Mbeki's new National Orders conferred on UCT achievers

17 March 2003

Dr Saunders

Prof Beighton

FOUR outstanding South Africans with UCT links were among 28 South Africans and foreign nationals who received new National Orders in Pretoria in December last year. The awards recognised their excellence, exceptional achievements and distinguished service.

The new honours, which were presented for the first time by President Thabo Mbeki at the Union Buildings, bear distinctly South African names: the Order of Mapungubwe, the Order of the Baobab and the Order of the Companion of OR Tambo.

The National Orders signal a new era in heraldry in South Africa after the country's democratic transition. In 1998 the President's Advisory Council on National Orders was asked to review the old system of national honours and awards. A technical committee embarked on an extensive process to establish the new symbols, the process following the raising of the new South African flag in 1994 and the unveiling of a new coat of arms in 2000.

Former vice-chancellor and current President of Convocation, Dr Stuart Saunders, received the Order of the Baobab in the Silver category. The honour is awarded to South African citizens for distinguished service that is deemed to be “well above and beyond the ordinary call of duty”, especially in the development of democracy, human rights, nation building, peace and security, business, medicine, science and technical innovation.

Two UCT academics and a former UCT staff member received the Order of Mapungubwe, awarded to South African citizens for excellence and exceptional achievement on the international stage: Emeritus Professor Peter Beighton and former UCT staff member Hamilton Naki received the Order in the Bronze category, while the late Professor Allan Cormack, a Nobel laureate, was awarded the Order in the Gold category.

Saunders, who qualified as a doctor at UCT in 1953, and who later headed the University's medical school (1971 1980), was vice-chancellor from 1981 to 1996. It was during this time of political upheaval that he oversaw the unprecedented increase in the enrolment of black students at UCT. He also served on the national working group established by the Minister of Education, Professor Kader Asmal, to examine the structure of higher education. Saunders still serves as a consultant physician at Groote Schuur Hospital and is a specialist in liver disease.

Commenting on the award, Saunders said: “The award ceremony was very impressive. A great deal of attention was paid to detail in the ceremony and the new National Orders were well launched. They are appropriately named as symbols of Africa and beautifully designed and executed. I think the whole affair made one feel very proud to be a South African.”

A former head of the Department of Human Genetics, Beighton was honoured for his outstanding work and achievement as a scientist and for his research into inherited skeletal disorders. He is still active at UCT as a genetic consultant.

A UCT retiree, Naki was selected for his remarkable efforts to educate himself, rising from a humble gardener at the University to a surgical and anaesthetic research assistant at UCT when Professor Chris Barnard began to further his research in open-heart and cardio-pulmonary bypass surgery.

A UCT graduate and former staff member, Cormack has been described as a “modest genius”. The nuclear physicist was joint-winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology for his work in developing the powerful computerised axial tomography (CAT) scanning system. It was for the latter work that he was honoured.

Also among the awardees were five UCT honorary graduates, including the late Sir Basil Schonland, founding president of the CSIR (Doctor of Science, 1945); businessman Sam Motsuenyane (Doctor of Economic Studies 1986); former president Nelson Mandela (Doctor of Laws 1990); the late Professor Friedel Sellschop, a nuclear physicist (Doctor of Science 1995); and former first Chief Justice of South Africa, the late Ismail Mahomed (Doctor of Laws 1999). Mandela received the Order of the Mapungubwe (Platinum), as did Schonland (Gold). Motsuenyane, Mahomed and Sellschop were all awarded the Order of the Baobab (Gold).

The list also included several UCT alumni, including Adele Searll (Order of the Baobab, Bronze) for her work in establishing drug counselling services, and Ian Haggie (Order of the Baobab, Silver), for establishing Primary Health Care Clinics.

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