we beat the machines!”)
First find a problem
Her definition of an entrepreneur is basically someone who identifies a problem that a defined group of people are experiencing, and then fixes it.
She warned that running your own business is “ridiculously hard”, but said the reward is seeing the difference you can make in people’s lives.
Straight after university, Geard was recruited by a large, international company, Procter & Gamble, and she had a successful career as a marketer for its brands. She aimed to become a director and did not think about having her own business. When she decided at the age of 32 to take a career break to have children, she intended to return to corporate life. But as a mother, she found that her feelings about her career had changed completely. She began to consult to companies and realised that small businesses often need to hire good skills on a flexible basis. She also realised that many women want to work – and the economy needs their skills – but they drop out of the workplace and out of the executive pipeline because they need flexibility as mothers.
Match it with a solution
Geard had found her problem and her solution. She researched ways of matching people’s needs online and models for earning revenue. With long hours and hard work, RecruitMyMom came into being. On a small budget, Geard played almost all the business roles herself at first and used all the free marketing opportunities she could find, including business competitions. Measuring impact in terms of visitors to her website gave her the confidence to take more risks and she became an employer and an advertiser.
A speech by President Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018 inspired her to make a difference in the lives of young people, and she created a new recruitment platform to match graduates with smaller companies – the ones that don’t visit graduate recruitment fairs on campus.
Phillipa Geard’s lessons for entrepreneurs:
Successful entrepreneurs are successful problem-solvers.
Don’t follow the crowd: look where the crowd isn’t looking.
Know how to communicate your solution to the people who will use it.
Change is constant. Get comfortable with change.
Be humble. Learn from others who have been where you need to go.
Ask staff and colleagues for help.
Hire people who are smarter than you. That includes young people.
Ethical leadership is the only way to lead. It creates an environment of trust.
Name and share the values that your company stands for. Staff who know how to behave will be empowered to make good decisions.
You work with real people with real feelings. Everyone wants to be heard.
Your staff are your greatest asset.
Businesses are not about transactions; they are about people.
If something doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean the idea is bad, but perhaps the execution isn’t right.
Look after yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually. Spend time with your family, read inspiring things, get some balance.
Adapt and learn things outside your field of study. Don’t see things in silos. Broaden your horizons.
Use all the free material available online and read books. This can make you stand out from the crowd.
Don’t just be employable – look to employ.
Lead by example and don’t be afraid of hard work.
Don’t despise the smallest job or a bad boss. Learn from everything.
As Forbes magazine put it: the difference between an entrepreneur and someone who just runs a business is about being a leader versus a manager. Leaders work ON the system; managers work IN the system.
Johnny Clegg (1953-2019)
The University of the Witwatersrand extends its deepest condolences to the family and friends of the legendary Johnny Clegg, a Wits alumnus and former lecturer, whose life and work illustrate the multiculturalism and social integration that is envisaged in the South African Constitution.
A lifelong friend of Wits, Johnny obtained his Bachelor of Arts (1976) and BA Honours (1977) degrees at Wits University and joined the Wits Social Anthropology Department to pursue an academic career for four years. He wrote several scholarly papers on Zulu music and dance over the years.
A true, brave South African hero has fallen, but his music and art will remain with us and serve as a gift for generations to come.
Jonathan (Johnny) Clegg, OBE OIS, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 66 on the afternoon of 16 July 2019 at his family home in Johannesburg, South Africa.
As a singer, songwriter, dancer, anthropologist and musical activist he showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. He used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us he awakened awareness.
He was born on 7 June 1953 in England and moved to Johannesburg with his mother Muriel, a cabaret and jazz singer, as a child. His stepfather, Dan Pienaar, was a reporter who sometimes took him into the townships.
His exposure to migrant workers (including Charlie Mzila, a cleaner and musician) during adolescence introduced him to Zulu culture and music. In 1971, he was the only white person in South Africa to write Zulu as a matric subject. He remembered his time at Wits as one of being stretched, struggling at first to adapt but eventually excelling and enjoying his studies and campus activities. Later, he enjoyed teaching, seeing it as a kind of performance.
At the age of 17, he and Sipho Mchunu formed their first band, called Juluka. At the age of 33, in 1986, at the height of apartheid, he partnered with Dudu Zulu to form his second inter-racial band, called Savuka. He also recorded several solo albums and enjoyed international success, selling out concerts wherever he performed.
