Having a WALE of a time

THE Wits Arts and Literature Experience (WALE) started on Wednesday and will continue until Saturday May 12.

The festival is a major event on the university’s calendar and features “the best that Wits has to offer in dramatic arts, film, music, literature, theatre, dance and more”, according to the WALE website.

The theme for this year’s affair is “90 years of creativity” to tie in with Wits’s birthday.

Events will take place in and around a number of venues including the Library Lawns, Great Hall, Atrium, Wits Theatre, The Nunnery, Mafika and Apolonia.

Wednesday’s highlights included the Vagina Monologues and the WALE parade.

More information and the event’s schedule can be found on the website www.wits.ac.za/wale.

Published in Vuvuzela Print Edition, 11 May 2012

Been there, done that

South Africa successfully hosted a 2 billion dollar soccer tournament in 2010, so building the world’s most powerful radio telescope at the same cost and with many more long term benefits should not be a problem.

Dr. Adrian Tiplady shared some of the advantages to hosting the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radiotelescope in South Africa with the public at the Wits Origins Centre last week. Tiplady is the South African SKA Site Characterisation Manager and one of Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans.

The SKA is a global futuristic science project that was first devised in 1991. Tiplady explained that the telescope had to be designed using technology that would only be available in 2016. It will be 100 times more sensitive than today’s telescopes and will have the computing power of 1 billion personal computers.

Scientists use radiotelescopes to see into the past, to the origins of the Universe – an appropriate topic for a talk at the Origins Centre, said Tiplady.

Telescopes like the Hubble use light to take pictures but space dust and other obstacles may hide objects further away. Radiowaves move through these obstacles which means that astronomers can “see” much more by “listening” with radiotelescopes.

These radiotelescopes must be built in areas where there is little cellphone, radio and TV interference. Tiplady said the Northern Cape is the perfect location for this. He also said South Africa has superior technical solutions and is home to the world’s leading science and engineering team.

South Africa is bidding against Australia to host the telescope and rumours are rife that the two countries may have to share the site.

Tiplady said that although a huge disadvantage of this would be the high costs involved, his personal opinion is that sharing will ensure that scientists collecting the data will never miss anything.

At a press conference earlier this year the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, joked that not sharing the site was about the only thing on which she and the Australian minister agreed.

#Reality check

Earth Day went by rather quietly on Sunday even though the environmental movement is still to face its biggest challenge: climate change. As Al Gore and fellow South African campaigner Jeunesse Park would say, it is a #Reality, right here, right now.


High risk of liver disease for Charlotte Maxeke nurses

Poor vaccination practices at a Johannesburg hospital has been putting nurses at a high risk of liver disease for over 10 years, according to a recent study by Wits and UCT.

Healthcare workers who work with blood are regularly exposed to hepatitis B virus, which causes liver disease in humans. These workers must be protected from infection by vaccination against the virus.

However, at the Charlotte Maxeke academic hospital, only half (52.4%) of staff and student nurses are currently protected against hepatitis B, according to recent research published in the South African Medical Journal.

Ten years ago hepatitis immunity was even lower, at 30.6%, and at the time recommendations were made to improve the situation. Wits researcher Dr Adam Mahomed said these recommendations had not been implemented and that “it is of great concern”. He added that labour laws were being contravened.

Nurses who were not vaccinated against the virus said they were not “aware of the danger of hepatitis as an occupational exposure” or that they did not know a vaccine was available. Some also cited not having enough time to get vaccinated or that they were told the vaccine had run out.

“We need a stronger commitment for the health authorities, but I think unions and staff clinics as well as the hospital’s infectious diseases unit need to be more pro-active,” said Mahomed. The system needed to be strengthened from an undergraduate level and he said this applied to all healthcare professions.

But Mohamed said such measures would not absolve employers from following due processes.

“I think this is a problem not limited to [Charlotte Maxeke] but probably [present in] the whole country.” He said hospitals should start a “catch-up” vaccination programme and that risks to staff should be monitored on a continuous basis.

Acute symptoms of hepatitis B infection include vomiting and jaundice; long term infection increases the risk of liver cancer.

The Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital is affiliated with the Wits School of Health Sciences.

Wits on the final frontier

WITS has the potential to become the African hub of astronomy thanks in part to South Africa’s bid to host the world’s biggest radio telescope.

