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Genetic research on Southern Africa’s tough indigenous poultry


Examining the linkages between a major university and the rest of the continent


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ON 12 JUNE 2005 THE TV PROGRAMME CARTE BLANCHE PRESENTED AN ‘EXPOSE’ OF CERTAIN ALLEGED WRONGDOINGS ON THE MEDUNSA CAMPUS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF LIMPOPO. In particular, attention was focused on irregularities in student entrance and exit procedures, as well as certain questionable managerial practices. It is important that this response of senior Limpopo University management is seen in the context of the merger, on 1 January 2005, between the old University of the North and Medunsa. Such mergers are never easy. Nevertheless, the Limpopo merger has been characterised by serious attempts to harmonise the two institutions and to establish a common high standard both in the academic and ethical spheres. Details of the management response to the Carte Blanche accusations are as follows: • Entrance procedures. Carte Blanche detailed a specific case where the established entrance criteria appeared to have been ignored. What was not stated was that the University Council had decided to reverse its ruling to admit the student in

question BEFORE the case was aired on Carte Blanche. The Council’s decision has subsequently been contested in court, which means that the matter is now sub judice. • E x i t p r o c e d u r e s . Carte Blanche exposed the case of a Medunsa medical student who had entered into an internship before passing certain examinations. University management points out that the student in question does not hold a medical degree – a situation that applies to all medical interns. • Management irregularities. The accusations relating to inappropriate fringe benefits and procurement irregularities are immediately admitted by University management. However, it is pointed out that soon after the merger had taken effect, and months BEFORE the Carte Blanche expose, the University had ordered an investigation by a firm of external auditors as part of efforts to harmonise the two campuses. This investigation had uncovered several irregularities that were reported to the national Minister of Education and immediately addressed. It is

certainly true that some senior administrators at Medunsa were not flattered by the investigation. In the broader context of the merger and Limpopo University’s determination to couple two vibrant institutions to a single strategic vision, it is not surprising that heads could roll. Indeed, the University has recently parted company with two senior Medunsa staff members who appeared to be operating outside the new vision. At this stage, University management has no intention of elaborating on the details of their departure. The strategic vision of the new University of Limpopo is to build on the multiple strengths of both institutions to establish what two successive national Ministers of Education have called ‘the premier African university’. This institution will be wholly situated in Limpopo province. Medunsa’s health focus will be a huge contribution to the powerful new university, as will the many centres of excellence already existing on both campuses ... Read about plenty of these centres in this edition of Limpopo Leader.

The letters page has been moved to page 32 for this edition of L i m p o p o L e a d e r . PA G E


THE MERGER BETWEEN MEDUNSA AND THE OLD UNIVERSITY OF THE NORTH TO CREATE THE NEW UNIVERSITY OF LIMPOPO IS NEVER FAR FROM THE NEWS. Most readers will be aware of the publicity that recently shone an uncompromising light onto activities on the Medunsa campus. University leadership has dealt decisively and honestly with this situation, as can be seen from the statement published on page 1. Of more lasting import, the merger process is beginning to create an institution that will contain the very best available from both campuses. The current Minister of Education, as well as her predecessor, have both at various times referred to the new University of Limpopo as ‘a premier African university’ in the making. This is exactly what is happening. And what better place for such an activity to be taking place than in South Africa’s most northerly province – Limpopo – that takes pride in styling itself the ‘gateway to Africa’? This edition of L i m p o p o L e a d e r takes pride therefore in looking in some detail at the Africa connection. An exciting picture emerges. The merged University is moving rapidly to fulfil the expectations of Minister Naledi Pandor and ex-Minister Kader Asmal – and to pull in the same direction as its outward-looking provincial home. Read about Medunsa’s remarkable National School of Public Health, most successful institution of its type in the whole country. Through sophisticated online software the School is teaching postgraduate students from many SADC countries as well as plenty of South Africans as well. Or consider the networking efforts of Turfloop’s Centre for Rural Community Empowerment that has linked many of Limpopo’s small-scale farmers to their counterparts in Southern, Central and East Africa. Direct Africa linkages aside, there’s plenty to grab the attention. Turfloop has taken a significant step towards the establishment of a Cultural Centre, complete with theatre and collections of provincial fine art, literature both written and oral, and music. On the Medunsa campus, on the other hand, the work of the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre underscores the government’s Expanded Programme on Immunisation. Even these two widely differing centres have African connections. The first speaks powerfully of the cultural roots of South Africa’s most rural and traditional province. The second is planning to extend its reach into other Southern African countries in the next few years. Read and enjoy – and don’t forget to encourage your friends to subscribe to a university publication that deals with real issues and a premier tertiary institution’s engagement in them.

L i m p o p o L e a d e r is published by the Marketing and Communications Department UNIVERSITY OF LIMPOPO Private Bag X1106 Sovenga 0727 Limpopo Province South Africa

EDITOR: David Robbins Tel: (011) 792-9951 or 082-7878099 ADVERTISING: Gail Robbins Tel: (011) 792-9951 or 082-5721682 EDITORIAL COMMITTEE: DK Mohuba (chairman) David Robbins Gail Robbins PHOTOGRAPHS: Liam Lynch – pages front and back covers, pages 3 (middle to bottom), 7, 8, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 21, 22, 23, 27, 29, 30 David Robbins – pages 3 (top two), 5, 6, 9 Professor Dirk Wessels – pages 26, 28



D E S I G N A N D L AY O U T: JAM STREET Design PRINTING: Colorpress (pty) Ltd PRODUCTION M A N A G E M E N T: DGR Writing & Research




NEXT ISSUE IT’S A TRUISM TO SAY THAT ONE OF THE BIGGEST THREATS FACING SUSTAINABLE SOCIO-ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN SOUTHERN AFRICA IS THE HIV/AIDS PANDEMIC. The statistics are depressing, and ironically the most advanced country in the region – South Africa – is the worst affected. But it’s not all doom and gloom. For some better news emanating from the University of Limpopo – and don’t forget that this institution represents a merging of the old University of the North and the old Medical University of Southern Africa – read the Summer issue of L i m p o p o L e a d e r due out in early December. Once again, you’ll see a powerful institution working hand in glove with the provincial government – and with an assortment of national bodies – to curb the country’s biggest ever public health threat.

IN THIS ISSUE cover picture: Genetic Research on indigenous Southern African poultry breeds takes off under the guiding hand of Dr David Norris of the School of Agriculture on the Turfloop campus of the University of Limpopo. See story on page 14

page 1: The latest on Medunsa and the Media

page 4: Limpopo: the Africa Connection. The province styles itself the ‘gateway to Africa’, and the University of the same name is working to become a ‘premier African institution’

page 6: Setting the African Scene on both campuses of the University of Limpopo

page 11: Crashing aeroplanes and Hong Kong Racehorses. An ophthalmologist has given Medunsa pride of international place in the treatment of cataracts and glaucoma

page 14: The Case of the Marginalised Chickens. A geneticist takes a fresh took at indigenous Southern African poultry

Page 16: Biotechnology Collaborations. Useful links exist between some Southern African universities and the Turfloop Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology & Biotechnology

page 17: Small Versus Big: An Important Agricultural Debate. The case for the smallscale farmer as espoused by Turfloop’s Centre for Rural Community Empowerment

page 20: A Passion for Doing Hands. The story of an orthopaedic surgeon who has placed Medunsa on the world map of hand surgery

page 22: Securing the Health of Future Generations. Read how Medunsa’s SAVIC is helping the state with its Expanded Programme on Immunisation

page 24: Online Postgraduate Studies for Africa. The National School of Public Health on the Medunsa campus is the most successful institution of its kind in the country

page 27: The Legacy of Ants. A Turfloop professor is involved in studying the remains of 25 000 year old anthills in Namaqualand

page 29: A Permanent Home at Last for Turfloop’s drama students and a growing collection of local art

page 32: Letters to the Editor


































South Africa’s Limpopo Province (marked in orange on this map) calls itself the ‘Gateway to Africa’. In support of this perception, the University of Limpopo acknowledges its position in the continental thick of things when it asserts in its slogan: ‘African excellence – global leadership’. But perhaps the real surprise is just how intricate the relationships are becoming between Limpopo and the rest of the continent. For a start, there’s our SADC neighbours (marked in green on this map). But the network of relationships extends far beyond this growing regionalism. Look at the red bullet points adorning so many parts of the map. These are just some of the linkages between Africa and the University that have been covered in L i m p o p o L e a d e r in this and previous issues.