Under apartheid, the bands’ crossover music was subjected to censorship and restrictions on the state-owned radio. Touring brought the bands into conflict with laws forbidding racial mixing in public venues. Many shows were closed down by the police but a substantial following of students and migrant workers developed. Juluka performed at the first Free People’s Concert at Wits in 1971 and at subsequent concerts. One of the organisers recalled seeing the “sheer joy and exuberance” on the faces in the audience.
Johnny received awards from a number of local and international bodies for his contribution to music and society, notably the Knight of Arts and Letters from the French Government in 1991 and the Order of the British Empire in 2015. In 2012 he received the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) from the South African government. He was awarded honorary doctorates by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Dartmouth College in the USA and the City University of New York, as well as Wits University.
He authored the book "UkuBuyisa Isidumbu" (1981, Ravan Press) and presented papers on "The Music of Zulu Immigrant Workers in Johannesburg" in 1981 at the Grahamstown International Library of African Music and "Towards an Understanding of African Dance: The Zulu Isishameni Style" in 1982 at Rhodes University.
Johnny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015 but continued to tour and perform around the world.
He is survived by his wife of 31 years, Jenny, and their sons Jesse and Jaron.
A group of South African musicians recorded one of his songs, The Crossing, as a tribute to him last year. Watch the video: https://youtu.be/WKWEEpA0HkY
Sources: Wits University; Roddy Quin (manager, friend and family spokesman); www.johnnyclegg.com; Wits Review July 2008, Wits Review October 2017
A dynasty of engineers
Three generations of tech Jacobsons serving society
He was dutiful but difficult, brilliant but impatient, sure of his opinions and his direction. At his funeral in 1960, an elder brother was overheard to say: “There goes the man with all the answers.” He was also an “upstart colonial”. What did the top business people in England and America make of this young South African some 80 years ago when he dared to negotiate deals with them?
His son, who hardly knew him as he died tragically young, still wonders.
He was Louis Jacobson, the first of three generations of Jacobsons to pass through the School of Electrical Engineering at Wits. His son David and grandson Sven have also excelled in a changing and challenging world, supplying some answers themselves.
First that world needed raw materials and the power to extract them. Then it needed smarter, more efficient and more adventurous technologies and ways to make sense of information. And it always needs healing.
Pioneer in South African industry
Louis Jacobson, born in 1910 in Johannesburg, was an entrepreneur and an industrial pioneer. In his short life he stood out as a designer of heavy electrical machinery and a builder of major companies that manufactured it.
He graduated from Wits in 1932 with a BSc (Eng) in Electrical and Mechanical Engineering (this was before the term “electronics” had even been coined) and worked for two years at the Victoria Falls Power Company near Johannesburg. This company supplied electricity to industry, including the gold mines. He then founded Alpha Electrical, an electrical motor repair workshop. This became Alpha Harris Pty Ltd, a designer and manufacturer of professional electrical equipment, which grew into the renowned First Electric Corporation of South Africa Ltd (FEC), the first of its kind to be listed on the JSE. FEC made an important contribution to the World War 2 effort, for example by providing equipment for degaussing ships to protect them from magnetic mines. The company became today’s Actom, still a major producer of electro-mechanical equipment at Knights on the East Rand, once Louis’s head office.
In the late 1950s Louis’s entrepreneurial spirit was ready for a new creation: FWJ Electrical Industries Pty Ltd, which he formed and led, in partnership with Carl Fuchs. One of FWJ’s innovative developments was the world’s first earth-leakage protection device for use in the mining industry, greatly reducing deaths and injuries from electrical shocks.
Louis married Edythe Sonnenberg and they made a home in Oaklands, Johannesburg. At the time of Louis’s death from a brain tumour at the age of 49, his son David Harris Jacobson was only 17, in his first year at Wits, and so he never really knew his father in an adult relationship.
Talented and original
From an early age David was interested in electrical and electronic technologies, and he built stereo equipment and radio-controlled model boats. Louis gave him a well-equipped workshop at home to develop these scientific interests. Similarly, his sister Ruth Denise Leveson (née Jacobson, Wits BMus 1959) received a piano to develop her musical talent.
“I served as a lecturer in Electrical Engineering at Wits. It was evident then that David was an extremely bright, talented individual with enormous potential to make significant contributions in his chosen field of endeavour. We became firm friends, despite the fact that, even to this day, he claims (jokingly) that I spoilt his record of achieving first-class passes in all his final-year subjects, except for electrical machines, which I taught at the time.”
