AfricaLive: How would you define the identity of the University of Witwatersrand?
Prof Zeblon Vilakazi: This university has a unique identity. The name of the institution means “On the ridge of white waters” translated from Afrikaans to English. The ridge defines the landscape of the city and the region. It is also the ridge that has the largest deposits of gold in the world.
Most universities in our position would have started off with the German model of churches and developed from there. Our institution started off differently a hundred years ago. We started with a school of mines when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley by the De Beers company. The company relocated to Johannesburg when large gold deposits were found here.
While these advancements were taking place our institution was in its formative stages. So we have been linked with the industry from the very beginning. This gives us an advantage over other institutions that were created much later.
Our institution has been credited to a great extent for the development of the city of Johannesburg and the rest of the region.
AfricaLive: Under your leadership as vice-chancellor, will we see any change in the identity or approach of the university?
Prof Zeblon Vilakazi: Not at all, our objectives are very clear. I plan to enhance our effectiveness through my role at Wits to achieve our goals sooner. One of our objectives as an institution located in the commercial industrial hub of the African continent and a facilitator of global networks is to connect projects between the global north and south.
We have played a central role in the establishment and running of the African Research Universities Alliance and also spearheaded African research during the COVID-19 pandemic. We conducted the first vaccine trials outside the UK and these went well.
We also made a contribution towards helping mitigate the effects of the Ebola outbreak by liaising with the CDC.
These interventions underscore one of our main objectives as I mentioned before which is to intellectually connect the global north and south, to solve humanity’s problems.
AfricaLive: What particular research or teaching at the University of Witwatersrand do you believe has the potential to have a significant national or international impact?
Prof Zeblon Vilakazi: We are arguably one of the world’s top universities regarding impact. We have created an impact by teaching deep human history. We are located in an area considered to be the cradle of humankind and have done lots of research relating to human evolution.
We have made archaeological breakthroughs and have produced some of Africa’s greatest anthropologists. Our main area of strength is deep-level mining. We are among the world-leading institutions in this discipline having trained thousands of highly sought-after professionals.
Our other area of impact is medicine. Through the Wits Health Consortium, we manage north of $100 million. These funds are used to facilitate clinical trials for HIV and emergency disease outbreaks. We are also very strong in physics and the social sciences.
AfricaLive: In light of all the challenges being experienced globally be it environmental, social, or economic. It’s vital to have all stakeholders working together from universities and governments to the private sector.
What is required in order to form impactful partnerships between the private sector and universities?
Prof Zeblon Vilakazi: There has to be an understanding that universities stand for good. Institutions like ours exist to offer learning opportunities, conduct research, and produce leaders that will help improve societies. This understanding should attract the industry and make top players want to work with us more.
Our university has produced 25 of the top CEOs coming from the African continent and beyond. Some of the most recognizable ones are the CEOs of major mining companies like Sibanye Gold, Anglo-American, and Glencore. We have also produced 40 percent of South Africa’s senior legal practitioners as well as top financial experts.
Working with industry for us means solving existing problems as well as mitigating future risks in sectors like mining. A good case study would be the future of mining. How can we infuse the technologies that come with the fourth industrial revolution into the mining sector? We can use Artificial intelligence and robotics to do things like surveys instead of sending in humans.
Our university has partnered with international and local companies like Sibanye Gold to explore digital mines now. We simulate the mines in a digital environment and use drones to conduct surveillance and collect data. Through geophysics and other techniques, a decision is made using the data on whether the mine is worth exploring. This provides a platform for us to raise research funds, fund students, and compensate our staff adequately.
Partnerships can also help us become more adaptive to industry needs. Universities are usually slow to adapt to new industrial advancements. This is because it takes a while for new modules to be discussed and approved. By the time a new module is passed, it could take two years. That newly approved module could be part obsolete by the time of approval and this is a challenge often communicated by industry leaders.
Universities of the future have to be much more agile if we are to be trusted to drive the agenda forward. That is the kind of university we strive every day to become.
AfricaLive: Globally, we face an incredible challenge to respond to the threat to our planet from climate change and our unsustainable approach to development.
Do you believe universities have a responsibility to develop ethical leaders with an improved understanding of sustainability?
Prof Zeblon Vilakazi: This country has made strides in ensuring sustainability in all our areas of industry and has been rated one of the top countries contributing to environmental wellness. I don’t think we can pivot to clean energy all at once because we are facing an energy shortage at the moment and a high unemployment rate. Industries must keep producing using traditional energy means for now to address these challenges.
It is, however, our duty to create awareness on the issue because less industrialised nations will be most affected by the effects of climate change. We must have a concise climate justice agenda that not only focuses on the scientific part of the problem but also the socio-economic part. We will need our sociologists and economists to craft a model that leads to a more sustainable future.
The model must spell out the protocols of transition. As we move towards a green economy, how do we carry the people along? This will need input from our local industries as well as international partners such as the G6 and G20.
As a university, we must also reach out to our partners such as Edinburgh University. We have worked with them on how to tackle global challenges in an unequal world.
AfricaLive: What does international partnership and collaboration mean to you and what are your ambitions in this area?
Prof Zeblon Vilakazi: International collaboration means a lot to me and the university. Our researchers have collaborated with their international counterparts on projects such as the Black Hole discovery that helped explain the quantum nature of the cosmos.
To us, international collaboration does not mean that African universities must always be visible. We can be valuable sources of data that help tackle problems in various sectors and we can also help analyse this data. We have had instances where the research was finalised in Europe but the data was acquired from Africa.
We must, however, avoid falling into a quasi-colonial relationship with European institutions because that will diminish our ability to forge our agenda. South African universities like ours along with the University of Cape Town and others are in a much better position to be the bridge between Makerere in Uganda and Harvard University in the United States. We are in a position to help Makerere not just be a data exporter but also a data analysing institution that can come up with unique solutions.
I am glad that international universities are now realising the importance of involving the institutions where the problems are instead of conducting independent studies that lead to half-baked solutions.
We are currently running one of the largest longitudinal studies around migration. We have seen migration within the continent and outside of the continent in recent times. We have a dedicated center for migration studies and it advises the World Health Organization. Some of our experts sit in those major international UN councils on migration management. Our experts also break down inequality because we live in one of the most unequal societies in the world.
We have a focus on changing not only how African universities are viewed on the global stage, but also how African universities view themselves. We must back up our own research on topics such as indigenous medicinal plants and indigenous knowledge systems.
We must also promote culturally sensitive studies because a lot of research is done in indigenous communities. This may call for dialogue with area chiefs, councils of elders, or area monarchs. African researchers should craft protocols that help get through to such leadership formations without disrespecting their space and culture.