The university is planning a multi-million rand expansion of its research complex in Limpopo to accommodate increased research demand and contribute to its vision as a “knowledge hub” for rural development.

The R45-million project at the Wits Rural Facility (WRF), which is located near Bushbuckridge, is due to start in October.

Prof Yunus Ballim, vice principal and deputy vice chancellor (academic), says the construction will be done in two phases. The first phase will see the construction of a large teaching/conference facility with seminar rooms, a basic life sciences laboratory and additional accommodation.

Phase 1 is expected to cost R23-million but Ballim says Wits will only contribute 10% of that amount.

“Some R12m has already been raised from the Department of Science and Technology for the infrastructure part of Phase 1 and we are hopeful of a further grant from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) for the rest of the funding. Our plans may change depending on the response from DHET.”

In Phase 2 a well-resourced laboratory will be built for science teachers and learners to use as a part of a Wits school development programme for Bushbuckridge.

Dr Wayne Twine, a senior lecturer at the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES), has done research at the WRF for over a decade.

He says the plans for development at the facility are “exciting”.

Twine explains why an urban university such as Wits needs a research facility in a rural area.

He says “rural areas are inextricably tied to the large urban centres through ubiquitous migrant labour and rapid urbanisation”.

Twine says it is important for the university to generate the “knowledge and human skills needed to tackle … complex challenges along the rural-urban continuum”.

He says the WRF produces graduates who are equipped to make a difference in society.

Ryan Wagner, who completed his MSc in Medicine last year, is one such person. He did research for his dissertation at the WRF, focusing on the prevalence of and risk factors for epilepsy in rural South Africa.

Wagner was inspired by his work at the WRF and is now exploring the burden and cost of epilepsy and its treatment.  He hopes to come up with cost-effective interventions for the treatment of the disease.

Twine says the results of research conducted at the WRF are often made available to government policy makers and sometimes lead to an improvement in the lives of rural communities.

He says one WRF project found that poor households could not access child grants because the Home Affairs offices where they were supposed to get birth certificates and ID documents were too far away. The findings were shared with the Department of Home Affairs, which sent mobile offices to villages in the region. Eight thousand people were able to get formal documentation as a result.