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Rector and Vice-Chancellor's 2019 Year End Message

As the year draws to a close, I am reminded how privileged we are to be associated with a campus community where there is a real sense of our strengths and accomplishments (Prof T. Pretorius)

(Published - 6 December 2019)

As the year draws to a close, I am reminded how privileged we are to be associated with a campus community where there is a real sense of our strengths and accomplishments. There is an even greater consciousness that some matters of high impact and strategic significance – both for our University and society at large – require urgent attention to move us to fulfil our vision of creating a vibrant intellectual environment even faster.

Tragic events have the potential to tear communities apart or, in the case of the untimely death of our first-year student, Ms Jesse Hess, to unite people around a common cause. Her murder in early September brought home with shocking clarity the prevalence of gender-based violence in South Africa. At the memorial service in the Main Hall that was attended by Ms Hess’s family, the campus was united in its grief. Her death ignited a sense of urgency that we should ensure the University is as prepared as possible to deal with incidences of gender-based violence, as well as ensure that the campus is a safe place for all who study and work here.

The matter of student safety and gender-based violence is receiving attention at multiple levels in the University. Deans and Executive members have committed to exploring different forms of engagement to increase awareness and to develop and implement strategies to increase students’ and staff’s sense of safety. These include the addition of related matters in the formal curriculum, co-curricular activities and staff training programmes, discussions at formal and informal staff meetings, safe walks and improved lighting, accompanying students at night between the library and residences, and the possible use of panic buttons on customised mobile applications, among others.

It is pleasing that Professor Pamela Dube, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support, has been appointed to the Department of Higher Education and Training’s Ministerial Task Team that will advise Minster Dr Blade Nzimande and his department on issues relating to sexual harassment and gender-based violence at South African universities. Prof Dube was a key member of the task team that undertook the writing and implementation of the University’s Sexual Violence Policy in 2018. UWC was also one of only three universities in South Africa to benefit from the recent visit of the Duchess of Sussex through the awarding of gender grants. The University’s Gender Equity Unit along with the Universities of Stellenbosch and Johannesburg received a grant to fund projects at the institutions. The Unit’s director, Dr Mary Hames, said the grant would be used to review existing policies to ensure that they are gender inclusive and non-discriminatory. The same will be done for researchers and their research projects to ensure that they are non-discriminatory and gender inclusive.

Also during this period, three dear colleagues passed away. We remember Mr Chester Williams, the iconic Rugby World Cup winning former Springbok and our head coach of rugby, who served this university with distinction and was at the forefront of leading the UWC rugby team from the Varsity Shield tournament to Varsity Cup. Prof David Sanders, the founding director of the School of Public Health, was celebrated as having been a champion, pioneer and an ambassador for human rights and social justice in the healthcare arena. The University also mourned the death of Mr Valentino van de Heyde, who worked in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and was a valuable member of our staff.

Student governance fulfils an important function of giving voice to the entire student body. We extend our appreciation to the outgoing SRC and wish to congratulate the new SRC President, Sasha-Lee Danielle Douglas, her leadership team and the Central House Committee, and trust that both structures will find meaningful ways to serve the best interests of the University and its students.

The campus has been a hub of creative endeavours, with the UWC Creates week that saw a combination of academic staff and community organisations participating in a series of events. The Department of Xhosa celebrated the work of renowned scholar and Xhosa literature pioneer, Prof AC Jordan, with Prof Wandile Kuse delivering the second Annual Pioneers of Xhosa Public Lecture.

The volume ‘Ambivalent: Photography & Visibility in African History’, edited by Prof Patricia Hayes (SARChI Chair in Visual History and Theory) and Gary Minkley, is scheduled for release soon. It represents a new generation of young African scholars working in visual history – a field heavily dominated by Euro-American scholarship. As one reviewer put it, the book “promises to be a game-changer”.

The Faculty of Law’s annual Dean’s Distinguished Lecture was the highlight of its 40-year celebrations, under the theme “From Bush to Bench”. The main aim of the event was to celebrate the successes of law alumni as an inspiration to current law students and to encourage alumni to see themselves not only as having belonged to the faculty in the past, but also as being a part of its future. The keynote speaker and alumnus, Judge Mohamed Navsa, emphasised the importance of fulfilling the promises of South Africa’s Constitution.

We are pleased that, once again, our academic staff have been recognised at the annual Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (Heltasa) awards. Dr Koni Benson, a lecturer from UWC’s Faculty of Arts, was awarded Heltasa’s Excellent Teacher Award while Dr Honji Conana and Dr Deon Solomons of UWC’s Maths Turnaround team received commendations for their successful maths intervention project. Past UWC winners include Prof Vivian Bozalek, Profs Bassey Antia and Charlyn Dyers and Dr Bradley Rink.