David graduated from Wits in 1963 (BSc Eng With Distinction) and married Lynne Yvonne Morris. Accepted for postgraduate studies at five of the world’s top universities, he chose Imperial College in London. There he began exploring a field that was the forerunner of artificial intelligence. No computer was up to the demands of the project and he was forced to abandon it, but that didn’t stifle his innovative spirit. He completed his PhD at Imperial in 1967 under another Witsie, Professor David Mayne (BSc Eng 1951, MSc Eng 1956), who says: “I would rank David as the most original PhD candidate among the many I have supervised.”
Prof Mayne recalls that David read a paper of his on differential dynamic programming and then, “showing characteristic originality, very soon proposed a major new idea: the use of ‘strong variations’ for determining an improved trajectory using optimization to choose an improved control by making large variations in the control over small intervals of time rather than the universal procedure of making small variations over large intervals of time. I did not at the time recognise the value of this proposal and tried to discourage David from proceeding with this line of research. Again, showing characteristic courage, David persevered, soon proved me wrong, and went on to produce a highly successful and revolutionary theory.”
David Jacobson’s thesis, “Differential dynamic programming [DDP] methods for determining optimal control of non-linear systems”, used one of the most powerful computers of the day, the IBM 7090, to develop and test numerous new algorithms. The computational efficiency and range of applications of the algorithms attracted wide attention and use in fields such as aerospace, chemical, mechanical and other branches of engineering, economics, biosciences, robotics, artificial intelligence and dynamic games. For example, DDP was used in calculating optimal low-thrust trajectories for NASA’s Dawn mission to the outer solar system – 37 years after Jacobson and Mayne’s book Differential Dynamic Programming was published.
In 1967 Prof Mayne arranged for Harvard’s Professor Yu-Chi (Larry) Ho to meet David, and this led to an offer of a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard. Professor Ho says:
“The Department of Electrical Engineering of Imperial College and the Engineering and Applied Science Division of Harvard University had a ‘special relationship’ during the second half of the 20th century involving many exchange visits. Mayne introduced me to one of his PhD students, whom he mentioned as especially bright and who was making a breakthrough in the area of Dynamic Programming. I was not disappointed in Mayne’s recommendation and subsequently hired Jacobson to begin at Harvard in 1968 as postdoc and as assistant professor. He was later promoted to Associate Professor. Jacobson was certainly a rising star in the international system control field, with a brilliant publication record and excellent career future.”
They kept in touch for more than 50 years and Prof Ho says he treasures their scientific and personal interactions.
Attracting expertise to Wits
David returned to South Africa in 1972 for family reasons. He joined Wits as an applied maths professor and then moved to the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (1975-1985), where he became deputy president from 1980.
As Director of the CSIR’s National Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (NRIMS, 1975-1980) he maintained the connection with Wits’ Department of Computational and Applied Mathematics as an Honorary Professor. He recruited high-level researchers from other countries to the Institute and placed several of them at Wits, supported by NRIMS funding, to boost capabilities, research, mentoring and publications at both institutions. The stature that this lent Wits and NRIMS attracted many talented mathematicians to South Africa.
Taking his knowledge to the commercial world was the next step. During the period 1985-2000, at the giant Altron industrial group, as main board director, he became well known for his expertise in new product development strategies and in science and technology policy. He established and developed Altron’s Technology Development Programme for innovation in all of the group’s subsidiary companies.
David’s strong interest and capabilities in policy were noted first by the ANC and then by the newly formed Mandela government and he became an advisor to the Minister of Science and Technology. Those were stimulating and important times as the new government was focused on developing incentives and programmes to enhance South Africa’s industrial and scientific advancement and build its reputation on the world scene. David contributed significantly in these tasks.
Serving his profession, David was Chairman of the South African Mathematical Society and President of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers (SAIEE). He introduced new grades of SAIEE membership and criteria which made the institute more accessible to people lacking university degrees. This opened a career path for many people who became a credit to the profession.
David also served on the Wits Council from 1987 to 1997, and on the advisory committee of the then Vice-Chancellor, DJ du Plessis, on computer centre development.
In 2000, David and Lynne relocated to Toronto, Canada. He started there as senior technology advisor at the early-stage venture-capital company Primaxis Technology Ventures, and his versatility and experience soon attracted the attention of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC).
