President Jacob Zuma has bestowed National Orders on UCT wastewater treatment expert, Professor George Ekama, of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, as well as former political activist and UCT academic, the late Dr Neville Alexander. Three other UCT alumni, former politician Colin Eglin and opera star Pretty Yende and Herbert de la Hunt, were also on the honours list.
The orders are conferred yearly on Freedom Day, April 27, and Zuma said they represent peace, unity and the restoration of human dignity of all South Africans.
The field of wastewater treatment might not be the most glamorous there is, and it is seldom that researchers in this area are given the recognition they deserve. But Ekama was among those to be awarded this, the highest recognition in the land, when Zuma bestowed the Order of Mapungubwe, in silver, on him at a ceremony in Pretoria.
The award was made "for research that has provided innovative solutions to enhancing and improving wastewater treatment and helped South Africa find answers to its water shortage problems".
Alexander, meanwhile, who died on 27 August 2012, was posthumously awarded the Order of Luthuli, in silver. This honour recognises South African citizens who have contributed to the struggle for democracy, nation-building, building democracy and human rights, justice and peace as well as for the resolution of conflict. It was given to Alexander "for his courageous rejection of injustice and his excellent contribution to the struggle against apartheid in striving to ensure equality for all South Africans".
An activist, author and academic, Alexander, who spent ten years on Robben Island, was described by the Cape Times at the time of his death as "a towering figure in South Africa's intellectual landscape".
Initially, Alexander wanted to become a priest, but was advised to register in medicine at the University of Forte Hare, in the Eastern Cape where he grew up. However, he soon found he could not apply as he lacked the mathematics background required, and he decided to do a Bachelor of Arts at UCT instead, majoring in German and history.
Alexander, best known for his role in the struggle for a democratic and non-racial South Africa as well as his scholarly achievements, established the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) in 1992 at UCT.
The Cape Times said of him: "Amid the noise which has come to characterise our political debate, his was a quiet voice; reasoned, steadfast and independent".
He had deep roots in Cape Town and a long and close association with UCT - which did not stop him from disagreeing with the university on the use of race as a criterion for admission.
Ekama, meanwhile, is a civil engineer who is interested in lifting the country's status in the field of wastewater treatment onto the centre stage of the global community. He lives by a simple research credo: "locally inspired, globally relevant". He has held a National Research Foundation (NRF) A1-rating for more than 10 years. The rating recognises him as a world leader in this field.
After qualifying from UCT in civil engineering, he started work on a construction site, but his interest in wastewater treatment was sparked when he met former UCT Professor Gerrit van Rooyen Marais, an expert in the field, who later became his PhD supervisor.
He describes his area of research as "fascinating" and says if you are looking for a biological process that needs to take place before treating water, don't give up: "There are bacteria out there that can do amazing things. You are bound to find one".
Ekama says he is honoured to have been nominated for the award, and it is to the government's credit that it granted the award "for such an unglamorous, yet vital area of research".
Ekama is widely published, with more than 150 papers on wastewater treatment in top international journals and is also highly cited. He is one of only seven South Africans and one of only four South African academics to be listed on ISIHighlyCited, an international website of the most cited academics globally.
Ekama has remained at the forefront of developments in wastewater treatment since the 1970s, primarily through a strong research group. He says he has always been a team player, working with postgraduate students and remaining focused on the research group's strengths. In 25 years under NRF review, he has supervised 43 master's and 24 PhD students.
With his master's and doctoral students, he has twice won the Water Institute of Southern Africa's (WISA) Umgeni Award for the most significant paper on water, as well as the WISA Piet Vosloo Memorial prize for the development of mathematical models for wastewater treatment plant design and operation.
He is a senior fellow of WISA and a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa, UCT and the South African Academy of Engineers.
Eglin and De la Hunt were awarded the Order of the Baobab, which recognises South African citizens who have contributed to community service, business and economy, science, medicine and technological innovation.
Eglin, who graduated from UCT in 1946 and who later went on to become the leader of the then official opposition, the Progressive Federal Party, "for serving the country with excellence and for his dedication and courage in standing up for the principles of equality for all South Africans against the unjust laws of the past.
De la Hunt graduated from UCT with a BA in 1974 and an MSc in applied science in 1994. He was acknowledged for his exceptional, inspirational volunteerism and dedication to community service and youth empowerment within the South African Scout Movement. He has been a key figure within the Scout Movement on a national and international level for decades. At 79 years old, and despite battling cancer, De la Hunt is the chair of the National Scout Council and the driving force behind the revitalisation of the South African Scout Movement.
Yende was given the Order of Ikhamanga, which recognises South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport. She received the award, in silver, "for her excellent achievement and international acclaim in the field of world opera and serving as a role model to aspiring young musicians".
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