Tshilidzi Marwala shares on his rise from lowly beginnings to top academic.
Tshilidzi Marwala’s village school in the Tshivhase region of the Limpopo Province was little more than a few rickety benches under a tree and when rain or cold weather descended, classes were abandoned. With limited access to books and experienced teachers the odds were heavily stacked against the youthful Marwala who had to herd the family cows and goats in his spare time.
But if there was ever an example of someone who has risen above his circumstances to make a success of his life, it is Marwala. Now 39 years, he bears the title professor and is the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and is recognised as one of the top academics in South Africa. He is also an internationally recognised leader in the field of science and engineering.
In his matriculation year, Marwala entered and won the National Youth Science Olympiad and was sent to the United Kingdom to attend the London International Youth Science Fortnight. He used the opportunity to visit the University College of London and Oxford University where he gained an appreciation of the importance of engineering and science for the development of modern society.
Determined to make a difference in his own country, he made up his mind to follow a career in engineering. Marwala was awarded a scholarship by the Educational Opportunities Council to study mechanical engineering at Case Western Reserve University in the USA where he graduated magna cum laude (high distinction).
In 1995 he was employed at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research as a project engineer. Marwala studied at the University of Pretoria and obtained his Masters in mechanical engineering in 1996. Between 1997 and 2000, Marwala went to the University of Cambridge to do a Ph.D. in computational intelligence, after which he became a post-doctoral research associate at the University of London's Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine where he worked on intelligence software.
On his return to South Africa in 2001, he took up a position at South African Breweries, before taking up a position as Associate Professor and Head of Control and Systems Group at the School of Electrical and Information Engineering of the University of the Witwatersrand.
His amazing work has not gone unnoticed. Former president Thabo Mkbeki acknowledged him in 2004 by making him the youngest recipient of the Order of Mapungubwe, the highest award given by the South African government for outstanding achievement. His name now appears alongside those of former recipients Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. He has also been recognised by the National Research Foundation of South Africa – the organiszation earmarked him as one of the young academics likely to become world leaders in their field. He has been honoured by Microsoft Research, in partnership with TWAS, the Academy of Science for the Developing World, and the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), with the TWAS-AAS-Microsoft 2009 Award for Young Scientists. This prestigious award is made to young scientists (under 40 years of age) who have made outstanding contributions in scientific reseach within developing countries.
In his relatively short career, Marwala has supervised more than 40 master’s and PhD students and has published over 170 papers in journals, such as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Journal, proceedings and book chapters. His opinions have appeared in publications such as the The Economist, Time Magazine and New Scientist.
Marwala’s accomplishments are nothing short of astounding. Through hard work and personal application, this young South African from deep rural South Africa, has excelled in his chosen field of study, transporting himself to the cutting edge of his profession. By realising his childhood dream of contributing to the development of his country and continent, he has become a living example of what liberation means for personal and national development.
Questions and Answering
Working at the UJ, you are an inspiration to all South African youth. Would you say that Engineering have a future in South Africa?
Over the last years, a great number of activities in South Africa have focused on 2010. This special year has eventually arrived – and for some, a bit more rapidly than anticipated. When South Africa won the bid to host the World Cup Soccer, this seemed like a distant dream. Now the dream was realised and the celebratory blasts of the vuvuzelas were quite remarkable. Much water has passed under the bridge since that time South Africa was named as the hosting country and there is no question that the promise of hosting this sporting spectacular has deeply changed the landscape of South Africa. The building projects have been remarkable. Thanks to much hard work, planning and in many ways testimony to the technology infrastructure that exists in South Africa, the stadiums were ready, many new roads and structures have been completed, the Gautrain has run its maiden voyage. However, this infrastructure development would not have immersed if it weren’t for engineers. South Africa is the leader in African science and engineering by a wide margin. The country of 49 million people is home to world-class techno-science communities’ specialising in nuclear and solar energy, mining, space and satellite communication, software encryption, coal-to-oil conversion and even electric cars. No other African country comes close to matching South Africa in even a single area of research and development (R&D).
However, skills shortage in South Africa remains is a major concern. There is lack of qualified people in professions such as engineering, information and communication technology, artisan trades and city planning, to name only a few. But I believe that with the government investment, particularly in tertiary education, the country will produce many more science, engineering and technology graduates that it so sorely needed.
The engineering profession is generally considered a man’s profession. What is the Faculty’s stance on promoting women in engineering?