IN THE 1980S THERE WERE MACHINEGUNS MOUNTED UNDER BEIT BRIDGE AND LITTLE THOUGHT OF A CONTINENTAL CONTEXT FOR A SOUTH AFRICA UNDER SELF-IMPOSED SIEGE. Even in the1990s, as the borders were demilitarised and the country engaged with democracy for the first time, there was little appreciation of the rest of Africa – except as a worrying source of illegal immigrants. Only in the early 2000s did the sense of isolation crumble sufficiently for a clearer understanding to emerge of how close the rest of Africa actually was. Not surprisingly, the northern parts of the country were earliest influenced. From Limpopo province’s Mapungubwe hill, the slow meanderings of the Shashi River mark the dividing line between Botswana and Zimbabwe. Further east, in the far north of the Kruger National Park, one encounters a strong fence that separates Limpopo from Mozambique. The very proximity of these other countries, once a cause for concern and the presence of the military, now serves to free the imagination. Limpopo province is, by its own admission, the ‘gateway to Africa’. But what does this mean? It means an end to the old isolation. It suggests collaborations and partnerships, trade and regionalism, common challenges and common cause. But what is the reality? Are the suggestions beginning to come true?


Without doubt. In the Premier’s Office in Polokwane there’s an important document doing the rounds. It’s the Draft Framework Towards Implementation of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad) Through Limpopo, in the Context of the Region. It’s a cumbersome title, but the document has a straightforward intent: to prepare the ground for large cross-border projects linked to Limpopo’s Provincial Growth and Development Strategy, as well as to the overall development aims of Nepad. What are these large cross-border projects? Nothing concrete has been announced, but persistent whispers are emerging around a railway project, a water pipeline project, and even a harbour project in northern Mozambique that could have massive implications for agricultural downstreaming and exportation from the northern regions of Limpopo province. Not unexpectedly, the Draft Framework document makes frequent reference to ‘human skills’, to the idea that development is ‘about people’, to ‘human resource development’, and to ‘science, research and technology’. So the big ideas in circulation in the Premier’s office will need to be matched by big ideas inside the University of Limpopo, an institution that increasingly sees for itself a regional role. But just how African is the University? In the pages that follow, a rich and surprising picture emerges.



SETTING THE AFRICAN SCENE AT LIMPOPO UNIVERSITY BOTH CAMPUSES OF LIMPOPO UNIVERSITY LOOK UNMISTAKABLY AFRICAN. The Medunsa campus sits in the middle of the teeming peri-urban sprawl of what used to be a piece of the old Bophuthatswana Bantustan. Turfloop is built around rock protrusions as big as hills and covered with lavish Southern African vegetation. It too is surrounded by the noise and flamboyance of old homelands. There’s dust and blue skies on these campuses – and you could hardly be further, visually at any rate, from Oxbridge or the American Ivy League. What about the students and staff? The students on both campuses are largely but not exclusively black, and some of them are from other African countries. Around 350 of them are, in fact, out of a total student body exceeding 13 000. This is a lot less than the 5% provided for in the SADC protocol, but the numbers are growing. Many of them represent neighbouring countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho and Namibia. Then there are others from Mozambique and Angola. Some have come from even further afield, from countries such as Zambia, Malawi, Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ethiopia, Eritrea, and the island of Mauritius. When Medunsa was established in 1976, it was named the Medical University of Southern (not South) Africa. Part of this was a reflection of the official apartheid desire for the emerging homelands to be taken seriously as independent countries. But even from those early days, foreign African medical students were present on campus, as foreign students found their way onto Turfloop. On the Turfloop campus there’s a University of Limpopo International Students Association. The chairperson of UNILISA (as it’s called) is a third-year BSc computer science student from Zimbabwe, Tapiwa Zvenyika. His deputy is Mozambican Sky Mkuti who’s




Sky Mkuti, Goldmarks Makamure, Tapiwa Zvenyika majoring in international politics. Third member of UNILISA’s executive is treasurer Goldmarks Makamure, a final-year psychology student from Masvingo in Zimbabwe. ‘We found,’ they said, ‘that there were many issues where international students needed to be represented. There was no organisation to do this, so we formed one.’ So UNILISA came into being in 2004 to assist with the integration of international students into the local scene, both socially and academically. The Association organises gatherings and social functions, as well as independence-day celebrations for each of the countries represented on campus. There are moves afoot to make contact with international students on the Medunsa campus soon. ‘We’re proud to be here at Limpopo,’ the UNILISA executive said. ‘The university has good academic standards and infrastructure. Particularly the libraries and the computer equipment,’ they added. The various academic staffs on the two Limpopo campuses have been drawn from as many parts of the continent as the students. The best way of finding this out is to become a regular reader of L i m p o p o L e a d e r , but listen to just two academics talking about themselves and the University’s many-sided African connections. At Medunsa, here’s Professor Gboyega Ogunbanjo, a smiling and friendly man from Nigeria (now a naturalised South African) who is currently the Deputy Dean (research) in the Faculty of Medicine. His speciality is Family Medicine, and he talks enthusiastically about initiatives in this field in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya. Four family physicians from the DRC have qualified with the Family Medicine master’s degree from Medunsa The Family Medicine training programme was initiated by the evangelical churches operating in

the DRC with input from the Department of Family Medicine and Primary Health Care at Medunsa. The churches run the mission hospitals where most rural doctors work. This relationship hopefully will lead to the establishment of family medicine postgraduate courses being offered at the Kisangani and Kinshasa medical schools. The present relationship between Medunsa and the DRC evangelical churches is supported by funding from the Belgian government. Medunsa has also helped to establish a Department of Family Medicine at Moi University in the west Kenyan city of Eldoret. Ogunbanjo shakes his head when asked about joint research projects with these East and Central African institutions. ‘The main problem has been lack of resources for research in most parts of Africa. That’s why these linkages with Medunsa are so important. ‘It’s a similar situation at Medunsa with its recent merger with the University of the North. I see real opportunities developing through the cross-pollination of ideas and projects between the various faculties and disciplines. Medunsa was the only medical university in the whole of Africa. We have suffered from this alienation and from the influence of other faculties. So the merger makes good sense – even though the distance between the two campuses presents a real challenge at this stage.’ Ogunbanjo was born in Lagos in 1958. He did his undergraduate training and internship at the University of Lagos, and then completed his one-year national service at Badagry General Hospital, a rural hospital near the Benin border. This experience opened his eyes to rural realities and needs. After four years, Nigeria launched their Technical Aid Programme to Africa and the Caribbean. Ogunbanjo jumped at the opportunity of working abroad, and very soon found himself doctoring in war-torn Mozambique. ‘I was based in Maputo,’ he recalls. ‘It was pretty




