Wits student reflects on Mandela Washington fellowship

Wits PhD candidate and Black Women in Science co-founder Ndoni Mcunu. Photo: Provided

A Wits doctoral student has returned home to South Africa after spending six weeks in the United States on the Mandela Washington Fellowship for outstanding leaders.

Ndoni Mcunu, a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, was chosen to attend the fellowship administered by the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Nebraska where she spent five weeks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln followed by another week in Washington DC.

“It was challenging and I was not expecting that kind of challenge. I think I was expecting a challenge in terms of content and theory but instead I was more challenged as an individual,” Mcunu said about her experience.

“My highlight was just seeing how much effort is put into community, in terms of a soup kitchen or a place where the community can go get clothes or a place to shop for vitamins and food. It’s not just soup and bread, you literally take a trolley and grocer, that’s amazing and that’s how much donations they get. I think we need that culture here,” she added.

The fellowship which runs for six weeks brings together young leaders from 48 different African countries. This year, 63 South Africans were part of the fellowship. The fellows are selected for their outstanding leadership in their communities.

Mcunu applied for the fellowship based on her involvement in social entrepreneurship through her non-profit organisation(NGO), Black Women in Science (BWIS), and her PhD research which focuses on climate change and food production.

“I learned to have confidence in what I’m doing and in the way that I deliver what it is that I’m trying to do … I also learned a different way to view my NGO. It’s not just a charity thing that I’m just running but something that I need to start running as a business,” said Mcunu about what she learned from the fellowship.

Mcunu started BWIS in 2015 and her intention was to start an NGO that reaches out to black female university science students and teaching them scientific skills.

“I think that having more black females in the science industries can add some kind of different eye and perspective to whatever scientific topic that is there. I’s very important and it hasn’t been explored so we can’t say it doesn’t work,” she said.

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Former Wits manager arrested in US

A former senior manager from the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (WRHI) was arrested last week in the United States on allegations of money laundering.

The university would not reveal the identity of the manager but according to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) statement he has been identified as Dr. Eugene Sickle.

The Dr. was arrested in Washington DC in connection with misappropriation of funds of HIV/AIDS programmes in South Africa being supported and funded by USAID. Approximately USD 230 000, about three million in South African rands was misused.

Wits University released a statement saying the bulk of the funds would be covered by insurance and that the “project will not suffer any reduction in funding and there will be no direct loss to USAID.”

Dr. Sickle resigned last year from his position as Deputy Executive Director for the WRHI program following discovery of his potential involvement in the submission of fraudulent documents to WRHI by a third party. When he was questioned about this, he immediately resigned from his position.

According to Wits University spokesperson, Shirona Patel, as a precautionary measure, the WRHI have undertaken to review all grants and activities and no other irregularities have been found.

A criminal case has also been opened against him with the South African Police Services.

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