Sydney Mavundla jazzes up Wits

Music-lovers united to watch a jazz trio groove up the stage at Wits Chris Seabrooke Music Hall.

The stage was adorned with a gorgeous baby grand piano, a bronze trumpet, and a larger-than-life cello, all waiting to play a tune. The music hall was designed with acoustic architecture and welcoming colours added to the ambience. The stage was awaiting South African trumpet legend, Sydney Mavundla, who was accompanied by Africa Mkhize on keys and Dalisu Ndlazi on strings, to debut his single, Dirge for our fathers.

The stage is set with a grand piano, a shiny trumpet, and an impressive cello. Photo: Victoria Hill

Mavundla “hated the beginning” of his music career, and it took him “quite some time to get into it”. He told Wits Vuvuzela how he “used to come home, drop [his] school bag, and run [away] before [his] dad comes, because if he gets here, it’s ‘let’s go to the trumpet’”. His father was a colonel with the Salvation Army and encouraged Mavundla to join their band.

It was around the age of 14 years, when he began to love the brass instrument. Interestingly, he had auditioned for Wits and got rejected, but soon found a home at the University of Natal, studying under prestigious musicians and creating unique pieces he went on to perform all over the world.  

Silence fell over the audience as they waited in anticipation for the first note to sound. The three men looked in their element, waiting for each other’s cues and then, suddenly, a symphony hit everyone’s ears. The audience become one, each in their own bubble interpreting the music as they pleased — an old-school pipe-smoker, a young head-bopper, and a curious foot-tapper.

The first song of the evening paid homage to the time of covid-19 lockdown, when all social circles were broken. The tune was melancholic, with a slow blending of piano, trumpet, and cello sounds. Each musician had a solo which drove home the idea of isolation, yet finding the beauty within it. Now that society has returned to normal, Mavundla says the places available for jazz musicians to share their music is limited, so even though one has music, there is no one for whom to play it.

The next composition was an ode to his daughter, the song recreated her happy and lively nature. The music consisted of high-and-low points and soft-and-loud blends. The three gentlemen were living in the moment, dancing to their own music and smiling at each other whilst performing. The feeling was contagious throughout the audience, with many “whoops” and “yes’s” echoing around the hall.

Contrasting this energy was a composition referring back to Mavundlas’s roots. It was whole-heartedly melancholic, with a contagious silence falling amongst the audience. A general emotion of lost-yet-found was tangible. But, as they transitioned into their next melody, everything gained momentum again, resulting in a sound that has “everything to do with happiness”. The three musicians were sweating at this point — they were playing their instruments with their full bodies and encouraged the audience to feel the beat through their whole bodies too.

Dalisu Ndlazi can be seen emerged in his cello solo, physically exerting his mind, body, and soul. Photo: Victoria Hill

The climax of the evening was when the trio played Dirge for Our Fathers, “paying tribute to all the people who have paved the way for us”. It doubles as a reference to African culture and the importance of the ancestors in life. Mavundla sings “may your soul rest in peace, know that you are so loved, tell all the others the same”. This drove people in the audience to sing and dance their hearts out.

FEATURED IMAGE: Sydney Mavundla on stage performing songs of his own composition. Photo: Victoria Hill


Wits Shop Merch: Reasonable or rip-off?

Prices of Wits University merchandise are between 24% and 30% higher than the University of Pretoria  and the University of Johannesburg, respectively.

A grey Wits sweater with a R415 price tag. Photo: Victoria Hill

Despite students being its primary target audience, the pricing of items in the Wits Shop based online and on campus are not budget friendly.

The average price point of jackets, hoodies, and sweaters at Wits are R617 per item; t-shirts and golfers sitting at R325; hats and headwear at R160, and other goodies at R186.

While this may seem reasonable in the grand scheme of the fashion industry in South Africa, being a university-based store has financial expectations, which are not currently being met.

In comparison, UP’s t-shirts and golfers are only R238 per item, with UJ’s coming in at R123. For hats and headwear, UP is approximately R30 cheaper than Wits, and UJ nearly R100 cheaper.

Shop Supervisor Sam Magena agrees, “pricing is too high for students” and he told Wits Vuvuzela that students have informally complained about the affordability of the regalia.