Professor Gboyega Ogunbanjo

Professor Norman Nyazema



tough. I remember that fresh milk was a real luxury. I had to learn Portuguese. There was lots of fighting One year, the Frelimo national conference was interrupted when Renamo fighters came into the city - we saw them fighting from the windows of our accommodation.’ Later, he went to Lesotho under his own steam, where he worked at Queen Elizabeth II Hospital in Maseru. He had begun his postgraduate studies in family medicine and primary health care while still in Nigeria. After the interruption caused by working in Mozambique and Lesotho, he recommenced and completed his training with Medunsa. He found his way onto the teaching staff at Medunsa in 1992. ‘Yes, I’m fully committed to this place,’ he acknowledges. ‘It has huge potential. The merger has huge potential. The University of Limpopo can become a real force in the SADC region and in the rest of Africa.’ Norman Nyazema is Professor of Pharmacology on the Turfloop campus, and he tends to agree. ‘It’s happening, yes,’ he says, referring to the African focus emerging at the University of Limpopo. ‘It may not be absolutely discernible yet, or at the correct level, but its definitely taking shape. Nyazema recalls the meetings held in connection with the choice of a name for the merged institution. Limpopo was settled on because the Limpopo River runs through several Southern African countries. So the name – Limpopo University – brings an immediate international flavour to activities on both campuses. ‘When we talk about being a ‘gateway to Africa’ we should be putting a certain viewpoint into action. We should consciously be the institution that is pulling up the expertise and influence of the South African universities to the south of us and channelling it into the rest of the continent. In the same way, the realities from the north should be penetrating through us down into the institutions to the south. We should be the conduit, the gateway.’ Nyazema came to South Africa in 2002 from the College of Health Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. He was the director of postgraduate training there. Indeed, Nyazema was

born in Harare (then Salisbury) in 1951. ‘I always say that I has born in Southern Rhodesia, started school in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, finished high school in UDI Rhodesia, went into exile for ten years, and then returned to work in Zimbabwe.’ Nyazema’s political career began in 1971 when, as a prefect at school, he was arrested for helping to organise a march in Salisbury in protest against the two different teacher salary scales, one for whites and one for blacks, then in operation. He was stripped of his prefect status and compelled to hand back the school tie he had received on becoming a prefect in the first place. Nevertheless he completed his A levels and went to the then University of Rhodesia. But after a year, he left for England. He saw few opportunities for real study in the isolated UDI country that was being torn apart by internal politics and finally civil war. He lived and studied in Liverpool for ten years, finally gaining his doctorate in pharmacology there. During his time in England, he served as chairman of the student Patriotic Front movement on Merseyside. ‘No, I wasn’t a Liverpool supporter. No, not Everton either. Actually, Notts Forest was my team,’ he admits with the same liveliness that he brings to everything he does. On returning to Africa in 1981, he worked for more than 20 years at the University of Zimbabwe. He remembers, in 1985, being invited to UCT as a visiting lecturer and sponsored by a multinational pharmaceutical company. They flew him business class. But during the South African leg of the flight, the steward placed a curtain directly in front of his seat to protect other business class passengers (who were all white) from his presence. He laughs at the memory. ‘But things have changed now, of course. Why did I come to South Africa? Maybe because I received only a thousand Zim dollars as my 20-year-long service award in 2001!’ He smiles in his lively way. ‘And why did I come specifically to Limpopo? I could have gone to UCT or Wits, yes. But I wanted to be in the thick of African realities while at the same time being at a real university. Make no mistake, that’s what the University of

Limpopo is: it’s a vibrant African institution with significant achievements and enormous potential.’ Then Nyazema had to hurry away to catch a plane to Blantyre in Malawi. He’s on the World Health Organisation Africa Region Technical Board on antiretrovirals, and the board was having a meeting there. Both Nyazema and Ogunbanjo are academics from other parts of Africa who have found their way onto the staff of the University of Limpopo. They and others like them enrich the fabric of both campuses. They recognise the ‘gateway’ potential of the combined University. They can also see what is happening at the moment, and what has happened in the past, that makes of their University a living example of the ‘gateway’ theme. Most of the stories that follow were suggested by these two Limpopo professors.



SETTING THE AFRICAN SCENE AT LIMPOPO UNIVERSITY SOUTHERN AFRICAN UNIVERSITIES JOIN FORCES FORTY-SIX SADC UNIVERSITIES HAVE JOINED FORCES TO ADVANCE THE DEVELOPMENT AGENDA OF AFRICAN HIGHER EDUCATION. A new association – the Southern African Regional Universities Association (SARUA) – was launched at a function in Cape Town earlier this year. The publicity material at the time claimed it was the first association of its kind in Africa to do two crucially important things simultaneously. Both are in line with the ideals of the SADC protocol and of Nepad ideals. • The first is to address the capacity and research needs of SADC higher education institutions • The second is to address the social, cultural and economic development priorities of the region. SARUA is the product of an intensive research and consultation exercise that took longer than a year. The exercise was driven by the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association (SAUVCA) after receiving a mandate at a meeting of the Vice-Chancellors of the 46 SADC universities in October 2003. SAUVCA (which has now been superseded by HESA – Higher Education South Africa – and incorporates the old technikons with the old universities under a single umbrella) has now been given the task of managing the new southern African organisation. Professor Njabulo Ndebele, who was ViceChancellor of the University of the North (at Turfloop) before moving to the University of Cape Town, was elected first chairperson of SARUA. The new organisation, under the direct leadership of SAUVCA’s CEO Piyushi Kotecha, is already working in four programme areas: information technology preparedness; institutional governance and leadership; science and technology; HIV/AIDS. At the SARUA launch, chairman of the Nepad steering committee Wiseman Nkuhlu said that the time was ripe for this kind of regional collaboration. ‘The strengthening of the structures within the African Union and the growing support for the continent from the G8 countries means that Africa has a window of


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Njabulo Ndebele

opportunity that we must not miss,’ he said. ‘African higher education has a crucially important role in creating the capacity that is able to use the opportunity currently being presented.’ ‘The development of leaders for trade and industry, government, and public sectors such as the judiciary, security, science and technology, education and health, is critical for Africa if it is to break out of its cycles of poverty, war and chronic under-development,’ Kotecha said. ‘And regional collaborations between universities are the surest way of rising to this challenge.’


CRASHING AEROPLANES AND HONG KONG RACEHORSES HE’LL BE RETIRING IN A FEW YEARS – HE TURNS 63 THIS NOVEMBER – BUT THE IMPACT OF HIS WORK AT MEDUNSA WILL LIVE ON AND ON. He’s Professor Robert Stegman, ophthalmologist, whose work on the surgical treatment of cataracts and glaucoma has saved thousands from blindness. ‘I came to Medunsa from Harvard University,’ he recalls. ‘I planned to stay for six months to do some trials. I’ve stayed for 27 years.’ The trials were on a new substance that Stegman wanted to use in cataract operations. The South African Medicines Control Council had given its blessing. The substance was hyaluronic acid. It worked like a charm when it came to simplifying the implanting of intraocular lenses to counteract the degenerative effects of cataracts. But let’s go slowly with all these facts. Let’s start at the beginning. Stegman was born in Pretoria and did his first degree, as he says, at Tukkies. He then went to the United States, to Boston in fact, and in 1972 ‘gate crashed’ into Harvard Medical School where he specialised in ophthalmology. It was during his six-year stint at this most prestigious of American universities that his attention was directed to cataracts and their treatment. ‘Intraocular lenses were just coming into their own,’ Stegman explained. ‘It had been found during World War II that Royal Air Force crews experienced no major rejection symptoms from pieces of shattered cockpit windscreens that entered their eyes during combat or crashes. The windscreens were made of Perspex (polymethylmethacrylate), and so medical scientists turned to this same material to manufacture intraocular lenses. But the first results were erratic, dogged with a lot of stability complications. ‘Our idea at Harvard was to use hyaluronic acid. This was a naturally occurring material that lends


substance or body to our tissues. It’s found in abundance in the combs of roosters: it’s what makes the combs stand upright. The acid had been discovered by a German scientist in the late 1930s, but a use for it was not found until 30 years later when it was tried, but with discouraging results, in a few retinal operations.