South Africa is bidding to host the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), for which Prof Sergio Colafrancesco holds a research chair at Wits. Colafrancesco spoke to Vuvuzela after a decision on the host country was delayed last week.

In the eight months since his appointment Colafrancesco has already assembled the largest astronomy research group in Gauteng and it is growing fast.

In addition to the SKA project, Wits is very active in developing southern Africa as a the place to be for astronomy research using a range of different telescopes, or a multi-frequency approach: Southern Africa already has the optical Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) and Wits is assisting Namibia in bidding for the gamma-ray Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA).

In addition, Colafrancesco said the Mitra, KAT-7 and MeerKAT telescopes are all part of the bid to host the SKA, so the bidding process itself was worth it for astronomy in South Africa.

Listening in on the big bang: Some of the 7 dishes of the KAT-7 telescope built alongside the SKA site. The SKA will be the most powerful telescope ever built. It will use radio waves to look back in time to the beginning of the universe. See more pictures and information at www.ska.ac.za. PHOTO: DR NADEEM OOZEER

These telescopes also show South Africa’s commitment to hosting the SKA. Such projects are absent from Australia, the other bidding country.

Scientifically, South Africa’s site is better, labour costs are cheaper and high-speed internet lines to Europe are already established, said Colafrancesco. He also highlighted many other advantages to building the SKA in Southern Africa rather than in Australia.

The SKA’s decision making committee delayed the expected announcement last week saying it was “important to maximise the value from the investments made by both candidate host regions”.

Colafrancesco agrees with the SKA committee in this but, in his opinion, there is no doubt that South Africa’s site will the best choice for everyone involved.

“It’s not a competition like a rugby match – everyone should win.” He said South Africa’s site combined with Australia’s experience in radio-astronomy makes the most sense for the project.

He said South Africa should remain optimistic about winning the bid because last week’s delay allows the deciding committee to become more aware of South Africa’s advantages and opportunities. “It’s a chance for the world to open their eyes about South Africa.”

Published in Vuvuzela Print Edition, 13 April 2012

The verdict is out

Wits will pioneer a new law journal this year, which will draw young law students into the culture of producing and publishing papers of academic quality.The Wits Student Law Journal for Southern Africa will launch its bi-annual publication in July, 2012. It is being run by a mostly undergraduate editorial team and is calling for articles from both undergraduate and postgraduate law students.

The journal will not only reflect the editorial team’s values around youth involvement, but also gender equality. The founding editors are young women and many other women are involved in the running of the journal.

“Our journal will focus on one’s merit and not one’s gender,” said journal proposal writers, Tariro Muzenda and Nyasha Gonzo.

The journal will be one of the official legal publications produced by law students in the 15 southern African states within the region, but it will be housed at Wits.

This new addition to the Law School is important for students because it will “help them become actively involved in legal scholarship [and] help exercise their freedom of opinion in the legal arena”, said Jeremiah Sepotokele, editorial team member and second year law student.

The publication will strengthen Wits’ existing prestige in the field of law – one of the most cited legal publications, the South African Human Rights Journal, is edited at Wits. Sepotokele said this “highlights the competitive edge that Wits [already] has”.

Inexperienced students can submit articles that meet the new journal’s editorial criteria, and will be guided by established academics.

“Through this we hope to see greater student participation in legal discourse, particularly through our online edition of the Journal, which will be updated frequently and include forums and chat facilities that will link students, academics and practitioners across the region.”

The editorial team plans to fund the project by selling the journal, and advertising space within it, to other law schools, law firms and interested parties. Funds have also been provided by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa and the Wits Law School.

Find the Journal’s group on Facebook or Twitter for more details on submission criteria and other information.

Published in Vuvuzela Print Edition, 13 April 2012

Geosciences rock first open day

Fossils, meteors and Mars absorbed top Johannesburg matrics last week in an open day that Wits Geosciences hopes will draw more students to study Geology.

“Geoscience companies are banging down my door saying ‘where are your graduates?’” said Senior lecturer Dr Susan Webb.

The Exploring Earth open day, held during the university break, was a first for the School of Geosciences. The School recognised a need to expose high school students to earth science before they applied for university, and to attract top performing students.

Around 50 students were invited from the top 25 feeder schools in Johannesburg and were split into teams to compete in the five challenges of the day.

