He said in the last decade, of the 11 A-rated mathematicians in the country, only three were South African doctoral students, and the rest were from outside the country.
Prof Nongxa, a former Dean of the Faculty of Natural Sciences at UWC, delivered a keynote address titled, The Unity of Mathematics, at the launch of the Science Research Chair in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics [held by Professor David Holgate], under the theme, Topology for Tomorrow, last week.
He encouraged students to take studying deeper mathematics as a serious challenge and need for South Africa, and that is what the research chair is aiming to do – to pursue research in topology and ensure that more students believe that they can study fundamental mathematics, make meaningful contributions and ensure that the country maintains a pipeline of good mathematicians.
Describing himself as a “lobbyist and a salesperson”, Prof Nongxa said that in addition to the three A-rated topologists between 2011 and 2020, there were only three B-rated topologists, seven C-rated, and only one person was deemed to be a promising topologist by the National Research Foundation (NRF).
“I found that depressing. When you say in this important field there is only one person who is promising. What about the others? All people doing topology must be deemed promising by this instrument that we are envisioning.”
According to Prof Nongxa, it would appear that the South African University system is incapable of producing significant numbers of graduates who become leading research mathematicians.
“The point I’m trying to make, which has made me unpopular among certain members of the top leadership in South Africa, is our education seems not to be producing enough of us people who go on and become internationally recognised. And probably it has something to do with the fact that we expect people to be research mathematicians after only four years of studying mathematics combined with other subjects they have to do to graduate.”
Prof Nongxa suggested that the country should consider adopting the North American style where, once students finish their undergraduate studies, they would go to a graduate school where they would be exposed to a whole range of fundamental areas of, in this case, mathematics. The United Kingdom has moved towards that direction, he added. “They are very good in terms of depth. There are disciplines where you need a broad exposure in various areas.”
Prof Nongxa, who is also the Vice-President of the International Mathematical Union, said the list of prize winners in Mathematics is mainly comprised of older people and that they would like to see some of the young academics and students in that list in future.
At the event, students spoke about what makes them excited about the subjects, how Mathematics is helping them in their workspaces, and presented on future activities that the Science Research Chair in Mathematics and Applied Mathematics would be hosting.