Professor Robert Stegman


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CRASHING AEROPLANES AND HONG KONG RACEHORSES ‘Then British and Hungarian biochemists put it through a refining process whereupon it found a use in veterinary surgery. Racehorses in Hong Kong were found to be very prone to inflammation of the knees because of the hard tracks encountered in that part of the world. The pounding resulted in a molecular breakdown of the shock absorber lubricants in the knee. Injecting hyaluronic acid into the inflamed knees brought about miraculous recoveries,’ Stegman said. Some time later an orthopaedic surgeon in Cape Town tried it for the treatment of arthritis, but it didn’t work – perhaps because it was tried on rheumatoid rather than the degenerative type. At Harvard, meanwhile, Stegman and his colleagues were experiencing some disconcerting complications with intraocular lens implants. ‘The Perspex material was highly inert on the surface,’ he explained, ‘but underneath an electromagnetic charge damaged the delicate cells inside the cornea, causing significant damage and often severe complications.’ So Stegman began to search for something that would prevent this. ‘A substance that was thick, clear, non-inflammatory and would retain the shape of the eye. I managed to get hold of six ampoules of hyaluronic acid, and ran some animal studies. It worked wonderfully.’ The next step was to find a place to conduct the human trials. The year was 1978. He had heard of the establishment of Medunsa two years before. He got the necessary permissions. So the human trials were carried out at South Africa’s fledgling black medical school. ‘The results removed the last hurdle to unrestricted use of intraocular lenses. Today, 200-million people have them in their eyes – and Medunsa played a central role.’ Why had he not returned to Harvard? Stegman shrugged his shoulders, an unregretful gesture. ‘The status attached to being a Harvard specialist was less important to me than being in the operating theatre. That was my first love. The competition in America was fierce. The opportunities at Medunsa seemed limitless. I spoke to my Harvard


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mentor, Professor David Miller. He agreed. He said: how can I help? The result of that offer was that he came once a year to Medunsa as the external ophthalmology examiner. The examinations were set to Harvard standard. The motivation in this for my students and staff was absolutely fabulous in those early years.’ There were other advantages in staying at Medunsa. During the 1980s, as Stegman described it, ‘we were ringed around by civil wars’. Soldiers and civilians were being blown up by landmines and mortars and bombs at alarming rates. ‘Modern weaponry seems to be designed on the premise that disablement costs the enemy more than outright death,’ he said. ‘Consequently, the subcontinent was full of people with frightful eye injuries; and the military flew down these patients, 30 at a time, to the ophthalmology department at Medunsa. Our expertise grew accordingly.’ With this growth, came an international reputation. Medunsa was recognised as world leaders not only in eye trauma but also in congenital defects. People from all over the world began to come to the ‘bush hospital’ attached to Medunsa to have their eyes seen to. South Africans as well: the wife of a prominent Afrikaner politician came, as did the managing director of a giant insurance company. And with this reputation came money: from the Department of Health, from the university itself, and from the private sector, most notably from First National Bank. ‘Without this funding we couldn’t have done what we did,’ Stegman declared. ‘First National was fantastic. Their annual contribution kept us in the forefront of world ophthalmology.’ The generosity of funders certainly provided Stegman with the opportunity to tackle glaucoma, the second largest cause of blindness in the world and a major scourge in Africa. Glaucoma is characterised by a gradual build up of pressure caused by an imbalance between the manufacture and excretion of the aqueous humour fluid that lubricates the eye. Stegman knew that the current surgical treatment was unacceptable, with high failure and complication rates. ‘I had been working for years with Grieshaber,

the Swiss instrument makers. They became interested in what I was trying to do. They made me the instrumentation to do it. The procedure was to go into a small canal with an inside diameter as thick as a human hair. With the Swiss equipment we led the world in this radically new direction.’ Stegman has been working on the glaucoma procedure for 16 years. The failure rate has been reduced to 10% and the complication rate to virtually zero. At first, the medical fraternity said the procedure was too complicated, but gradually it’s being accepted. Meanwhile, the work of perfecting the operation goes on – despite a dramatic fall in outside funding. ‘Many children are born with glaucoma,’ says Stegman. ‘Most end up in our blind schools. And most of these are black. We’re operating as fast as we can. We’ve also had patients from the United States, from South America and Greece. But the procedure should be more widely practised in Southern Africa where the need is so great.’ Stegman’s contribution is colossal – and it’s happened at Medunsa. At one point he was on call 24 hours a day seven days a week for seven years without a break. But, insists Stegman, he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Upstairs in his house is one of the biggest video libraries of eye surgery in the world. He’s given over 300 lectures at international conferences around the world. He’s operated in countries in Europe and in America, but he keeps returning to Medunsa. ‘Nowhere else in the world could I have done what I’ve done.’ When you ask why this was the case, Stegman answers without hesitation. ‘There are three reasons. First, the positioning of Medunsa in Southern Africa has provided huge opportunities. Second, some of my theatre sisters have worked for me for 20 years: they’re better than any other theatre staff I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. Third, the support both internally and externally, has been generous and regular, and it’s kept us going.’ For how long can these reasons remain valid? Stegman is not altogether optimistic. So we must add another question: what will replace his distinguished regime when he finally retires?


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Dr David Norris TO WATCH DR DAVID NORRIS WORKING WITH HIS CHICKENS IS TO CATCH SIGHT OF A SCIENTIFIC INTEREST BORDERING ON OBSESSION. He laughs a lot. He’s an easy man to be around. Yet his focus is very firmly on his chickens. ‘All these are indigenous African chickens,’ he says, indicating the scruffy scratching poultry in several pens on the School of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s experimental farm not far from the Turfloop campus of the University of Limpopo. ‘Those on that side are naked-necked chickens, and they’re found all over South Africa. These here – the black and white speckled ones – are called Venda chickens.’ Nothing much to look at, these indigenous chickens. A few of the roosters have most of their tail feathers missing, and the naked-necked bunch seems vaguely reminiscent of vultures. Yet they have one huge strength. They’re adapted to local conditions. In other words, they have developed physiological and anatomical systems that make any exotic breeds look positively puny. ‘The imported breeds are especially engineered for high egg or meat production,’ explains Norris, ‘but in Southern African conditions they need high inputs – inoculations, special feeds, and so on – and mortality rates are high. In other words, they’re expensive much too expensive for local conditions. On the other hand, the indigenous chickens represent a huge genetic resource. If we’re serious about poverty alleviation, let’s work with the local stock. That’s the thinking behind my research.’ Although an estimated 75% of South African chicken production is from local breeds, most scientists are marginalising the indigenous strains. But not Norris, who’s a quantitative geneticist at Turfloop. The initial phase of his research was to do a ‘phenotypic characterisation’ study that examined such elements as size, growth rate, feeding requirements, egg size and output. ‘Because of the wholesale neglect of the past,’ says Norris, ‘we know nothing of the respective breeds. So it’s been important to carry out genetic characterisation that begins to match the external characteristics with the genetic types. It’s important for another


reason as well. Conservation. We are identifying and conserving African breeds that have been around for a very long time but that have almost become extinct.’ Norris was born and grew up in Botswana, doing his undergraduate studies at the university in Gaberone. He then moved to the University of Reading (in the United Kingdom) and Michigan State University (USA) where he completed his master’s and PhD degrees respectively. His doctoral thesis dealt with ‘the dominance effects in genetic variation’. Norris has also done special courses in quantitative genetics in the United States (Michigan) and Canada, and he taught for a period of two years at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. ‘I really loved the Deep South,’ he recalls. ‘It was so much warmer than Michigan or Canada – much more suitable for someone from Southern Africa.’ Norris returned to Botswana in 2000 and made the move to Turfloop a year later. Asked why, he replies: ‘I loved the opportunity to combine teaching and research that Turfloop offered.’ And the marginalised indigenous chickens all over Southern Africa have benefited. Norris has established linkages with the University of Venda, as well as tertiary institutions in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Relationships are also in the pipeline with Swaziland and Botswana. ‘These links enable us to exchange information and research findings on indigenous poultry. I have also made personal visits. I’m now looking for funding to more formally establish the international interactions to cover the whole of the SADC region. This will enrich our understanding of a significant regional resource and improve its utility in our fight against poverty and under-development.’ Next step in Norris’s indigenous chicken research is a programme of selective breeding to improve the productivity of the chickens without damaging their adaptability to the environment. At the same time, a genuine African livestock resource will be conserved and used as a realistic alternative to much more vulnerable and expensive breeds imported from America and Europe.