Engineering is a male dominated field, but definitely not because it is better suited for men. Many people have the incorrect pre-conceived stereotypes about engineers. These stereotypes are mainly the reason why women don’t embark on a career in the engineering field.
The Faculty has developed a programme called Women in Engineering and the Built Environment (WIEBE) which was initiated in 2007. The WiEBE initiative is committed to make engineering accessible to women with diverse backgrounds, beliefs and ethnic origins by developing programmes and services which can improve the climate for women in engineering and the built environment through the involvement of students, alumni, the Faculty, industry, and the community. The vision put forward by this programme is to support professional women in the engineering industry and to become the preferred faculty for young women to study a degree in engineering and the built environment.
The WiEBE initiative is a strategic community engagement project with primary objectives to:
- To attract young women to engineering and the built environment, and retain them until completion of their studies;
- To provide networking, development and mentorship opportunities for professional women;
- To support women academics in the Faculty;
- To support current women students within the Society for Women in Engineering and Technology (SWiET);
- To conduct research on the current and topical issues regarding women in engineering and the built environment;
- To engage industry in the empowerment, understanding and support of professional women in engineering and the built environment.
What are the short-term and long-term strategic plans to raise the profile of the Faculty?
The UJ’s Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment is one of the largest engineering faculties in the country. There is something to be said about the size of a faculty when it comes to scaling one’s capacity to do more research, better teaching and more public engagements size indeed does matter. For example, the Ohio State University in the USA is not necessarily an excellent university in terms of staff per publication when compared to smaller universities such as the California Institute of Technology. However, its sheer size of 60,000 students thereby resulting in far larger number of researchers makes its intellectual footprint significant. UJ’s Faculty has set itself to become one of the top five faculties in South Africa by 2014. We know our competitors, we know their strengths as well as their weakness and we are determined to strive to be in the top five. We do this not for the ranking but because our sheer size dictates that our progress is a bigger contribution to the national system of innovation than smaller faculties. Given this ambitious goal that we have set for ourselves, perhaps it is important to note that we have key advantages in addition to our size that would facilitate the attainment of this noble goal. Most importantly, we are not complacent! We therefore are not clouded by our perceived past successes but we take our history as a guide on how to best proceed to meet our goals. The youthfulness of our merged Faculty gives us an opportunity to innovate. We will navigate in waters uncharted but resolute in our intentions. We will achieve this goal because we have a vision to be a leader in educating a significant number of well qualified professionals and producing new knowledge that meets the demands of the South African economy. There is an old saying that I believe originated in the northern part of this country that says: “Knowledge acquired, stored and not used is no knowledge at all!”
Our vision clearly stipulates that we will acquire knowledge and even store it but most importantly we shall use this knowledge for the benefit of South Africa in support of mankind. In pursuing this vision we shall create, support and capacitate an education system which produces excellent engineers and technologists and be:
- a partner of various stakeholders in government, industry and the community;
- an engine for new knowledge that is relevant, applicable and internationally recognised;
- a generator of professionally accredited qualifications; and
- a factory for a cadre of graduates that are inquisitive, innovative and community oriented.
Our strategic goals are simple but require hard work, dedication, energy and the desire to be an engine for the creation of a better man and woman.
We have set ourselves to:
- become the one of the top five faculties of Engineering and the Built Environment in South Africa by 2014;
- produce technically competent graduates that understand their responsibilities in society;
- partner with strategic organs in society, industry and government; as well as
- become a unified engineering faculty of the University.
We intend to achieve all these by ensuring that by 2014:
- 60% of our staff has PhDs;
- 20% of staff participates in international conferences;
- 40% of staff members are professionally registered;
- 10% of staff members should be visiting professors; and
- 10% of staff should be post-doctoral Fellows.
The drivers that we will use to achieve our goals are more research and innovation, more capacitated staff, improved infrastructure (including the consolidating of the Faculty’s departments, currently spread across two of the UJ’s campuses, to one) , viable linkages, a more transformed Faculty and dedicated management. Much progress has been made in 2009 and this includes the fact that 19 people with PhDs will enter the system. If we maintain this pace 65% of staff will have PhDs by 2014. Yes, we will galvanise industry to achieve this goal.
Our Faculty’s Industrial Board is now functional and its members include the CEOs of SAAB Grintek, Daimler Fleet Management, Mining Qualifications and BKS; executive directors of Murray and Roberts, City Power and many more. We plan to bring new initiatives in advanced modeling, mining, brewing and process engineering.