Prof Wim de Villiers

Vice Chancellor | University of Stellenbosch

At a critical point in South Africa’s national development, AfricaLive speaks with Prof de Villiers, Vice Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, to understand the Western Cape-based institution’s multifaceted approach to research, innovation, and societal impact.

Prof de Villiers outlines the university’s commitment to shaping its identity through globally competitive yet locally relevant research initiatives.

Prof de Villiers also tackles the challenges South Africa faces on a national level stating Thirty years into democracy, one could say the bloom is off the rose somewhat – we are not the darling of the world anymore. We need to dig down deep.

“But in the microenvironment here at Stellenbosch University, we focus on what we’re good at and where we can contribute. We are an institution for the ages, not just a short period. 


Key Points

  • Global Reach: Stellenbosch University is committed to fostering global collaboration while addressing local challenges, evident through its participation in the Global Alliance of Universities on Climate and its establishment of the School for Climate Studies.
  • Cutting-Edge Research: Flagship projects like the Biomedical Research Institute showcase the university’s commitment to impactful research, such as pioneering work in HIV and tuberculosis infectious diseases research and genomic sequencing during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Entrepreneurship Support: Through initiatives like the Allan Gray Center for African Entrepreneurship and Innovus, the university actively promotes innovation and entrepreneurship, facilitating the establishment of over 40 spin-off companies in recent years.
  • International Symposiums: Events like the Nobel in Africa Symposium, hosted by the Stellenbosch University Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS), attract global experts to address critical issues, demonstrating the university’s role as a platform for international dialogue and collaboration.
  • Social Innovation: Beyond STEM fields, Stellenbosch University innovates in areas like social justice and historical trauma, exemplified by the appointment of Professor Thuli Madonsela and the work of the Center for the Study of Historical Trauma, showcasing a holistic approach to societal challenges.

AfricaLive: When it comes to shaping Stellenbosch University’s identity and ensuring your work is impactful within South Africa, how do you go about building that identity?

Prof de Villiers: I’ve been Vice Chancellor for nine years, a gastroenterologist by training who spent time in the US after a doctorate in the UK. I was recruited for my international background and passion for research. Stellenbosch is a top research-intensive university on the African continent – a comprehensive university with 33,000 students, two-thirds undergraduate, one-third postgraduate. In 2023 we graduated 1,600 masters and 320 PhD students across 10 faculties including all STEM fields. 

The largest is economics and management sciences, then engineering, medicine and health sciences, natural sciences, arts and social sciences, law, and smaller faculties like education, theology and military science. Our research is not only confined to the STEM areas, but I would say it’s more like STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts, and math. In post-democratic, transforming South Africa with an increasingly diverse university, it’s important we do relevant work here on issues like green energy, sustainable living, megacities, poverty, inequity and health sciences aspects.

But it’s not only locally relevant, it’s regionally impactful and globally competitive. Over recent years, our total budget shifted to be over 50% research dependent, so global competitiveness is key. Research that is locally relevant, regionally impactful but globally competitive – that balance is what we strive for in shaping our identity.

Funding has also shifted significantly from being state or parastatal funded to more international funding. So we definitely need to be globally competitive. Two initiatives speak to that:

The first is the School for Data Science and Computational Thinking – a multidisciplinary, cross-faculty initiative not just on data science but its applications. We have new degree programs in areas like data science, a masters in engineering for data science etc., as well as related research.

Secondly, we’re now part of the international Global Alliance of Universities on Climate (GAUC) with 12-13 universities worldwide headed by Tsinghua and Imperial, including Oxford, Cambridge, UC Berkeley, MIT, NUS, ANU etc. 

We’re the only African university asked to join this network on climate change and studies. So we established a School for Climate Studies looking at all different areas – water security where we’re strong with our Water Institute, renewable energy, invasion biology and how climate change affects agriculture where we have a strong agricultural sciences faculty. These issues are very important for us.

These two schools incentivize academics and researchers to participate through funding and joint appointments across faculties, really encouraging collaboration and innovation across disciplines.

Coupled with other international networks, this bears fruit. We’re part of the Alliance of about 20 research-intensive or emerging African universities linked to the European Guild of 21 universities, looking at worldwide and EU funding opportunities to leverage our expertise. We’re leading 4-5 areas in the African-EU coupling: energy, AI, climate, and genomic research.

These initiatives promote a culture of research and innovation as you mentioned, encouraging multidisciplinary work on locally relevant but globally competitive issues.

AfricaLive: I’d like to give you the chance to go into more detail on maybe two or three flagship research projects that have taken place during your time at the University, projects you would consider impactful in South Africa or internationally.

Prof de Villiers: In South Africa, researchers are rated by the National Research Foundation. Since I started nine years ago, we went from a fairly low base of rated researchers to now having 508, with 21 at the highest A-rating level – the most ever for us. We also have 68 research chairs, fully or partially funded, more than doubling in the last five years.  

A very strong initiative across all faculties, not just STEM, is focusing on supporting postdoctoral research fellows. We now have 350, up from a low base of around 100 nine years ago. I’d like to increase this significantly more as it’s a great engine facilitating high-impact research.