Evan Kelly, then PwC’s technology and telecommunications practice leader, recalls:
“We met for the first time over lunch and he immediately ordered a glass of red wine. I knew then that I was going to like this guy. There were a number of things that impressed me about David right away. Firstly, he had a remarkable ability to understand and explain technology across a whole spectrum of areas. This was truly unique. Typically, you find technologists who understand deeply a limited number of areas. David had the ability to dig in and understand many areas of technology and explain it to technology Muggles. This, combined with a solid understanding of business, made David truly a remarkable find. I hired David into a business development and marketing position, which was very odd within the world of PwC. His job description was to ‘make himself useful’ – and away he went.”
He was appointed Director: Emerging Technologies at the firm and became widely acclaimed for his futurist presentations and advice to early-stage technology-based companies. Known as PwC’s “secret weapon”, he helped the firm to understand emerging technologies and trends ahead of the competition, assess emerging companies as potential clients, access research and information, and open up new business opportunities and relationships through his network.
He amassed great experience in working with inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers, venture capitalists and industry in a range of fields, such as electronics, manufacturing, telecommunications, nanotechnologies, wireless technology, heavy electrical equipment, robotics, cloud computing and social networking of computers.
He has published five technical books and over 100 papers since the PhD thesis that made such an impact in the 1970s and to this day. Prof Mayne says: “An important fundamental contribution in his book Extensions of Linear-Quadratic Control Theory was his introduction of ‘risk sensitive optimal control’; his results triggered a major development in optimal control theory.”
In 2015 David was acknowledged for his 1973 ground-breaking work on risk-sensitive decisions by Nobel economics laureates Lars Peter Hansen and Thomas J Sargent. They said he profoundly influenced the thinking that resulted in their book Uncertainty Within Economic Models. The book is dedicated to David and he is referenced in Hansen’s Nobel Speech Booklet, 2013.
David retired in 2012. He spends some time as an active investor, not a speculator.
He is interested in and reads widely on many topics, among them the origin of the universe, physics, internal medicine, professional medical papers with special emphasis on medications and their side effects, and the varieties of human behaviour. He regards fiction as an important window on human life, and has been known to write poetry. Like his father Louis, he is a determined person, someone who doesn’t give up easily, a problem-solver.
David and Lynne’s daughter Lisa (Jacobson) Hoaken, born in 1967 in the UK, is a distinguished speech pathologist and businesswoman in Toronto. She is a graduate of the University of Cape Town in logopaedics and holds an MA from the University of Toronto. She and her late husband Eric have three daughters and a son.
David and Lynne’s son Sven Martin Jacobson was born in 1969 in Cambridge, Mass., USA but, along with Lisa, grew up mostly in South Africa. Inheriting the family’s scientific and entrepreneurial mindsets, he graduated from Wits in electrical engineering in 1991 and with an MBA in 1995. He worked as a software engineer at Teklogic and then joined the Rennies Group in South Africa, rising to the position of board director of the Travel and Financial Services division, responsible for a diverse portfolio which included IT and account management. He and his wife Sonia (née Learmont; Wits BA 1991 and New York University MA), who has practised as a Licensed Master Social Worker in New York City, moved to Brussels in 1999 and then to New York in 2001. They have two sons.
Sven is a partner at Carrot Capital, a venture capital company in the healthcare industry, and CEO of several companies which he formed with Carrot Capital managing partner David Geliebter. They focus on repurposing old and abandoned pharmaceuticals into new treatments for life-threatening conditions. Remedy Pharmaceuticals, of which Sven is the CEO, developed an innovative drug to treat severe stroke and recently sold it to Massachusetts-based Biogen. At present Sven is focusing on his new venture Martin Pharmaceuticals, which is developing a treatment for acute-on-chronic liver failure.
Though Sven concentrates his efforts in the medical world, he regards his education at Wits in electrical engineering and business as excellent preparation. It enabled him to research and understand the science and technologies of pharmaceuticals, communicate effectively with leading medical researchers worldwide, and create pharmaceutical business ventures aimed at alleviating human suffering. He is another determined problem-solver.
David is delighted to have his “friendly giant” (6 foot 3) son as a role model. He credits Sven with great clarity of thinking, creativity and wisdom. They share an interest in reading, travel, food, movies and, above all, how new concepts are created, emerge, and develop to the benefit of humanity.