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YOU CAN’T AVOID THE AFRICAN CONNECTION AT TURFLOOP FOR LONG. Try the Biochemistry, Microbiology and Biotechnology Department in the School of Molecular and Life Sciences. The Programme has linkages with the University of Zimbabwe and the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), also situated in Bulawayo, and this special relationship is being extended to involve the universities of Nairobi and Zambia as well. But that’s not all. Meet the head of the Turfloop Department, Professor Ignatius Ncube. He’s a Zimbabwean. And meet the charming Associate Professor Emil Abotsi, born in Ghana, and a staff member at Turfloop since 1991. Ncube spoke about the academic links into Africa. They’re sponsored by the Southern African Regional Corporation in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (SARBIO), which in turn is funded by the International Programme of Chemical Sciences based in Sweden. SABRIO is coordinated by Professor Yogi Naik at NUST. ‘The link programme began in July 1995,’ said Ncube, ‘and its initial objectives were to foster academic co-operation between the participating institutions. This comes in the form of student and staff exchanges, research, capacity building and training workshops.’


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‘It’s brought the participating universities closer together,’ remarked Abotsi. ‘Students are exposed to much more than their own campus and laboratory. We’ve been able to establish areas of research that are common to the participating institutions. Examples of these are: • Biotechnology work for the paper and pulp industry by the universities of Limpopo and Zimbabwe. In a nutshell, the research is seeking to replace hazardous chemicals with suitable microbial enzymes for use in the process of turning timber into paper. Both universities are involved in research that will show the relative effectiveness of selected enzymes. • A comprehensive examination of indigenous medicinal plants in the region, testing their effectiveness against cancer and other human maladies – and the possible side effects – of the traditionally used plants. This is done by

establishing via an extraction process the chemical compounds, and then by isolating the bio-active ingredients that actually perform the medicinal function. Collaboration between several universities is enriching this research process which, at the University of Limpopo, is being led by Professor Leseilane Mampuru. Ncube was born in Bulawayo and did most of his studying at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare. His doctorate was undertaken on a specialised aspect of enzyme technology with a part of his research undertaken at Lund University in Sweden. Abotsi studied first at the University of Science and Technology at Kumasi (Ghana). He then went to the University of Strathclyde in Scotland where he was awarded his doctorate in fermentation technology in 1981. He then returned to Ghana for six years before heading south – first to Zambia and finally to Turfloop.

Sechene Gololo and Matlou Mogkotho with the piece of equipment called a rotavapour that is part of an extraction process for bio-active compounds

Rural Community Empowerment:

SMALL VERSUS BIG – AN IMPORTANT AGRICULTURAL DEBATE IN THE POST-1994 CLIMATE, SOUTH AFRICAN UNIVERSITIES WERE BEING CHALLENGED AS NEVER BEFORE TO FOCUS THEIR ATTENTION MUCH MORE SPECIFICALLY INTO THE COMMUNITIES LIVING IMMEDIATELY BEYOND THEIR CAMPUS GATES. Thanks to the long impact of apartheid, some confusion seemed to exist in academic circles between the notion of ‘pure’ scientific research and research related to actual African realities. As a result of such debates, and under the guidance of Professor Naftali Mollel who is acting Dean of the Turfloop Faculty of Sciences, Health and Agriculture, the then University of the North (now Limpopo) did something about the challenge. They established the Centre for Rural Community Empowerment (CRCE) as the outreach arm of the School of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. That was in the year 2000. Two years later, French-born Thierry Lassalle arrived. He had accumulated extensive rural developmental experience in Africa. His first 10 years were spent in Tanzania (from 1988 to1998), working in the field of rural market development. He then consulted more generally in


Tanzania, as well as in Rwanda, Kenya and Madagascar. And in 2002 he came south to advise the CRCE’s newly appointed co-ordinator, Mr Ernest Letsoalo, who had just graduated from the University of Limpopo with a Masters in Agricultural Extension. ‘I think the debate is no longer so much about pure versus African research, not in agriculture at any rate, as about commercial versus small-scale agriculture,’ Lassalle says. ‘It’s important that we legitimise the debate in the academic arena. It’s crucially important, I believe, that a university like Limpopo should be engaged in the challenge of how to shape the future, and how to bring a better share for everyone. That’s certainly what the CRCE is doing – working to legitimise the debate.’ Lassalle points out that eight out of ten farmers throughout the world are community-based small-scale farmers serving the needs of the majority of the developing world’s population. Their development is therefore of primary concern. ‘A lot of commercial farming is moving in the direction of genetic modification,’ Lassalle observes. ‘But this is proving to be highly detrimental to development. Everyone in agriculture

remembers the so-called green revolution of the 1970s. Hybrids were supposed to eradicate hunger, but the economics of seed production prevented that. Now, too, genetically modified seeds are very definitely the property of the seed companies. So much so that in some cases the reproducibility of the seeds developing on the plants has been removed by the biotechnologists. The idea is that new seeds have to be purchased every year. ‘Where does that leave the small-scale farmer who operates on or just above the subsistence level?’ he adds with real concern. In response to these challenges, the CRCE has three main areas of activity: action research, documenting and networking. Action research can be defined as a combination of active assistance and postgraduate research in several defined pilot sites around the Turfloop campus. The first site involves the Ga-Mothiba community where dry-land agriculture and the sustainable management of natural resources are the main focuses. The second site involves the Ga-Mampa community that is situated within a traditional surface irrigation


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Ernest Letsoalo and Thierry Lassalle

Thierry Lassalle and Ga-Mothiba community members


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SMALL VERSUS BIG – AN IMPORTANT AGRICULTURAL DEBATE scheme where a diversification of livelihoods (including dairy goats and eco-tourism) is being developed. The third site is the Makgofe Trust Farm on which emerging small-scale farmers are working on redistributed land with broiler chickens and vegetables. The research is carried out by CRCE interns who are postgraduate students working towards their higher degrees. There are eight such interns for 2005. Much of the documentation comes from the interns. The CRCE has a publishing programme that makes known the results of the research. The CRCE also produces regular video material on aspects of its work. These videos are used not only as an extension tool but are also aired at national and international forums. The CRCE is now widely recognised as an authority in this field, and the training of agricultural extension officers as executive producers of TV programmes regularly takes place. Networking is of fundamental importance to the work of the CRCE. Relationships have been built up with many national and provincial bodies, and the international links reach deep into Africa. In October last year, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the universities of Limpopo and Tanzania that focuses particularly on animal science and agricultural economics and promotes joint activities and joint research between the two institutions.

