Welcome to 2021

17 February 2021 | From Kgethi

Dear colleagues and students

My warmest greetings to you. I hope you and your loved ones are safe and healthy.

We sadly start the year with the news that Dr Stuart Saunders, who previously led UCT as Vice-Chancellor for 16 years and continued to be part of the UCT family for many years after, peacefully passed away after a short illness. Whilst our hearts are broken, there is much to celebrate from the life of this extraordinary individual. It is hard to overestimate how much he has given to our institution and to society. Our deepest condolences to his family and many friends. We are preparing to host a memorial to honour him in the coming days.

As we prepare for the 2021 academic year, I trust that you will have enjoyed some rest and restored your strength after a tumultuous 2020. I’d like to commend our students again for their achievements last year in tough circumstances compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. I also extend my gratitude to a special cohort of students and colleagues who have been on the frontlines since the COVID-19 crisis hit us, working long hours to treat patients, researching the virus and finding effective strategies to fight it. Their remarkable dedication is sincerely appreciated.

We continue to hold up those who have lost loved ones and who are grieving; those who face or fear an uncertain future. Please support one another; COVID-19 is still with us and we must care for one another and be vigilant.

There is welcome news from Minister of Health Dr Zweli Mkhize that the country’s vaccine rollout will soon begin. For the sake of our future, please support this. Here I’d like to applaud our academic staff who have so willingly shared their experience and expertise: in vaccine development and epidemiology and in understanding the social, psychological, and economic fallout of this disease.

Many are becoming household names through the media, making their research and knowledge accessible to the public and underscoring the importance of cutting-edge research shaped to African circumstances.

Many of our colleagues have been working long hours to prepare for the new term starting on 15 March. With only two days between the release of matric results and UCT’s offers of admission, our colleagues in the allied departments will be hard pressed to process the thousands of applications. Thank you. We recognise your efforts.

I am also indebted to the UCT executive team who have spent many hours around the planning table to ensure everything is in place to welcome new and returning students. It has not been plain sailing, but we’ve taken the lessons of 2020 to shape teaching and learning and research, by using technology to its fullest potential.

Hybrid model of teaching and learning

UCT will pursue the physically distanced, low-density campus approach to teaching. The same will apply to residence accommodation. Senate has decided that all undergraduate courses will be offered via a combination of online lectures and face-to-face activities in small groups.

Top of mind is health and safety. Strict protocols will be in place and staff and students are reminded to continue practising vigilance, wear suitable masks and follow strict sanitising regimes. We are confident that all teaching venues are safe, with appropriate ventilation.

Please make every effort to familiarise yourself with the latest academic calendar, below some events to note:

  • 23 February – National Senior Certificate results available
  • 25 February – Completion of undergraduate admissions processing. Residences open for postgraduate students
  • 1 March – Residences open for undergraduate students
  • 2-12 March – Student registrations and orientation
  • 12 March – Parents’ Orientation (virtual)
  • 15 March – Academic term starts

(Please note that the Faculty of Health Sciences works on a different schedule.)

Three new P-ratings

As a prelude to the academic year, I’m delighted to share some good news. Dr Christopher Trisos (African Climate Development Initiative), Rosalie Tostevin (Geological Sciences) and Ryan Nefdt (Philosophy) have the rare honour of being awarded P ratings from the National Research Foundation. This recognition is reserved for young researchers (normally younger than 35 years of age) who have held a doctorate for less than five years and are considered likely to become future international leaders in their field. This is wonderful news for UCT and the sustainability of our research enterprise. As you know, sustainability is one of three pillars of Vision 2030.

Staff and student support in a time of COVID-19

I’d like to return to this point to emphasise its importance. We have robust systems and technology in place for the academic year. But we also want to nurture robustness in our staff and students. We’re aware that people are carrying different emotional loads: grief, health problems, anxiety, hopelessness. Last year, the Independent Counselling and Advisory Services (ICAS), under UCT’s Employee Wellness Programme, assisted hundreds of staff with these challenges. Please don’t hesitate to call them. Our Staff Wellness team offers comprehensive health resources.

Students, too, are struggling: with fees, other resources, health and a sense of alienation. UCT has put many services at your disposal. Please reach out to Student Wellness to tap into these.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, teaches us that hardships should not leave us intact. They should change us – if we can change the way we see them. As he said, “The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”.

Looking ahead

When we launched UCT’s Vision 2030, we asked, “The world is changing, are we”? Vision 2030 asks us to be adaptable, innovative, and brave. Here we’re guided by the three interdependent pillars: excellence, transformation and sustainability. The question, ‘the world is changing, are we’?, is a challenge to all of us who call UCT home.

But at the start of this new academic year, I can say with certainty: “Yes we are.” In this I am humbled to be part of a strong and creative leadership team. But we’re led not only by an executive. Every one of us – students, staff and alumni – is an essential leader as we work towards realising Vision 2030.

I wish you all well, for 2021.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

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