Looking back at the future
Many of David’s predictions made during the years 2002-2012 at PricewaterhouseCoopers in his role as “futurist” have come to pass:
the dramatic rise of cloud computing;
the conviction that “ubiquitous participation”, a concept which he introduced, would become commonplace. It has done so, as a consequence of Steve Jobs’ handheld communications platforms, notably the iPod, iPad and iPhone;
the emergence of social networking of machines, over and above that of people. He foresees much more depth and breadth of research and innovation being necessary before such automatically corresponding machines and associated Artificial Intelligence will yield the promise currently circulating in the popular media. Perhaps a task for another generation of Jacobsons or Hoakens?
David hopes to pass on the culture of learning and problem-solving to his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Certainly there will be no shortage of large problems to solve. Perhaps some of the Jacobsons’ work will help the next generation to innovate in space exploration, industry, commerce and healthcare, improve our environment, or even turn the tide on the current wave of autocracy, which is sweeping countries worldwide. The family sees this trend as the most vexing problem of our time.
GR Bozzoli – Forging Ahead, WUP 1997
GR Bozzoli – A VC Remembers, 1995
An eye for investment potential
Curiosity is the quality Jane Levy cites when asked about her successful career in the investment world. That hunger to know is what draws a person into developing expertise and spotting opportunities.
Now a strategic advisor to the Global Innovation Group at the US company Henry Schein, Wits and MIT Sloan alumna Jane (BCom 1991; BCom Hons 1993) also serves as Vice-President of the Wits Fund Inc Board.
“What I have learned from my experience is simple: explore what makes you curious, develop an expertise, turn challenges into opportunities, and consider every opportunity to try something new,” she says. “When you read my story, you’ll see that this strategy has brought me great career satisfaction, even though the path was never direct.”
Jane started her career at JPM Investment Management as a research analyst covering tech stocks. “I was on the buy-side, recommending stocks to the portfolio managers investing on behalf of investors. I researched and modelled hundreds of companies. I learned what makes a company a great investment. And I learned that in tech, a great company is often not determined by the state of its current financial statements.” She became skilled at assessing the size of the market and a company’s likely share of market based on its product roadmap, management team and differentiation.
Then, in 1999, she decided to move to a venture capital fund. “My pitch to Fred Wilson of Flatiron Partners was simple. I had been a programmer, I understood technology, I had the intuition to choose investment winners, and a successful process for valuing small companies.” At Flatiron she evaluated new ventures and recommended those that could grow into big companies.
In 2000, the Internet bubble burst. “Venture investment dried up. Investor and employee net worth were wiped out. JPM Chase took over our portfolio. I was back in a large organization, but not for long.
“I joined Unterberg Towbin Advisors, a technology hedge fund run by Jim Weil. Instead of evaluating and investing in companies for the long run, I learned about trading around a position, managing risk, and what makes a good short position. At a hedge fund, there are fewer restrictions, and many ways to gain or limit exposure to a stock or a sector. Besides the creativity, I loved the profit motive; I had the freedom to structure my exposure and to own/short what I wanted, as long as I made money.
“When Jim retired in 2004, I struck out on my own, raising capital and putting up a shingle for a long-short hedge fund called SEAL Capital, named after my young sons, Sacha and Eli. I was a sole practitioner. I traded the book, raised capital, spoke with investors, and ran the business. It was a glorious time.
“Then came the financial crisis of 2008/2009. I had just turned 40 and I needed a change. I painstakingly called each investor to explain that I was retiring and giving back the capital to stay at home with my children.”
Jane’s openness to new ideas soon led her to investing in startups herself. “I focused on sourcing companies raising capital at the seed stage. Over my ten years as an angel investor, I invested in about ten companies in consumer, health tech, crypto and financial services. I sourced deals and structured the transaction and then once the transaction was closed, helped the company with strategy, advice and introductions.”
Now Jane has a more formal role at Henry Schein, a publicly-traded distributor of medical and dental products. “I work around the edges of the organization, introducing the business units to interesting startups that I’ve sourced. I also help these startups with their strategy and with sourcing talent and capital. I have just scratched the surface of all the amazing innovation in health tech.
“As I look back on my 22-year career, it’s clear that my path was not straight or clearly defined. At times, it was rocky and I couldn’t see the way forward, but I always remained open to new opportunities. I stayed curious, leveraged my expertise, and pursued my interests.”
Her advice to new graduates:
“Take some time to reflect on what motivates you, explore what makes you curious, and envision the life you want to build. Make the most of every day! The opportunities to learn, explore, and connect are endless. This time is truly a gift. Approach it with enthusiasm and connect with a community that will support you in making the kind of impact you want to have on the world.”