Our research endeavours continue to gain traction. In March of 2019, the South African Bioinformatics Institute (SANBI) formed part of an international group of experts exploring global efforts through the establishment of the Public Health Alliance for Genomic Epidemiology (PHA4GE) to help develop consensus standards and best practices. PHA4GE has already begun to take some critical formative steps with the establishment of technical resources, an organisational charter, a code of conduct and five domain-focused technical working groups. Activities for the first two years will be funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to the value of $800 000. This initiative has significant implications for UWC’s future academic sustainability by bringing DNA data analytics to the public health space that is traditionally focused on social determinants of health. In response, an integrated approach offers tremendous opportunity to take a one-health approach to consider social, environmental as well as genetic aspects of addressing health issues.

The National Research Foundation (NRF) has awarded a R35-million grant for the Hydrogen and Real-time eXperiment (HIRAX) Phase 2. The project, of which the University is one of six participating South African institutions, is a planned radio telescope that will sit alongside the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) in the Karoo and will map nearly all of the southern sky. The award heralds an important milestone in UWC’s involvement in the Square Kilometre Array and HIRAX projects.

Our research innovation has been recognised at the first jointly held Innovation Bridge and Science Forum South Africa from 4 to 6 December, with the University being invited to exhibit four products that have been developed by our researchers, including:
* the low-cost internet access to rural areas called the Zenzeleni network, developed by the Computer Science department, that previously won an award at Innovation Bridge;
* the mobile app SignSupport that bridges the information and communication gap between the deaf and the hearing in their preferred language;
* the UNIQTYPER® forensic DNA kit which is a faster and more cost-effective than leading commercial products for processing sexual assault DNA evidence;
* iBATECH, a biofertiliser that improves overall plant health and harvest yield; and,
* Baobab LIMS, an African-led innovation that is an affordable sample and laboratory management tool for biobanking for low- and middle-income countries.

Notably, Dr Fanelwa Ajayi, senior Lecturer in Physical Chemistry, was one of two recipients of the 2019 National Research Foundation Emerging Researcher (or Early Career) Award. She received the award for her ground-breaking work at the University’s SensorLab in the field of TB/HIV drugs metabolism enzyme electroactive sensor development and green nanotechnology.

“Academia is important, but so is the need for more academics to engage with the community at large, and to educate others about what they do,” Dr Ajayi reminds us. “We need to continuously encourage the youth about the importance of education and how that can be used to solve their immediate issues.”

As a University, we continue engaging existing private accommodation providers while we are pursuing new partnerships to increase available bed spaces for 2020. The Private Accommodation Sub-Committee, as a multi stakeholder forum, has been revitalised to ensure that all shortlisted service providers meet the policy requirements as set out in the Student Accommodation Norms and Standards Guideline Document. This is to ensure that learning objectives are not compromised.

We remain ready to engage funders, particularly NSFAS, on critical funding decisions for 2020, and this would require an integrated institutional approach that emphasises improved service focus. Some of our sports teams have already qualified for Varsity Sport participation in 2020. Thus far, we have qualified for netball, 7s rugby, basketball and athletics, as well as participation in rugby’s Varsity Cup. The qualifiers for cricket and football will be played at University Sport South Africa (USSA) tournaments to be held this month.

We are very proud to have won bids to host the USSA 7s Rugby National Championship in September 2020 and the University Sport South Africa Netball National Championship in December 2020. Our UWC Director of Sport Administration, Mr Mandla Gagayi, has been elected as the first vice-president of USSA. Mr Gagayi has served on USSA structures in different capacities since 2005 and will occupy his new position on the national executive committee until 2022.

The UWC Moot Team, comprising third-year-law students Amanda Mpedi and Kirsten Lemaine Davids, represented the University at the Annual Child Law Moot Court competition that focuses on child rights. Winning first prize during the final round of the competition, held at the North Gauteng High Court, Mpedi and Davids argued before a full bench comprising Acting Justice Jody Kollapen, Deputy Judge President Aubrey Ledwaba and Judge Brenda Neurkircher. Jessie Brand, Janke Jacobs, Anake Cuperus, Marié Coetzee, Leschen Marx and Tayla Malherbe won the undergraduate competition at the International Association of Dental Research (IADR) South African Division meeting in Pretoria, with Dr Godfrey Maronga winning the first prize in the post-graduate competition.

In our last Graduate Exit Survey, UWC graduates expressed a very high level of satisfaction with the University and their qualification worth. Graduate readiness for the world of work is fundamental at UWC. Some 80% of graduates reported either being employed or studying further. Graduates feel prepared for the work environment and feel they have strong soft-skills to support them in the dynamic working environment. It is increasingly apparent that a greater emphasis on ICT skills would be beneficial throughout the student journey.

