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Five 2020 Firsts From UWC: Innovation To Change The World

The University of the Western Cape is no stranger to the power of innovation - UWC has had many amazing firsts over the years. It was the first university to be declared Africa’s Greenest Campus, and the first historically disadvantaged university in SA to host a Centre of Excellence. UWC gave South Africa its first hydrogen-powered forklift (and more), first solar-powered ISP owned and run by a rural cooperative and first forensic DNA lab kit.

Last year, COVID-19 disrupted all facets of our lives - including higher education. UWC wasn’t content to rest on its laurels and let the pandemic disrupt our 60th anniversary celebrations - we believe in continuous learning and improvement, after all. 

“2020 was a difficult year - but also a year where we all learned a lot about ourselves,” said Professor Tyrone Pretorius. “And what we’ve learned is that UWC is so much more than a bunch of buildings where students go to listen to lecturers. UWC is world-class researchers investigating everything from astrophysics to food security to visual history. UWC is creative students and staff who’ve developed brilliant apps, built successful businesses or written bestselling books. And UWC is an idea - the idea that we can move from hope to action through knowledge.”

For UWC, every challenge - even a global pandemic - is an opportunity to find an innovative solution.  

In 2020, with a whole bunch of challenges to solve, UWC brought South Africa several fantastic firsts, in a wide variety of fields - such as...



1. Teaching With Tech - Virtual Labs, Real Results: Many students leave high school without any real laboratory experience - and it can be hard for them to catch up. UWC’s Faculty of Natural Sciences, with the help of the Centre for Innovative Education & Communication Technologies (CIECT) has found a way to level the playing field, by pioneering a partnership with Learning Science UK to provide students with access to virtual laboratory pre-pracs - the first programme of its kind in South Africa, and an award-winning success at that. The interactive material focuses on laboratory techniques with the aim of better-preparing students entering undergraduate practical laboratories, reducing time in lab - and the inevitable waste of reagents and breakages of equipment that comes with it. And that’s just one of the ways UWC has been exploring a wide variety of techniques and technologies to make teaching and learning simpler, faster and more effective.



2. Celebrating Good Times - Virtual Graduation: Graduation is one of those Big Moments - not only for hardworking students (and long-suffering lecturers), but also for their family and friends who supported them along the way. So when COVID-19 struck and lockdown was declared as graduation season began, it looked like thousands of students would have no way to celebrate. Luckily, UWC made a plan - and became the first university to host a virtual graduation ceremony (it’s a big thing now). At the same time, we continued to prepare the leaders of tomorrow, launching the UWC/Samsung Future Innovation Lab programme for tech, transformation and empowerment, and helping students find their way to careers in the post-COVID world, with UWC Careers Service leading the way.



3. Combatting COVID - Know Your Enemy: When COVID-19 struck, nobody knew what to expect. We didn’t know much about where it came from, what its effect on our health systems would be, or how lockdown measures would affect our economy. So UWC researchers did what they do best, launching investigations into everything COVID-19, from its causes and effects and impact on food security and prisons, to what it meant for schooling and our own mental health. Along the way, UWC’s South African National Bioinformatics Institute helped successfully sequence South Africa’s first SARS-COV-2 genome - a vital step in fighting Covid-19. And UWC researchers teamed up with Stellenbosch University to isolate and grow South Africa’s first SARS CoV-2 laboratory culture, providing samples for researchers' COVID-19 experiments...all while we educated communities and joined the front lines.



4. Books - Bigger And Better Than Ever: 2020 was a year of webinars, and Zoom chats, and remote everything. But it was also a year of books - and for UWC, a year of using the former to celebrate the latter. The Madibaland World Literary Festival, a partnership between UWC and Book Town Richmond, was the first truly global online book festival - and the world’s largest online book festival (and SA’s biggest ever book fest of any kind), bringing together travel writers, foodies, novelists, poets, journalists and more from around the globe to celebrate our connectedness through literature in the face of challenging times. It was also a lot of fun. And of course, UWC students, staff and alumni continued to write books of their own. The university even started several digi-mags. And hey, did you know that UWC (virtually) launched its very own publishing outfit, UWC Press? True story.



5. Science For All South Africans: South Africa is a country of 11 national languages – but nine of these languages don’t have an advanced scientific vocabulary. So to make science more relatable to more South Africans, three innovative women lecturers in the departments of Information Systems (Prof. Mmaki Jantjies), Chemistry (Prof. Fanelwa Ajayi) and African Language Studies (Dr Sebolelo Mokapela) teamed up to translate Chemistry into isiXhosa. Their multidisciplinary research project not only allows students to learn the Periodic Table in isiXhosa, but also to use Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality to view virtual elements in their real environment. This initiative also contributes towards the intellectualisation of isiXhosa. What else would you expect from the University that‘s also responsible for South Africa’s first tri-lingual creative writing programme, and a bunch of other mother tongue related innovations? Education for all - that’s the UWC way.  


And that’s just a small sample of UWC’s incredible innovations. Know of any other UWC firsts you’d like to share? Why not let us know at