He explained the increased prices are partly due to ordering from South African companies in hopes of supporting local businesses despite overseas companies proving cheaper.

The Wits Shop is also a smaller outlet, meaning items are not bought in bulk which might otherwise afford more negotiation benefits of the cost prices.

Nevertheless, Magena says the shop only adds a mark-up of at most 35%, compared to the national norm of above 50%. The Wits Shop is not primarily a profit-making business, but rather focuses on the marketing and promotional aspects of Wits through students and alumni.

Head of Wits marketing, Reshma Lakha-Singh, says the department is in the midst of creating a new strategy which will see revamped stock and additional locations this year.

However, “given the current scale and operational scope of the shop, there are no immediate plans for significant changes in pricing structure” she says, but they are “developing medium and long-term strategies to upgrade the shop”.

Students should definitely keep their eye on this space, as the Wits Shop is rethinking its entire philosophy to start benefitting students more than anyone else.

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits Student, Ricardo Lopes, browsing through the racks in the Wits Shop. Photo: Victoria Hill


Doctors save lives, but who saves theirs?

Medical students and doctors are shockingly the professionals with the highest suicide rate worldwide due to issues with anxiety, depression, and burnout.

Mental health has become a topical issue in the 21st century, with more focus being placed on it than ever before. Even though it is at the forefront of note, medical professionals are suffering from increased levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout whilst trying to save others from the aforementioned.

In an article, Professor Bernard Janse van Rensburg said: “Doctors are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, while physician burnout is a leading cause of medical error”. He explained awareness of this issue needs to start with medical students to reduce the stigma surrounding doctors and their mental health.

For medical students at Wits, their issues are caused by how their curriculum is set up. They have long working hours, which take effect from fifth year. They have weekday shifts, which can last up to 15 hours and night shifts on the weekend. In addition, these students are studying full-time, which includes doing readings, class work, and online lectures.

To further investigate the issue, Wits Vuvuzela spoke to four medical students on campus who said they are suffering from intense stress, depression, and burnout. The students requested to remain anonymous as they fear reprisal. Three of the four students said they were on anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety medication, and all reported they were on the verge of burnout.

Eileen Maleka, a manager from the Office of Student Success (OSS) at Wits, a programme offering support, counselling, and academic assistance to health science students, said, “South African research reveals higher rates of suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety among medical students… barriers to accessing mental health services include time constraints, confidentiality concerns, and fear of stigma.”

The additional pressure to do well academically also adds to the mental toll. Students have been known to write five tests in one day, thereafter, attend shifts at hospitals. This is because students are seen as part of the main workforce, but they feel they are just “free labour”. Students are not paid for the work they do.

Despite Wits having the OSS programme, these young doctors-in-training feel as though they are not fully supported. The students explained the suicide statistic is simply unacceptable, yet not surprising, and institutions need to acknowledge the numbers are not decreasing.

The Dean of Student Affairs, Jerome September, said medical students are welcome to “further discuss what the specific gaps might be with the idea to find improvements where required”. He said, this could include compulsory debriefings or group counselling sessions which could ease the burden on them.  

FEATURES IMAGE: Scenario showing the stress medical students feel on a daily basis. Photo: Adobe Stock


EDITORIAL: Why everyone should be a tree-hugger

Trees are one of the oldest living organisms in nature, and they have many great lessons to teach us, one being to slow down and breathe every once in a while.

Feel the groove of their bark on your fingertips. Touch your cheek against its rough skin and inhale the scent of nature. Breathe in the fresh oxygen just released from its leaves. Exhale the toxic feelings that live in your heart. Slow your mind. Lose yourself in the motion. Just exist quietly for a while.

I have always had a fascination with trees, feeling drawn to them in a way I could never explain. Whenever I could, I would scale their trunks and sit amongst the branches. It was always so peaceful in the treetops, and I felt like I was exactly where I was meant to be.

Wits Vuvuzela’s Victoria hugging a tree and showing everyone how it is done on Wits campus. Photo: Thato Gololo
Wits Vuvuzela student journalist, Victoria Hill hugging a tree and showing everyone how it is done on Wits campus. Photo: Thato Gololo

I started hugging trees at a very young age, not knowing quite what I was doing or why, but I knew I had found the one place I could always go whenever I needed life to fade away.