To give you some flagship examples – number one is our Biomedical Research Institute, a 1.2 billion rand state-of-the-art facility opened a year ago on our Tygerberg medical campus. It has the capacity for cutting-edge biomedical sciences research, including a -80°C biorepository that can house 5 million samples, the largest in the southern hemisphere. It’s really a world-class research environment.

It’s doing huge work in areas like HIV and tuberculosis infectious diseases research. Two years ago we successfully recruited Tulio de Oliveira to head our Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation. His team became well-known for doing genomic sequencing during Covid, isolating the Omicron and Beta variants – really groundbreaking work getting major research funding.

But importantly, it’s not just the research but training the next generation of genomic research fellows on our continent. With Rockefeller funding, he’s training the next 200-300 African genomic research fellows who come here for month-long workshops, bringing samples from their countries to sequence, analyze and interpret.

The fellows would report back and take the learnings to places like the centers for disease control in their own countries. It covers diseases like hepatitis, Ebola from Congo, Marburg, Chikungunya fever. It’s a very exciting facility – when we built it, we thought it would house 800-1000 researchers but we’re already running out of space.

The second example around innovation and entrepreneurship is that we established a chair supported by Allan & Gill Gray Philanthropies, specifically focusing on entrepreneurship research addressing African challenges. 

At the university, we established an arm called Innovus a few years ago, originally from the tech transfer office. In just the last 4-5 years, the university has established more than 40 spin-off companies, providing support like seed funding, facilities to develop business plans and help these companies flourish. The Allan Gray Center for African Entrepreneurship will certainly be part of that ecosystem.

The third example I wanted to mention is the Nobel in Africa Symposium. We have an Institute for Advanced Study here called STIAS – the Stellenbosch University Institute for Advanced Study. It’s partially funded by the university and 50% by the Wallenberg Foundation from Sweden – their only such venture outside Sweden. 

They host about 100 fellows per year, 20 at a time, where international scholars really interrogate complex issues of our time. Because of the Wallenberg Foundation’s relationship with the Nobel Foundation in Sweden, the Nobel Foundation is now committed over the next 10-12 years to annually host a Nobel in Africa Symposium here with us.

Last year in October we did one on medicinal chemistry, and just two weeks ago was on microdevelopment economics – really attracting a who’s who of global experts in each field.


AfricaLive: You’ve highlighted some really interesting projects there! To continue with the idea of having local impact whilst being globally relevant as well, I’d like to ask – looking at what innovation means within the South African context, how do you seek to ensure you are innovating in a way that will have the maximum possible impact in the communities you serve?

Prof de Villiers: Innovation is a very broad term, and I want to be careful not to only think of it in STEM terms. Yes, I can think of examples in medicine and health sciences like our students and academics developing innovations around clinic operations, pharmacy lines, and so on. But it’s also innovation in areas like developing biosensors, point-of-care blood prick sensors that could measure specific proteins relevant as an indicator for something like active tuberculosis versus something less serious.

But I may also be interested in how we innovate outside of STEM fields. We have a well-established center here for the study of historical trauma. The incumbent chair is Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist who has developed innovative ways to facilitate discussions and interactions with very diverse communities from dissimilar backgrounds. One of our biggest challenges in this country, but also globally, is how do we build social cohesion moving forward?

Another example is the previous Public Protector, Professor Thuli Madonsela, who I recruited a couple of years ago. She became well-known for the role she played in bringing issues around former President Zuma to light, especially with the Zondo Commission on the Guptas. I appointed her as a Professor of Social Justice in our law faculty, looking at what social impact really means. How does it translate, especially in our fractured society facing poverty, inequality, unemployment – and I always add corruption as a fourth ‘horseman of the apocalypse’ her focus addresses.

I would consider that innovative as well, because it’s about how I increasingly see Stellenbosch’s role – not just what we’re good at academically, but what we’re good for in service of society. We need to be innovative in that regard. I’m not only talking about innovation in a monetary, commercial sense with patents and so on – yes, we need that revenue stream – but it’s the whole ecosystem we must consider.


AfricaLive: You’re doing a lot of work tackling the societal challenges that South Africa faces. When you’re able to take a step back and look at the wider situation in the country, how difficult is it to tackle some of these issues at the moment? How confident are you feeling in the future of South Africa?

Prof de Villiers: That is a very important question. Thirty years into democracy, one could say the bloom is off the rose somewhat – we are not the darling of the world anymore. We need to dig down deep. 

On the macro situation, we may see a coalition government, though one should be careful of ruling out the ANC as the ruling party. They remain very strong in rural areas as a liberation movement that has delivered some good things, but they seem to have lost their way in governing at the moment. It is certainly not a rosy time.

But in the microenvironment here at Stellenbosch University, we focus on what we’re good at and where we can contribute. We are an institution for the ages, not just a short period, we have been around for over 100 years and we look to universities like Oxford and Bologna that have lasted 900-1000 years. 

Our main thing is teaching, learning, research, and producing the next generation of critical-thinking, well-rounded graduates who can contribute not just to this country but to the continent and world. We have over 230,000 alumni worldwide, with 13% of our current students international, mainly from Africa but also Germany, France, the USA, and Canada.

We aim to produce lifelong learners able to engage with whatever they encounter, not just employees ready for an accounting office the next day. That’s why we established the Stellenbosch Center for African Entrepreneurship – to develop graduates’ innate abilities to be employers providing employment, as well as excellent employees.


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