The first challenge was to match the microscopic image of a rock to its life-sized partner. The wide-eyed students were free to interact with the rocks and minerals, the microscope samples and the machine itself.


“It’s good fun, this,” said Cameron Dry (above right) from St John’s College, who wanted to be a fighter pilot before a vocational training session convinced him otherwise. “I love science. I just never thought I could have a career in it.”

On the library lawns, the students used a mallet to hit a metal plate in the geoscience equivalent of a carnival Strongman game.

“The hammer was really heavy,” said Jeppe Girls’ pupil Athena Tsai. A computer collected information about the hit for the students to use in calculating the thickness of the soil below.

Next, the students used Google Earth to explore the surface of this planet, and Mars, before sitting down to a free lunch in the Bleloch Geological Museum.

Prof Lew Ashwal headed up the meteorite challenge with an array of space rocks worth around R500 000. He told them meteorites were important because “they’re cool” and “they’re worth a f**k lot of money”. He said people often phoned him, thinking they had found a meteorite. But “nine times out of ten it’s a ‘meteowrong’”.

The last challenge was for pupils to reconstruct a skeleton from loose fossils after briefly studying a complete version.

“Judging by the students’ reactions [today] was a success,” said PhD candidate and associate lecturer Grant Bybee, who had manned the microscope challenge. The winning team members each received a mineral box worth about R300.

Photos by Anina Minnaar

SKA: “A wonderful boom for Africa, through science”

South Africa is ready to host the world’s most powerful radio telescope. That was the message Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, wanted the world to hear.

SKA: “What a wonderful boom for Africa, through science, ” said minister of Science & Technology, Naledi Pandor. PHOTO: ANINA MINNAAR

She was speaking at a media briefing held on Thursday, 29 March 2012, by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), the South African Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project team and the South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF).

The SKA Founding Board had been expected to announce a final decision on the SKA host country next week. Instead, the meetings on April 3rd  and 4th would address concerns and finalise the site selection process, said DST Director General, Dr Phil Mjwara, and SA SKA Director, Dr Bernie Fanaroff.

But Pandor insisted that South Africa would push for a final answer. “Our site is better…We think we’ll be a brilliant decision.”

She said the benefits of the SKA project to South Africa would mainly be in the form of human capital. “Expanding the number of Africa’s scientists and technicians will allow South Africa and Africa to play an increasingly important role in the global knowledge economy.”

Almost 400 postdoctoral, PhD, Masters and undergraduate SKA bursaries have already been awarded to South African and African students since 2005. Two Wits students were among this year’s bursary recipients.

The SKA facility will also generate employment in infrastructure construction and, along with other large-scale astronomy facilities like the MEERKAT, will attract tourists and drive socio-economic development.

When asked what would happen if South Africa  was not chosen as the host, the minister replied: “Plan A: we are ready to host the SKA. Plan B: we are ready to host the SKA. Plan C: we are ready to host the SKA”.

Wits is home to one of the seven SKA research chairs, Prof Sergio Colafrancesco, chair in radio astronomy. Colafrancesco is currently abroad supporting South Africa’s SKA bid and was unavailable for comment.

The panel from left to right: Dr Bernie Fanaroff, Minister Naledi Pandor and Dr Phil Mjwara. PHOTO: ANINA MINNAAR

Wits Safe Zones a first in SA

Wits is the first South African university to join the international anti-homophobic initiative known as Safe Zones, which will train community members to challenge human rights abuses on campus.

The Wits Transformation Office (WTO) has announced the SafeZones@Wits programme launch will take place on April 18 with the first of many free workshops. WTO spokesperson Ella Kotze said the workshops were aimed at “…anyone who has an interest in advocating human rights and challenging human rights abuse”. They will provide training on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, questioning, intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA) issues.

Click to go to SafeZones@Wits on Facebook:

Those successful in the training will graduate as “allies” to the LGBTQIA community. Allies provide support systems or “Safe Zones” for dealing with the issues faced by the community.

Kotze said these issues included the emotions and challenges of “coming out” to friends and family, and discrimination. Allies could refer or accompany those with problems to the appropriate campus resources, such as Campus Health or the WTO.

They could create and identify Safe Zones by, for example, placing badges and stickers on office or res room doors.

Many international universities have already implemented similar Safe Zone programmes. According to http://www.lgbtcampus.org, over 200 institutions in the USA had initiated their own Safe Zones by 2005, and some as early as 1998.

