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As the top university in Africa and one of the leading universities in the world, the University of Cape Town (UCT) is in pole position to lead the continent to new frontiers.

This was the overarching message shared by UCT Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng during the 5th annual Heads of Mission breakfast. Professor Phakeng hosted high commissioners and ambassadors to South Africa at her official university residence, Glenara, on Thursday, 10 February.

She said the university benefits tremendously from having relationships with heads of mission based in South Africa, and these relationships act as springboards from which the university fully harnesses the strength of influential partnerships.

“While people celebrate us for being the best on the continent, we want to be the best for the continent. [So much] is possible when we collaborate with other countries [in order to achieve this],” Phakeng told delegates.

The morning line-up included presentations by three leading UCT academics, including Professor Valerie Mizrahi, the director of UCT’s Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine (IDM); Associate Professor Co-Pierre Georg from UCT’s School of Economics and the director of the Algorand-UCT Financial Innovation Hub; and Dr Catherine Duggan, the director of the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).

Not a tick-box exercise

For UCT, international collaborations are not a tick-box exercise. Instead, Phakeng said, they are critical and enable the institution to respond to the most pressing, large-scale problems that affect the country, the continent and the world at large. And in an ever-changing, demanding world, as needs constantly shift and develop, Phakeng said tackling challenges require a diverse group of people with a plethora of different strengths and perspectives.

“We bring an array of research expertise to join forces with your influence – strengthening both your work and ours and bringing value [to] the collaboration.”

“It is important for us that we come to the collaborations that we have with your universities as an equal partner. As a core driver of partnerships with you and the institutions in the countries you represent, we bring an array of research expertise to join forces with your influence – strengthening both your work and ours and bringing value [to] the collaboration,” she said.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic could not deter UCT from engaging and leveraging its international collaborations. With help from the global community, Phakeng said the university was able to spearhead several exciting programmes.

Cutting-edge institute

Highlighting the ground-breaking role that the IDM plays in tackling infectious diseases on the continent, Professor Mizrahi said she wanted to convey a single key message during her address: “One can pivot to do impactful research if you have existing capacity.”

The institute’s mission is to:

  • conduct cutting-edge research
  • use research as a vehicle to develop some of the best scientists and researchers
  • apply science and research in communities and in turn influence and change policy and improve quality of life
  • collaborate extensively across the country, the continent and the world.

“Sitting at that interface is where we can make a difference.”

Primarily the IDM’s research efforts focus on infectious disease like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB), which Mizrahi described as two of the dominant problems plaguing the African continent. But the real “centre piece” for the institute lies in its work in peri-urban townships around Cape Town and the role it plays at the intersection between the laboratory, the clinic and the community. As an example of this, she highlighted UCT’s Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation’s Masiphumelele Research site (Masi site). The site is uniquely positioned in Masiphumelele and focuses on studying the transmission of TB organisms with a view of finding ways to halt and control the spread of the disease in the community.

“Sitting at that interface is where we can make a difference, and of course this also means working seamlessly across disciplines,” she said.

 

The Heads of Mission breakfast took place on Thursday, 10 February, at Glenara.

 

Proudly, Mizrahi also emphasised the pivotal role the institute continues to play with conducting SARS-CoV-2 research, especially during the early stages of the pandemic when very little was known about the virus. Since March 2020, she said citations in leading scientific academic journals have “skyrocketed” and this serves as proof of researchers’ crucial role in the COVID-19 research project, which includes identifying and describing new variants.

“The immediacy and the effort of the people [researchers] here … I get goosebumps talking about what people have done here. This is not just for South Africa, [we] share our data [with] the rest of the world. We are here thanks to built capacity [but] we need additional support,” she said.

Innovation hub

During his presentation, Associate Professor Georg touched on the pioneering work of the newly established UCT-Algorand Fintech Innovation Hub (the Hub). The Hub was officially launched in November 2021 in partnership with the Algorand Foundation and brings together some of the greatest minds on the African continent to lead in research and innovation of financial technologies.

The success of UCT’s Master’s in Financial Technology – the first of its kind in Africa – served as the springboard from which to establish the Hub. The ultimate aim of the programme is to get students to start their own businesses, and several start-ups launched their entrepreneurial journey from the programme.

The Hub is underpinned by several pillars:

  • rigorous academic research on blockchain, central bank digital currencies, privacy, and cyber security
  • support for student-led start-ups with a uniquely African focus
  • a thought leadership platform for ongoing communication with policy.

“The big thing for us is innovation. What we really need is students who can tackle complex problems that are not well defined. We want to create an environment where students can play and experiment. We need students [who] can code and thrive in these everchanging environments,” Georg said.

“The vision we want to implement, and share is that it’s not important to get a job; it’s important to create a job.”

“The vision we want to implement, and share is that it’s not important to get a job; it’s important to create a job.”

Power of collaboration

As the final speaker for the morning, Dr Duggan provided delegates with an overview of the award-winning, triple-crown accredited UCT GSB – a global leader in sustainability, diversity and development.

As a result, she said some of the business schools around the world look to the UCT GSB for guidance on how best to be impactful on the global stage. In the past 12 months alone, Duggan has served on accreditation committees for business schools in India, Italy, Mexico and the Netherlands. More than that, she added, she also serves on a special committee especially established to introduce new, up-and-coming business schools to international accreditation. To date the committee has assisted schools in Brazil, Ghana, Senegal and Rwanda.

“We have this ability to transmit what it is that we know, what it is that we are learning, and the innovation we see coming from the African continent [and taking it] around the world,” Duggan said.

Harnessing the power of collaboration is a fundamental part of this process. And while collaboration takes many forms and includes research and student exchange, it’s also an opportunity to teach others what you know.

“[It’s an opportunity] to share best practices, so that we can become stronger by engaging more with people around the world,” Duggan said.

“What we teach at the [UCT GSB] is not only how to redream the world, or an invitation to redream this world – we also teach our students and our executive education delegates ways to make that dream real.”

The annual Heads of Mission breakfast did not take place in 2021 due to COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

 

FEBRUARY 2022 | STORY NIÉMAH DAVIDS. PHOTOS LERATO MADUNA. VIDEOGRAPHY RUAIRI ABRAHAMS & CARBON VISUALS. VIDEO EDIT RUAIRI ABRAHAMS.