Other African linkages include: • One with Pelum (Participatory Ecological Land-Use Management), a civil society network in East, Central and Southern Africa promoting sustainable communities. • Another one with Prolinnova, (Promoting Local Innovation) a network of professionals from research, academic and development circles aimed at supporting genuine local innovations that improve rural livelihoods. • And another with the East and Southern African Farmers’ Forum, an organisation committed to enabling small farmers in the region ‘to speak as a united voice so that the issues, concerns and recommendations of farmers becomes an integral part of policies and practices at national, regional and international levels’.

ours with inputs measured in millions of rands – that describes the sustainable future of the developing world. There are plenty of examples of large endeavours ruining the sustainability of the land and breaking the viability of a region’s small farmers. Agriculture should be about the people on the land, and not only about outputs measured in tons.’ So the future is going to be dominated by small-scale farming concepts like organic, humanbased, ecologically sustainable, and so on. And these are the concepts that the CRCE is seeking to bring into the mainstream academic debates at the University of Limpopo as it increasingly focuses attention on the communities it serves – and indeed on the basic rural realities of the entire SADC region.

One of the CRCE interns is currently doing postgraduate research on the process of networking among small-scale farmers. What functions do the networking processes fulfil? How effective are they in breaking through the restrictions of localised groups? Does horizontal communication at the local or district level help with the central issues of efficiency and sustainability? ‘Essentially,’ says Lassalle, ‘we are concerned with promoting innovation in small-scale agriculture because it is this branch of farming – much more than huge endeav-


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PROFESSOR ULRICH MENNEN IS IN PRIVATE PRACTICE NOW. But he can still be found on some days a week in his office as Head of the Department of Hand and Microsurgery on Medunsa campus. ‘Doing hands,’ as he calls his speciality, is his ruling passion. But that hasn’t kept him at the University which gained a world reputation thanks to his research, expertise and efforts. ‘It’s teaching. It’s the students. Isn’t this the most essential thing at an academic institution? And I must confess I love working with the postgrads. It’s very often highly rewarding. No, I no longer operate at the Dr George Mukhari Hospital. It’s much too frustrating – all the delays. I do all my operating at a private hospital now.’ Yet Mennen’s contribution to Medunsa’s reputation has been substantial. He was undergoing his specialist training in orthopaedics at Pretoria University when he was headhunted to the fledgling new university ‘in the bush’ to the north of the city. He is one of the few orthopaedic surgeons in the country with a doctorate; and he’s published over 200 articles and books. He has lectured in more than 35 countries, introduced innovative new surgical procedures and developed a number of new surgical implants. In 1985 he started a fullyfledged Department of Hand and Microsurgery, the second such department in the world after Cuba. This department was independent from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. He was also acting head of the latter for two years, during which time the Orthopaedic Department was subdivided into five specialist units. ‘In our heyday, during the late 1980s, we were performing 2 500 hand operations a year here at Ga-Rankuwa (Dr George Mukhari) Hospital. We developed a ‘hand team’ comprising doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, occupational therapists,


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Professor Ulrich Mennen

a psychologist and even a local minister of religion. And the doctor wasn’t necessarily the boss. The concept worked spectacularly well. It was partly what made us world famous.’ Today, Mennen is the secretary-general of the prestigious International Federation of Societies for Surgery of the Hand. It’s a position he’s held for the past two years, but he’s been on the Federation’s executive council for the past eight. ‘The aim of the Federation is to encourage countries to establish their own national societies. Then the Federation provides them with a home – and with contact with others working in the same field.’ Mennen explained that the Federation comprised no fewer than 35 specialist committees looking at such subjects as hand anatomy, congenital deformities, the skin, bones and joints of hands, tumours and infections, training centres and outreach. ‘This last committee – the outreach one – we call our Handsaround-the-World Committee. Isn’t that nice?’ he added with a smile. ‘I have made it a special aim of my tenure as secretary-general to encourage much more outreach into Africa. The potential is huge and attitudes in Africa are generally so positive. Usually, when I come back from conferences or workshops in Africa I feel so refreshed. Let me tell you about some of my African experiences.’ He detailed three. The first concerned an Ethiopian postgraduate student – a man by the name of Dr Asrat Mengiste – who still invites Mennen to lead hand workshops in East Africa. Mengiste himself now operates an air service specialising in hand surgery to 11 countries. The second occured at the end of one such workshop in Moshi on the first slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, Mennen was presented with a gift and

with a sincere vote of thanks. In fact, the speaker told the 25 surgeons attending from various different countries that the workshop proved that Africans could do these things for themselves, without the help and advice of Europeans or Americans. Eveyone had clapped. ‘As a white South African, this was the greatest compliment I have ever received in my life,’ he said. And once Mennen had been invited to speak at the inaugural meeting of the Botswana Orthopaedic Association. He flew to Gaborone to find the venue packed with people. He asked who they all were because they couldn’t all be surgeons. His hosts laughed. ‘No, no, not all surgeons,’ they explained, ‘but nurses and GPs and physiotherapists and health officials and interested members of the public’ – and they had come from all over that huge country to hear the expert from South Africa – the expert from Medunsa – speak. As he related this, it seemed to be from a position characterised by some vague sense of loss, or a wasting of opportunity perhaps. ‘The Medunsa heydays are over,’ was all he said. But later, he added: ‘The opportunity for Medunsa – or should I now say the University of Limpopo – to assume a leadership role in Africa remains enormous. It’s a matter of grabbing the opportunity and harnessing the huge goodwill and enthusiasm that exists on the continent. The University of Limpopo can certainly become the ‘Medical Gateway’ to Africa.’


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WHAT’S THE BEST WAY TO SECURE THE HEALTH OF FUTURE GENERATIONS? There are plenty of answers to this vital question – many of them ecologically and politically fashionable – but one of the most direct and obvious must relate to the strengthening of immunisation programmes and services. That’s certainly what’s happening in South Africa through the Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) that offers comprehensive protection for the nation’s children. (see the box on the next page for details) against all the major preventable diseases. It was adopted in South Africa according to World Health Organisation recommendations in 1995, with specific protection against hepatitis B added during the same year, and against Haemophilus influenzae type b in 1999. But there are challenges to the full success of the EPI. These include a lack of public knowledge of the programme, some complacency among health workers because the EPI has been so successful over the past decade, and also an under-utilisation of immunisation programmes in the face of competing health priorities like HIV/AIDS. This was realised some time ago by academics at Medunsa


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Dr Jeffrey Mphahlele Campus. Professor Anwar Hoosen, head of the Department of Microbiology, and Dr Jeffrey Mphahlele, head of the Department of Virology, in particular wanted to do something to support the government’s initiative. In the early 2000s, therefore, in partnership with Professor Andre Meheus from the University of Antwerp, funding from the Flemish Inter-University Council was secured and the Own Initiative Project (OIP) at Medunsa campus launched.. The intention was generally to support the government’s EPI through research, curriculum development, epidemiological studies on the impact of the EPI, and most importantly to establish at Medunsa campus an immunisation and vaccination

‘centre of excellence’ that would outlive the funded life of the OIP. The result was the establishment of the South African Vaccination and Immunisation Centre (SAVIC) which has as its specific objectives: • To promote synergies between the Department of Health and health scientists at academic institutions. • To disseminate to health officials and workers, academics and scientists, as well as to the vaccine industry and the general public, up-to-date South African information about vaccine-preventable diseases. • And to collaborate and share resources with local, regional and global partners. Project manager for SAVIC and OIP, Rose Burnett, says that at the