Our students are acutely aware of their responsibility to be active citizens. As Lelethu Nogwavu, a UWC student named one of South Africa’s Top 10 Finest Students during the recent GradStar Awards, notes: “I feel like there’s a reason I was born here and in this particular time – a time when Africa and the world are crying out for good leaders who are going to lead us out of the challenges we are currently faced with. I realise that I have a duty to contribute in this and play a role in the development of this beautiful continent of ours.”

At the recent South African Graduate Employers Association awards ceremony held on 6 November 2019, our Career Services earned 3rd position in the category of Best Work Readiness Initiative, behind the Universities of Pretoria and Cape Town in first and second place respectively.

The administration of the Culture Survey was successfully completed and the overall staff participation and response rate was 49.5%. It is also important that further engagement is held with other University stakeholders such as the student community in order for our shared values to be taken up in the Institutional Operating Plan (IOP) process. We anticipate that the revised values statement will feed into the new IOP’s value statement.

The University managed to maintain its position in the Times Higher Education’s (THE) 2020 World University Ranking list of the top 1000 research-intensive universities. Locally, it continues to hold its joint 5th position with two other South African universities in the 601-800 band. While we are not driven by global rankings, we are making steady progress in areas of our core business. It is reassuring to know that our constant effort to improve our academic offerings is yielding positive results, and we take note of our position in the various ranking tables such as THE, the QS World University Rankings and the THE Emerging Economies. We also note that our academic staff regularly receive recognition – both locally and internationally.

The University’s reputation is growing positively in the hearts and minds of the public and our stakeholders. In September, our Media, Marketing and Communications office generated the second highest amount of coverage of all 26 Universities in South Africa – the overwhelming majority of which was positive coverage about our research, sport success and student endeavours.

With South Africa’s Rugby World Cup victory still fresh in our minds, it is worth noting our Springbok/South African Rugby Union connections and the successes of our alumni and former colleagues. Former UWC player, Herschel Jantjies, was part of the World Cup squad and nominated as a finalist in the World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year. Alumni Tobie Titus and Ilhaam Groenewald, former director of sport administration, are both executive council members of the South African Rugby Union, while alumni Dr Tanushree Pillay and Rene Naylor served as physiotherapists for the Springbok squad.

The University continues to develop its campus and is intent on spreading its footprint as an anchor institution in Cape Town. Among the infrastructure projects in the works and in various stages of completion are the Transhex building that UWC recently acquired, building High-Performance (HP) Sport capabilities, the Greatmore building project in Woodstock for humanities research, and repurposing the old Herbarium to house a Research and Development Academy.

The launch of the Borehole Purification Plant in September has brought a measure of self-sufficiency to the University in terms of water usage with 500 000 ℓ/d of drinking water being produced. This amounts to 25% of our extractable capacity. It means that 60% of our daily use is fed directly into UWC’s water reticulation system while the balance (40%) is drawn from the municipal water supply. In 2017, the first boreholes were sunk and construction of the plant began in August 2018, and was completed in March 2019. The world-class, state-of-the-art facility is among the first of its kind at a university in South Africa and DHET officials have expressed an interest in replicating the system at other institutions located in water-scarce regions.

As we look to a challenging 2020 and the final year of the Institutional Operating Plan 2016-2020, it is good to see how many initiatives we are pursuing under the current plan. In addition to reflecting on the implementation of the current initiatives, we are also preparing to develop the next Institutional Operating Plan for the period 2021-2025.

Next year, we celebrate 60 years of our University. It will allow us to critically reflect on our development trajectory and achievements over the past six decades. While we will celebrate with festivities, it is important that we use the significant milestone to amplify the University’s work as a research-led teaching institution that differentiates itself on the three pillars of work-readiness for its graduates, community engagement and social justice. These three pillars form part of the DNA of UWC and it is the base from which we build towards Vision 2030, in alignment with our country’s National Development Plan. We look forward to marking the occasion with our students, staff, alumni and all our stakeholders in a meaningful way.

I will be away on sabbatical from 1 February to 31 July 2020. From 1 February to 30 April 2020, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, Professor Vivienne Lawack, will be acting rector; from 1 May to 30 June, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, Professor Jose Frantz, will be acting rector; and from 1 July to 31 July 2020, our Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Student Development and Support, Professor Pamela Dube, will be acting rector.

Lastly, I wish to thank all students and staff for their contributions in making 2019 a memorable year of achievement and success. I wish you a peaceful, joyous and safe festive season with loved ones. We look forward to your return in our milestone year – reinvigorated and ready for the challenges the new year will bring.

Prof Tyrone Pretorius
Rector and Vice-Chancellor
University of the Western Cape​

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