If you ever thought that academics live and work only in the world of the intellect, far removed from life’s harsh realities, then this issue of the UCT Year in Review will change your mind. Because while University of Cape Town (UCT) staff do have brilliant minds, they also have hearts full of passion for their work, their students and the difference that focused research can make in a world that is crying out for change.
Their passion kept UCT on track to complete our 2020 academic year, in spite of COVID-19 restrictions. Our academics did not just transfer their classes online; they improved them with course design innovations, creative learning activities and more flexible contact between students, teachers and tutors. We surveyed students and faculty colleagues about their experiences and incorporated their comments into our physically distanced learning in 2021. UCT is committed to blended learning because it provides so many advantages to help students succeed.
Teamwork and community
The work of our academics would not have been possible without UCT’s professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff members – most of them working long hours from home to mobilise financial resources to help students return home ahead of the national lockdown; negotiate with service providers for online connectivity for students; ship laptops and teaching materials to students who needed them; keep essential services such as information technology, security and maintenance running smoothly; source personal protective equipment for staff members who had to be on campus; and develop communication tools and online events that kept us all connected. This was all in addition to their regular duties.
The new UCT Call Centre and Referral System (UCT Cares), which provides a central point of contact for the campus community to access information and services online, was especially helpful during the lockdown, particularly for students who were studying from home.
The passion of UCT researchers motivated them to focus their scholarship on the pandemic. For example, Cape Bio Pharms, a UCT spinoff; biotech company, received a R900 million capital injection in December 2020 to fast-track the production of affordable, plant-based, rapid diagnostic COVID-19 test kits for African countries. The technology draws on the work of Professor Ed Rybicki, the director of the Biopharming Research Unit in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology.
Other COVID-19-related research focuses on topics as diverse as the exposure of inequalities in the public health system; the effects of lockdown regulations on the cigarette industry; young people’s mental and emotional health; and the potential setback to gender equality in the South African labour market, among others.
COVID-19 became our opportunity to put into action the principles that underlie UCT’s Vision 2030: our commitment to challenge ourselves and our students to find new ways to approach the complex problems South Africa shares with the world. Our goal as an institution is to unleash human potential to create a fair and just society – helped by UCT’s research excellence.
To ensure that UCT will continue to produce this kind of excellence, in 2018 I launched the university’s 2030 Future Leaders programme, to develop the potential of up-and-coming researchers who are already considered leaders in their respective fields.
One result of excellence at UCT is graduates who have a strong sense of what it means to be a responsible citizen of a rapidly changing planet. Last year we celebrated the graduation of more than 7 000 graduands, including about 250 PhDs, in top-of-the-line virtual ceremonies. We celebrated staff achievements in an online UCT Annual Awards 2020 ceremony featuring music, dance and videos of award winners and their work.
In lockdown we discovered we could reach a much wider and more diverse community by bringing online our public events such as UCT Summer School classes, the TB Davie Lecture and the Vice-Chancellor’s Open Lectures.
Society focused scholarship
The ability to identify with the needs of the poor inspires the engaged scholarship that positions UCT among the world’s leading universities. Last year Dr Rebecca Hodes, of our AIDS and Society Research Unit, received UCT’s highest honour, the Social Responsiveness Award, for her collaborative study of more than 1 000 HIV-positive adolescents and young adults in the Eastern Cape – most of whom were infected through mother-to-child transmission at a time when antiretroviral treatment was inaccessible.
Other examples of UCT’s passion for excellence include Dr Jiska de Groot, a senior research fellow at our African Climate and Development Initiative, whose collaboration with British researchers led to the development of a new approach to providing clean, safe and reliable energy to people living in informal settlements. Last year they received the prestigious £500 000 Newton Prize to continue their work.
Abdulkader Tayob, professor of Islamic Studies in our Department of Religious Studies, received the prestigious Georg Forster Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. His research has set standards for the contemporary study of Islam in South Africa and Africa.
Every year, the World Economic Forum selects an elite group of researchers under the age of 40 to participate in their three-year Young Scientists programme. Last year, UCT was represented by Dr Sarah Fawcett, a senior lecturer in the Department of Oceanography, and Professor Salome Maswime, the head of Global Surgery.
Transformational developments and highlights
We launched the Khoi and San Centre to focus scholarship on erased or marginalised indigenous knowledge, rituals, language and “ways of knowing” of the San and Khoi clans who once lived where UCT now stands. We have also committed to developing an undergraduate programme offering the Khoekhoegowab language.
We remain the top-performing university in Africa, according to leading global rankings, which also place UCT high in the ranks for specific programmes and as a university in an emerging economy.
This Year in Review will introduce you to UCT’s new Chair of Council, Babalwa Ngonyama, and our Chancellor, Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe. Both have been solid supporters of UCT during this extraordinary time. So have members of the UCT community around the world, including alumni, students and their parents, and the many other stakeholders who are walking the higher education journey with us. To all of you I extend heartfelt thanks.
I hope you will also pay special attention to the inspiring stories of two students, Tsepiso Tshivhase and Willie Macharia, who demonstrate what the power of a strong mind combined with a passionate heart can do. It does not surprise me that they are UCT graduates, like many of our graduates making an impact in the world.
Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng
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