Avhashoni Tshatsinde end of the life of OIP early in 2007, a large meeting for representatives from the whole of Southern Africa is being planned with the express purpose of extending SAVIC services into the rest of the continent. ‘Already, our website carries reports and research results from other African countries,’ she adds. The SAVIC website, which is populated and managed at Medunsa campus by Turflooptrained medical scientist Avhashoni Tshatsinde, came on-stream a few months ago, and carries high-quality information on preventable diseases, on the EPI programme and on related research topics. ‘Our website,’ says Burnett, who holds a Masters in Public Health and lectures in epidemiology at the National School of Public Health (NSPH) on the Medunsa campus, ‘aims to be the prime source of information for promoting awareness of vaccine-preventable diseases, supporting local and regional immunisation initiatives, and promoting the use and benefits of vaccines. It’s an invaluable tool. But that’s not all we do.’ Research is currently being undertaken in health systems management and policy, and a behavioural and social study is

examining the nature of resistance to immunisation by some mothers and communities. On the curriculum development side, work has already been completed on a postgraduate diploma in the control of infectious diseases, as well as a Masters in Public Health that will concentrate on the same field. As Burnett says: ‘We want to produce health graduates at the University of Limpopo and elsewhere who are up-to-date with what is being practised in the EPI clinics.’ SAVIC, which incorporates the OIP, has established several subcommittees to look at such specialinterest areas as behavioural sciences (led by Dr Kebogile Mokwena, Acting Dean of the NSPH); health systems management and policy (led by Enoch Peprah, Dean of Academic Affairs at NSPH); curriculum development (led by Baile Selaledi, a lecturer in nursing science); and epidemiology (led by Dr Mphahlele). Other prominent Medunsa campus academics involved on the SAVIC committees include Professor Gboyega Ogunbanjo, Deputy Dean (Research) in the powerful Faculty of Medicine, Professor Hoosen, and Professor Andries Gous from the School of Pharmacy. To find out more about SAVIC log on to:

EXPANDED PROGRAMME OF IMMUNISATION (EPI) IN SOUTH AFRICA Here are the details of what every child in the country is entitled to, and can receive free of charge at any public health clinic. At birth: • BCG by intradermal injection • OPV by oral drops At 6 weeks: • OPV by oral drops • DTP + Hib by injection to left thigh • Hepatitis B by injection to right thigh At 10 weeks: • OPV by oral drops • DTP + Hib by injection to left thigh • Hepatitis B by injection to right thigh At 14 weeks: • OPV by oral drops • DTP + Hib by injection to left thigh • Hepatitis B by injection to right thigh At 9 months: • Measles by injection to right thigh At 18 months: • OPV by oral drops • DTP by injection to left arm • Measles by injection to right arm At five years: • OPV by oral drops • DT by injection to left arm BCG = Bacilli Calmete-Guerin (administered to immunise against tuberculosis) OPV = Oral polio vaccine DTP = Diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough) DT = Diphtheria and tetanus Hib = Haemophilus influenzae type b


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Public Health:



MEDUNSA’S NATIONAL SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH (NSPH) IS DEFINITELY AHEAD OF THE GAME. Established in 1998 with an initial student intake of 42 postgraduate students, it’s produced more public health graduates since then than all other equitable institutions in South Africa put together. Current student numbers are in the region of 240, of which 142 are Masters students and 11 are working towards their doctorates. The balance is doing postgraduate diplomas. ‘A characteristic of our student body,’ says Dr Kebogile Mokwena, director of the NSPH, ‘is that so many of them are from other African countries. Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and Namibia mostly, but also some from Zimbabwe and West Africa. Being a postgraduate school means that most of our students are already in jobs. What makes our reach so broad, in spite of this and in spite of the geographical spread of our students, is that we do distance learning – but it’s distance learning with a real difference.’ The difference is that the NSPH uses a sophisticated Canadian model of computer-based learning. It’s called EMBANET; it costs in the region of R500 000 a year


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(but is based on the number of student enrolments); ‘and it’s worth every penny – there’s no doubt about that’, adds Mokwena. She demonstrates the software on the computer on her desk. The main menu comprises several special functions: • There’s an ordinary e-mail facility where students can communicate with other students or with lecturers, and vice versa. • There’s an NSPH library with online access to journals, books, research documents and other written material. • There’s a notice board available to all. On this is posted news of public health events (academic meetings, conferences, international gatherings), and also movements and availability of lecturers and other in-school information. • Then there are the courses themselves. Three subheadings in this function are: About the Course which provides a summary of requirements, objectives and content; News Flash which contains relevant subsidiary material that might become available during the course, such as printed articles and upcoming television programmes; and finally the Course Material, which is

divided into units, each focusing on a theme and dealt with in several lessons. (The course material has been developed and written at Medunsa.) • All submissions of course work are made and assessed electronically via a device called the ‘white board’ or virtual lecture room. Essays and tests by individual students, as well as comments from the responsible lecturer, are posted here where access is given to other students in the group. This interactive process, which frequently includes group discussions via a customised chat room, enriches the teaching/learning process. • A pre-designed course schedule provides details of course timelines and due dates for assignments and gives an accurate picture of the time given to complete each element of the course. In addition, details of how students are to be evaluated and marked are provided. ‘As you can imagine, it’s a teaching-intensive method,’ says Mokwena. ‘But for this reason, dropout rates are low. Even though it’s not easy to replace the potential for human interaction that can be got in an actual

Dr Kebogile Mokwena, director of Medunsa’s National School of Public Health, trained as a physiotherapist at Medunsa, gaining both her first and Master’s degrees at that university. She then spent two years in America where she obtained her doctorate in Public Health from the University of South Carolina. She also completed a Higher Education Diploma from Unisa. Now she’s passing on her knowledge to hundreds of postgraduate students from South Africa and other Southern African countries. lecture room, the great advantage of this method is that it is accessible to so many who would otherwise be denied the opportunity of postgraduate study. This broadened reach is of utmost importance in Africa.’ The high level of students from other countries can be attributed to initial funding from the pharmaceutical giant BristolMyers Squibb, who provided bursaries across the sub-Saharan region for the first five years of the NSPH’s life. ‘But even when the funding came to an end,’ explains Mokwena, ‘the foreign students kept on coming. We had generated a reputation, and our only marketing has been word-ofmouth. It’s obvious there is a

need for what we offer.’ Mokwena defined public health as ‘a discipline that deals with the health of groups and populations (rather than individuals) and that rests on a foundation of five core elements. These are social/behavioural issues, health systems management, epidemiology, bio-statistics which puts the numbers into epidemiology, environmental/occupational health. Masters students major in one of these specialities. NSPH students are drawn from the ranks of existing nurses, doctors, pharmacists, dentists, health inspectors, social workers, managers from health departments or any other sphere where a health focus is required. ‘Our students have included

the Swaziland Minister of Health, the Health MEC in Gauteng and other top government people, hospital managers and World Health Organisation personnel,’ says Mokwena. She adds with obvious pride that Medunsa’s NSPH is the first public health school in South Africa to produce a doctoral graduate. So successful has the NSPH been that the public health courses on the Turfloop campus of the newly-merged University of Limpopo have been absorbed into the NSPH. It’s certainly one of the ways that the merger is helping to maintain the quality of tuition on both campuses.


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THE LEGACY OF ANTS FEW TRAVELLERS TO THE FAMOUS FLOWERS OF NAMAQUALAND KNOW OF THE EXISTENCE OF THE UNIQUE AGE-OLD TERMITE NESTS TO BE FOUND IN THIS BEAUTIFUL AREA OF SOUTH AFRICA. According to scientists, some of the older of these inactive termite nests are between 25 000 and 30 000 years old. The termites, scientifically known as Microhodotermis viator, built amazingly huge nests with an average height of one metre and a diameter of up to 30 metres. It is, therefore, quite apt that these nests are known as heuweltjies (hillocks) among the residents of Namaqualand. Millions of these heuweltjies are found on the West Coast from the Piketberg area up to the border with Namibia. Research shows that the Cape climate at the time of the building of the termite heuweltjies supported an open savannah area, more suited to the prevalence of termites. The current semi-desert heuweltjie-studded landscape is, therefore, a telling example of the results of climate change. But there’s a lot more to the heuweltjies than this. They’re easily recognisable by the unique vegetation to be found on them. This vegetation differs from the surrounding vegetation and is the result of changed soil and other characteristics that are connected with the termite nests. As the plant species that grow on the heuweltjies are, according to livestock farmers in the area, tasty to the livestock that is farmed in Namaqualand, heuweltjies form an important management component of the small-animal industry in the area. Not only are the heuweltjies important to the livestock farmers for management purposes, but the grain farmers in the area are also affected by the changing characteristics of the soil as a result of the prevalence of heuweltjies. Little scientifically-founded knowledge on heuweltjies is available and even the recommended


