National Orders for UCT stalwarts

13 May 2013
George Ekama Neville Alexander
Highest honours in the land: Prof George Ekama, who was awarded the Order of Mapungubwe, in silver, by President Jacob Zuma on 27 April; and Dr Neville Alexander, who was posthumously awarded the Order of Luthuli, in silver, for his contribution towards the struggle against apartheid.

President Jacob Zuma has bestowed National Orders on UCT wastewater treatment expert Professor George Ekama, of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment, and on former political activist and UCT academic the late Dr Neville Alexander. Three other UCT alumni - former politician Colin Eglin, opera star Pretty Yende, and Herbert de la Hunt, a key figure in the South African Scout Movement - were also on the honours list.

The orders are conferred yearly on Freedom Day, 27 April, and as Zuma said, they represent peace, unity and the restoration of human dignity for all South Africans.

Ekama was among those to be awarded this, the highest recognition in the land, when Zuma bestowed on him the Order of Mapungubwe, in silver, 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, 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 for medicine at the University of Fort 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 for his scholarly achievements, established the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at UCT in 1992. 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 to centre stage in 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 his 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, 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, of UCT and of 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.

Yende was given the Order of Ikhamanga in silver, which recognises South African citizens who have excelled in the fields of arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

(David Capel)

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