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Dirk Knoesen - 50 Years Of UWC And Scientific Excellence

Author: Nicklaus Kruger

Over the last 50 years UWC has changed a lot. One thing hasn’t changed -  the inspirational input of Prof Dirk Knoesen.

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(Published - 3 June 2019)

“The University of the Western Cape became what is it is now because change was in our blood. We didn’t have a long tradition of how things had been done in the past to rely on; we had to find our own way. And what a way it’s been!” said Professor Dirk Knoesen.

He should know better than anyone because he is celebrating fifty years of stellar service at the University. He began his career as a lecturer in 1969 when UWC was known as the University College of the Western Cape.

“The only road to campus was past the old Bellville station, and the only buildings were the old Science block, the old Library and Arts building, all the dark-red government brick buildings that still are around,” he recalls. “Beyond the old Senate building, there was nothing but bush.”

Today there are state-of-the art buildings like the Computational and Mathematical Sciences Centre and the Life Sciences and Physics buildings (the last of which Knoesen played a role in developing), a Cape Flats Nature Reserve with hundreds of interesting inhabitants, and a student hostel. And these are just the physical features of the University.

“Over the last fifty years the University also changed from the intended training facility for teachers to one of South Africa’s top universities, boasting excellence in its output and outreach, contributing academically in countless important ways - and recognised as one of the leading Physics institutions in the world.”

Of course, Prof Knoesen played a large role in that.

As a professor in UWC’s Department of Physics, he oversaw the construction of a top Electron Microscope facility at UWC. And as a respected researcher in Condensed Matter Physics, Materials Science and Solid State Physics, and head of the National Nanoscience Post Graduate Teaching and Training Platform, he has provided strong leadership particularly in thin films development into better electronic materials to use in electronic devices with a variety of applications (like building solar cells).

“With this research direction you create previously non-existing thin film materials by slowly and carefully growing them under your own design and conditions to have specific physical properties,” he explains. “Eventually obtaining a material with superior properties than has been developed before is a gratifying experience. Going down the next road to develop nanomaterial where you can design and control the properties to be exactly as you want, is even better.”

Applying these materials to solar cells is a long-time aim, to develop devices that can efficiently convert sunlight into electricity, the ideal renewable energy source.

On the teaching side, Prof Knoesen has watched the University as it developed into an institution that served those deemed unfit for other universities, for a variety of reasons, from financial challenges to poor basic education and more, and helped them achieve great successes.

It’s been a rewarding experience.

“I love lecturing and training and working with young adults and students of all kinds. Their energy and optimism are probably what kept my own mind young and active all these years,” he says. “If you are going into the academic world, you are working with the most dynamic and complex system ever existing: namely people - and especially young people!”

UWC's front gate, taken in 1994, when the Physics Department presented the 40th South African Institute of Physics conference - the first first time a so-called Black university presented the conference and also the first time internationals were in attendance.

A Long Way From Louisvale: Dirk Knoesen’s Journey With UWC

Dirk Knoesen was born in Louisvale, near Upington, to parents who proved a powerful educational influence. His father was a teacher who taught everything from bookkeeping to languages to maths at farm schools and larger town schools, before ending up at Vredendal High, where Dirk would eventually attend school. His mother was a nursing sister in the hospital, who started a Noodhulpliga (Afrikaans First Aid branch) branch at Vredendal, where Dirk was often used for teaching models.

After matric, he did the required year of military training at the Air Force Gymnasium in Pretoria, and then went to Stellenbosch University to do a BSc in Physics and Maths, followed by an Honours in Physics. After that, his chief concern was paying back his student loans, and helping his family out, so he took up a new lectureship at the University College of the Western Cape (UCWC) in March 1969. His personal life also helped with the choice.

“I met this beautiful woman whom I did not want to lose, so I married Marie in 1970 - so next year will be our 50th anniversary!” he smiles. “We have three children, and now also have four grandchildren - and it’s been wonderful.”

Since there were no research facilities at that time on campus, he had to register for postgraduate studies at either the University of Cape Town or Stellenbosch University. He registered and completed his MSc part-time at Stellenbosch University. He then started with a part time doctorate in 1974, again at SU, doing his research over weekends and after hours in Stellenbosch.

“Initially my work at UWC was a way to continue my studies and work to pay off my study loans.  As lecturing progressed I became seriously concerned about the students and their development, and I got involved in training school teachers in science and math - and ultimately I became involved with the politics.”

At UWC, that was almost unavoidable - especially as it developed into a home of the intellectual struggle against apartheid.

“I just could not avoid getting affected by riots and police on campus, student’s disruptions of classes, students and staff issues and the consequences of that on the communities outside the campus. I remember police grabbing students by their necks and pushing them towards the gate, frequently hitting them with their sticks and laughing at us. How can you be left unaffected by that?”

Dirk had a good relationship with the legendary Professor Jakes Gerwel, long before he became UWC’s Rector, and stood with him several times while police were running amok on campus (he still has three empty tear gas cylinders from when he was gassed out of his office).

“I couldn’t change the outside world except through my work, but on campus we were building a society free of any discriminatory rules and practices,” he says proudly. “During difficult times outside, the campus was like a haven of human compassion and understanding.”

Dirk and some of his fellow UWC staff in the mid-1980s (on the site of the current EMS Faculty building). Back row (left to right): Eric Taylor, Roderick Julies, Robert Lindsay, Mervin Mehl and Cedric Linder. Front row (from left): Edmund Zingu, Ieks van Heerden, Theuns van Schalkwyk, Dirk Knoesen and Johannes Cronje.

Healthy Body, Healthy Mind: Dirk Beyond UWC

Nowadays Prof Knoesen can frequently be found travelling or camping, especially out in the wild, and he used to be a keen mountaineer as well, when he was younger (he’s been on every mountain in the Cape Peninsula area several times over).

“Sometimes you need to take a break and just be yourself,” says the 74-year-old. “Spending a few hours to reach a mountain top and view the world around you from there gives a relaxing satisfaction. The peace and quiet up there is phenomenal; you can hear people and activities going on far below you in the plains and valleys, while still relaxing far away from interference.”

That’s far from the only words of wisdom he has to share with future generations of world leaders, though.

“What can an old prof pass onto the youth that they do not already know?” he asks - and answers. “I would guess to be the best you can be; you have it all in you; just focus and concentrate and persevere to reach your dreams. Aim as high as possible - so even if you don’t quite reach your final destination, you would still have reached levels way above the crowd.”​​​​

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