Professor Dirk Wessels

carrying capacity of heuweltjie veld is still scientifically unfounded at present. Research on Namaqualand’s heuweltjies now forms part of an interdisciplinary, international research project known as ‘BIOTA South’, funded primarily by the German government. This ambitious project comprises a research trajectory from the southern tip of South Africa to the border of Angola, with a branch off to the lichen fields of the central Namib desert. Here, research is being done on a number of subjects ranging from lichens, soil fungi, plants and animals, to agricultural and socio-economic aspects of farmers and other communities in the trajectory. Scientists from a number of universities and other institutions in Germany, as well as universities and government departments in South Africa and Namibia, are participating. Professor Dirk Wessels of the University of Limpopo, an expert on the lichen fields of the Namib, is part of a specialist group of international scientists led by Professor Burkhard Büdel of the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany doing research on the biological soil crust of heuweltjies and other areas in the research trajectory.


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Ecology: THE LEGACY OF ANTS Douw Venter

Biological soil crusts comprise of micro-organisms that attach to grains of soil in the surface layer to form a dense crust on the surface that in Namaqualand and Namibia could be as large as several hectares. Biological soil crusts also occur frequently in Limpopo Province. Several species of cyano bacteria (commonly referred to as ‘black algae’ in swimming pools), algae, bacteria, fungi, and crust-like earthbound lichen species form part of such biological soil crusts. According to scientists, centimetre-deep layers of biological soil crusts may take more than 100 years to develop Cyano bacteria are ancient residents of our planet and the first species occurred 3.9 billion years ago. Lichens are commonly known as rock flowers or stonecrop [korsmosse] and consist of a fungus and species of algal that live together in a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship. More than a thousand lichen species that can live to ages of six thousand years or more are found in South Africa and Namibia. There can be no doubt that biological soil crusts are of international ecological importance. They prevent erosion, retard desiccation, contribute to organic sound material and the large-scale fixation of atmospheric nitrogen. ‘During the course of the team’s work on the biological soil crusts,’ says Wessels from his Turfloop office, ‘we were surprised to discover that the chlorophyll concentration in some of the crusts is comparable to chlorophyll concentrations in the Atlantic Ocean.’ He explained that chlorophyll is the green colouring found in plant leaves that is essential for photosynthesis, a light-driven process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide and water are transformed into sugars that are used as building blocks by plants. ‘The absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide by biological soil crusts are of specific importance in


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today’s world of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere that cause the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect leads to higher temperatures that, in turn, can lead to large-scale climate change,’ Wessels points out. The rate at which Namaqualand’s soil crusts bind atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis is being researched by Professor Büdel and his group. Professor Wessels, on the other hand, is researching the ecology of biological soil crusts. This is done by an automatic weather station that monitors the microclimate of individual heuweltjies. Variations in soil temperature, soil moisture, total rainfall, rainfall intensity, light intensity, air temperature, air moisture and fog precipitation are measured every half hour on a continuous basis. The information is gathered and stored electronically, using a custom-made data logger designed and built by Douw Venter of the University of Limpopo. Eight months’ data were recently successfully downloaded from the data logger. This unique information will enable scientists accurately to clarify the complex ecological role of biological soil crusts on heuweltjies. They’ll also be able to compile a management plan for heuweltjie country that will ensure the conservation of the biodiversity of the veld type as well as better use of the veld by stock farmers in the future. So when next you marvel at the lavish springtime spectacle of the Namaqualand flowers, spare a thought for the termites and what they started underneath those normally arid landscapes up to thirty thousand years ago. • This article is closely based on a paper supplied by Professor Dirk Wessels.

Visual and dramatic arts:

A PERMANENT HOME AT LAST Professor Salomi Louw THERE’S A PARTIALLY EMPTY OLD STOREROOM ON THE TURFLOOP CAMPUS THAT HAS BEEN EARMARKED FOR REINCARNATION AS A CULTURAL CENTRE. Indeed, very recently, a small ceremony was held on campus when the keys to the building were handed over to Professor Salomi Louw, Director of the School of Languages and Communication Studies. ‘The project is now officially under way,’ says a jubilant Louw. ‘My first proposal for such a centre was dated 1983. So I can hardly believe that we are moving at last.’ The Cultural Centre will house a 220-seat theatre with ample back-stage facilities and storage. The seating will be moveable which means the theatre can be configured to suit the production – including an opportunity to present theatre-in-the-round. Leading off the foyer will be space to house indigenous music and oral literature collections – as well as local Limpopo Province art. In fact, there’ll be sculptures and paintings and other art objects everywhere. ‘We’ve been collecting for years,’ says Louw, indicating many beautiful pieces currently adorning her office and reception area. ‘Now we can give them all a permanent home and concentrate on enlarging our collection into something that people will travel long distances to come and see.’ Louw is now looking for sponsors who will buy individual pieces for a collection that aims fully to represent the rich artistic heritage existing in the province. ‘We are convinced that our fine art collection – not to mention the other activities and collections in the Cultural Centre – will attract not only students and researchers but also significant numbers of tourists onto the Turfloop campus. Although funding is still being sought for this exciting addition to university infrastructure, Louw is confident that interested parties will not be in short supply. She points to a recent visit by a deputation



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Visual and dramatic arts:

A PERMANENT HOME AT LAST from the national Department of Arts and Culture, including representatives of the SA-Flemish Partnership for arts and culture education and training. In addition, the DAC officials were keen for the University of Limpopo to embark on a comprehensive training programme for artists and cultural workers. ‘We have been informed,’ says Louw, ‘that if we embark on the training, funds are available for support of the materials needed. Hopefully this will translate into support for the establishment of our Cultural Centre.’ Preliminary plans have already been drawn up by a Polokwane firm of architects, and Louw lists the full range of objectives of the completed Cultural Centre: • To collect and exhibit indigenous arts and crafts, and other cultural objects.

• To provide rehearsal and performance space for plays, poetery readings, music and dance, and to undertake training in these fields. • To house a permanent exhibition of creative writing, including oral literature. • To make exhibition space (and short-term working space) available to Limpopo artists and crafters. • To encourage tourism to Limpopo province. • To emphasise the role of the University in shaping the history of the province by housing a permanent collection of photographs, media productions and archives. Louw says that the cleaning of the building and its immediate surroundings will begin with immediate effect.


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MISPLACED MAP I must point out that in L i m p o p o L e a d e r 4 , at the end of your article on Limpopo’s Growth and Development Strategy, the map reproduced on page 11 is not a map of Limpopo as stated, but only a tiny part of the province.

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Joseph Mamabolo Senior Manager of Planning Co-ordination Office of the Premier Limpopo Province


We apologise for the vague and misleading caption attached to the photograph referred to above and reproduced here. In fact, what we are looking at is an infrared satellite image of the Olifants River irrigation scheme mentioned on page 26 of L I M P O P O L E A D E R 4 .

GET THAT USAGE RIGHT The Tshivenda National Language Body was established through Act of Parliament with a mandate to develop and promote Tshivenda as a language through development of literature and other writings. The body is concerned about the wrong usage of Tshivenda in your magazine (L i m p o p o L e a d e r 4 ). You have spelt Tsireledzani as Tsireledzani which is not acceptable in Tshivenda. In case you need assistance in Tshivenda you could contact Professor RN Madadzhe at Limpopo University or any member of Tshivenda National Language Body. V






Professor MJ Mafela Deputy Chairperson, TNLB University of Venda for Science and Technology Thohoyandou.



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