Vice-Chancellor Message – 02 November 2021

Dear UJ Community,

Like many South Africans, I spent most of the time this week in a state of suspense and apprehension as I waited for the results of the Local Government Elections held this past Monday, 1 November 2021. Unlike in the early years of our multiparty democracy from 1994, when it was almost always easy to predict which party would win the polls, there has been a steady shift in the political ground since then. The situation has been complicated by a proliferation of opposition parties, including splinter groups from the governing party, the African National Congress (ANC). This enriches our democracy. As I tweeted just before I voted: “In the Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau alludes that democracy is a contract between the people and the government. If the contract is broken then the people have a right to change that government.” The stakes are much higher now, and any election puts the electorate and political party leaders on tenterhooks.

As has been widely documented, one of the main concerns about this year’s election is the decline in the voter turnout rate among registered voters. This is nothing new. It is a continuation of what happened in the 2019 national elections, when electoral participation decreased to 66% from 73% in 2014, according to the Midpoint report released in December last year. Voter turnout is regarded as a crucial indicator of the vitality and health of a democracy. This means that abstainers, who are eligible voters who do not vote at elections, continue to grow in South Africa. The steady decline in voter participation is usually associated with voter apathy and a mistrust of political system, which raises important questions about the quality of civic engagement and citizen involvement in politics.

What is needed, therefore, is voter education, which is important in disseminating balanced and objective information on voters’ rights and obligations in the electoral process. It is high time that South Africa follows the example of countries that have made voter education an integral part of broader civic education programmes – starting in schools. This ensures learners understand the role they can play in democracy when they become eligible to vote and enables them to relay such information to their parents. Building a democratic culture is an essential building block in promoting and protecting free and fair elections.

Another interesting development of the elections is the high number of municipalities with hung councils, because there was no outright winner. This will result in the re-emergence of the phenomenon of strange bedfellows that will see parties with little in common, if any, coming together to form coalition governments. This is not an ideal situation, because coalition governments are by their very nature unstable and volatile. That said, I congratulate all the people who have been elected to public office. I hope that they will draw on the lessons learnt from what has been a tough election to serve the public with integrity, accountability and excellence.

Back home at our University, many factors are driving UJ’s growing success. Research remains vital to national and global prosperity and an important indicator of the stature of a university, and I am pleased that we have made considerable investments in this sphere. This has resulted in the establishment and/or renewal of research chairs, niches, centres and focus groups across the natural, economic, financial and management sciences, engineering and the humanities, and across technological and academic disciplines. This has in turn ensured that UJ attracts some of the leading minds, top postgraduate students and postdoctoral research fellows (PDRFs), nationally and globally.

Our research endeavours are being recognised with numerous acknowledgements and awards; the latest being by the National Research Foundation (NRF). I am thrilled to announce that six of our researchers were recently celebrated for their continued pioneering work in advancing knowledge creation and innovation at the prestigious 2020/2021 NRF Awards, held earlier this week. Please join me in congratulating Dr Tebogo Mashifana (Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment) and Dr Raphael Biate (Faculty of Science), who were both honoured in their respective categories. Dr Mashifana received the 2020 NRF Research Excellence Award for Early Career/Emerging Researchers; and Dr Biate, under the supervision of Prof Philiswa Nomngongo, received the 2020 NRF Research Excellence Award for Next Generation Researchers.

Additionally, Prof Nnamdi Nwulu (Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment) joined fellow researchers Prof Moses Pooko (Faculty of Law), Dr Shanade Barnabas (Faculty of Humanities) and Prof Oluwafemi Adebo (Faculty of Science), all of whom received the 2021 NRF Research Excellence Award for Early Career/Emerging researchers. Once again, congratulations to all!

Please also join me in congratulating Prof Refilwe Phaswana-Mafuya, Professor of Epidemiology, Health Sciences, whose proposal, “Harnessing Big Heterogeneous Data to evaluate the potential of HIV responses among key populations in generalized epidemic settings in Sub Saharan Africa” has been approved. The grant is in support of the SA Medical Research Council (SA MRC) Mid-Career Scientist Programme. The project includes international collaborators: Prof Stefan Baral, School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg, and others.

Congratulations to Prof Arthur G.O. Mutambara, who has been appointed as the Director at the Institute for the Future of Knowledge (IFK). The IFK is a cross-disciplinary ecosystem–an epistemological interface between the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) and the Humanities–devoted to understanding the relationship between what we know and what will happen, for the purpose of improving both.

On the sporting front, our Basketball team jetted out to Kenya earlier this morning to compete in the 4th Afro Varsity 3×3 Basketball Challenge in Nairobi. The competition, organised by the Federation of Africa University Sports (FASU), features a number of African university teams from Senegal, Uganda, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Zambia and Libya. We wish them the very best in the tournament, and are certain they will do us proud! I am also told that next week on Thursday, 11 November 2021, the UJ Sports Division will honour our student-athletes, club managers and support sports personnel who excelled in various sporting codes this year, despite the COVID-19 challenges. Goodluck to our sportsmen and women!

On a different note, I welcome this week’s news that South Africa has secured around R131 billion in its efforts to transition from coal and move Eskom’s grid towards green energy. As announced at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow on Tuesday, the US, UK, France, Germany and the European Union have partnered together to fund South Africa’s efforts for a green economy. The multilateral effort will be the model to further help other developing nations move away from fossil fuels (which have high emissions) and reduce reliance on coal. The news came in the wake of a report by the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), which found that Eskom is the “world’s most polluting power company”. According to the report, Eskom has become the largest emitter of sulphur dioxide in the world and that these emissions contribute to pollution-related deaths. The Africa Centre for Evidence, Faculty of Humanities, under the leadership of Prof Ruth Stewart, was granted an observer status to COP26, and we will soon arrange a reflective activity with this group.

Please remember to inform us about your vaccinations status via the link: https://ulink.uj.ac.za/ujvac. Enter the information after your first vaccination, and where relevant, update it after your second vaccination. The survey takes less than one minute. You may also use this link to notify  our campus clinics if you have tested positive for COVID-19, or if you know of a colleague or a student who has tested positive.  Don’t wait. Vaccinate. Phuthuma – Goma! O emetše eng! Itlhaganele o ye go enta! Gou! Kry jou inenting nou!

The University leadership will continue to monitor the national and provincial COVID-19 outlook, and an update will be provided accordingly. This information may be verified by visiting:  www.uj.ac.za/coronavirus. Should any of you experience symptoms of the coronavirus, please use the National Hotline of 0800 029 999 or WhatsApp line 0600 123456 or go to the following link for more information: https://sacoronavirus.co.za/.

Please also continue to visit our COVID-19 portal on the UJ website for valuable information, including health and wellbeing. Only information issued via the University’s official communication platforms is legitimate. This information may be verified by visiting: https://www.uj.ac.za/coronavirus/. We appeal to all to adhere to the recommended precautionary measures, hygiene and physical distancing (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public) at all times.

Kea leboga, enkosi, baie dankie, ndi a livhuwa!

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala

Vice-Chancellor and Principal

University of Johannesburg

Times mentioned in this newsletter refer to the South African time-zone.

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