“…we’re definitely the first in South Africa. Our ultimate aim is to see the programme implemented in universities across South Africa in the next five years,” said Kotze.

A few unique Safe Zones logos from across the world:

From left to right: Wits, The University of Tennessee, Southwestern Illinois College, Northeastern University, Joliet Junior College.

Anyone interested in attending a workshop can email ella.kotze@wits.ac.za or cameron.jacobs@wits.ac.za at the WTO. The next workshop will be on the April 21, but special sessions can be arranged if individuals or departments cannot attend the first two.

Homophobia: An extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexual people. Heterosexism: Discrimination or prejudice against homosexuals on the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm. #FightIgnorance


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Earth science desperate for quality students

Wits Geosciences are appealing to quality science students to enrol for undergraduate degrees in Geology, citing a chronic shortage of earth science professionals in South Africa.

Dr Susan Webb , gravity specialist in the School of Geosciences, said high school students seem unaware of the geology degree when they apply for university.

Even though 150 first year students are enrolled for the geology undergraduate degree this year, the biggest group in a while, Webb said that for many it was not their first choice and some are repeating the year.

Many top maths and science students seem to choose non-science degrees. “Of the top feeder schools [to Wits], none went into science,” she said. They may choose actuarial science or engineering careers over geology but some end up in geology after rejection from those courses.

Wits needs quality undergraduate students to produce excellent postgraduates and career-ready graduates, said Webb. To remedy the current lack of interest, the School of Geosciences will have an open day called “Exploration Earth” on April 5 where high school students and teachers will be exposed to the field.

“Who wouldn’t want to do this job?” asked geochemistry Prof Lewis Ashwal , explaining that geoscience is one of the few careers where you get paid to travel and spend time outdoors. Even an academic career has its benefits – “you should see my car and my hot tub,” he joked.

He concurred with Webb that geoscientists are needed in South Africa’s economy. Wits provides the only internationally recognised programme in southern Africa and its graduates feed the oil, mineral, engineering and water discovery industries, which are all important for development.

Another difficulty in recruiting good students is that undergraduate majors are declared very early on in South Africa, when students may not yet have a clear idea of the career they want to pursue. This is in contrast to the American system where students specialise after a few years of study.

“When I was a [first year] student, I wanted to have sex, drugs and rock ’n roll,” said Ashwal, who studied in America and only decided on geology when he was 20.

First year students at Wits have to enrol for three years of geology, maths, chemistry and physics for the best chance of postgraduate studies in geosciences

Not at our Wits

Homophobic incidents at Wits have prompted the university to launch a new programme to encourage tolerance and acceptance on campus.

A recent example was a lesbian couple having a copy of Vuvuzela torn up in front of them. They had appeared holding hands in a photo published in the campus newspaper.

Spearheaded by the Wits transformation office, the programme is called Safe Zones@Wits. Both places and people could become “safe zones”, according to Anzio Jacobs, programme spokesperson. In combination, the entire campus would eventually be a “safe zone”.

Anyone could go through training to become a “safe zone”, and those who were suitable would then act as peer counsellors and allies to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Questioning, Intersex and Asexual (LGBTQIA) community.

Jacobs described it as “a community helping [another] community”. “It’s not [just] about tolerance, it’s about acceptance.” He said homophobia was often influenced by ignorance and graduates should leave Wits with a better understanding of different people.

Based on a tried-and-tested American version, the programme was first launched as a project in 2011, as part of Wits Pride. It has since been expanded and will soon re-launch, starting with diversity workshops at residences.

Last year, an international student sent the transformation office an email threatening to “wipe” gay students from the campus if Wits Pride went ahead. Wits Pride is an annual march for the LGBTQIA community and allies. This is one of many examples of homophobia on campus that Safe Zones@Wits aims to redress.

Jacobs explained that Wits “has to start somewhere” with regard to marginalised communities. His office focuses on decreasing social injustice at Wits and said any student who felt marginalised could contact his office with ideas for initiatives similar to Safe Zones@Wits.

The programme will run with slogans like “Not in our classes” and “Not at our Wits”. A poster campaign will call for allies to join training.

If students want more information, they can contact Jacobs at cameron.jacobs@wis.ac.za or visit his office in SH9005.