Humans are a quintessential part of nature and are a species who have proven themselves very different from the rest, with verbal language, complex psychological functions, and interdependent social communities.

Yet, when we think about ourselves in comparison to our oldest companions, trees remind us we are part of something much bigger. Humans are not at the centre of life — the world can exist without us.

But trees, animals, insects, and nature are what make the world go round. Willow, acacia, pine, oak, baobab, and many other types of trees influence humans, whether mentally, physically, or spiritually.

Whenever I visit a new place, I look for the tree that speaks the most to me, that evokes the most emotional response, and give it a mighty big hug. I have hugged trees with skinny trunks where I can clasp my hands together, but also wide trees that I can lean against without a care in the world. Then there were trees that were scraggy, and others that were so beautiful they stole the show.

Everyone should be a tree-hugger in this era, because in a world of deforestation and global warming, increased anxiety and depression, feelings of isolation and marginalisation, and spiritual disparity — hugging a tree is a homeopathic solution to human plight.

The beautiful, green landscape at Wits University, with many trees waiting to be hugged. Photo: Victoria Hill
The beautiful, green landscape at Wits University, with many trees waiting to be hugged. Photo: Victoria Hill

Here’s how and why:

    According to research, hugging a tree can reduce stress and anxiety levels through the lowering of cortisol levels, allowing one to feel centred and grounded. Rashmi Schramm, a medical physician and meditation coach, says trees emit negative ions which science says has an impact on humans’ perception and experience of stress.

    Dr Stone Kraushaar, a clinical psychologist also known as ‘The Hug Doctor,’ says oxytocin, our happy hormone responsible for emotional bonding and trust, is released after 21 seconds of physical contact. During or after hugging a tree, people say they feel calmer, happier, and more optimistic.

    Dr David Scholey, a lead researcher on determining the physical benefits of hugging a tree, says it has been proven to reduce one’s heart rate and blood pressure and boost one’s immune system. Dr Hugh Asher, a certified forest bathing guide and forest therapy practitioner, says humans absorb organic chemicals called phytoncides emitted by trees which protect them from diseases.

    Trees are important for carbon dioxide removal and oxygen deposition in the atmosphere. They are also vital for ecosystems to survive. In the age of climate change, they are more important than ever, with increased human dependency on these organisms. By hugging a tree, one is acknowledging their role in life and the interconnected nature of our planet.

    Peter Wohlleben, an avid forester and author of The Hidden Life of Trees, says “a tree can only be as strong as the forest that surrounds it”. Human society is very much the same, yet has seemingly forgotten these underlying morals in the face of current challenges.

    Trees are living beings that have existed through many histories and live to tell those stories. Through hugging them, one can feel connected to the space they inhabit whilst reconnecting with their soul. Feelings of inner peace, outward optimism, and all-round serenity are just some results, and if these mighty trees can grow from little seeds, so too can you.

    FEATURED IMAGE: Victoria Hill, 2024 Wits Vuvuzela Journalist. Photo: File/Leon Sadiki


    REVIEW: A social movement ‘en pointe’

    Curtains down for the Joburg Ballet Company’s SCARCITY, a quartet of ballets which explored pressing social issues.

    Comprising of four individual ballets that came together as one body of work, Joburg Ballet’s recent season at the Joburg Theatre from March 15-24 responded artistically to the issues of social, political, and environmental scarcity in South Africa.

    Four choreographers were involved in the production of SCARCITY. Joburg Ballet’s CEO, Elroy Fillis-Bell, said the quartet aimed to portray the idea of scarcity from an “array of emotional responses in a range of storytelling styles”.

    Ballet is a universal artistic form open to individual interpretation, and this is where its strength lies. Neo Moloi, a member of the ‘corps de ballet’, the group of dancers often assisting soloists or principal dancers, likened each of the four ballets to a puzzle piece, and when put together, created a beautiful body of art.

    Dancers Bruno Miranda, Tammy Higgins, Chloe Blair and Alice le Roux during a pre-performance class. Photo: Victoria Hill

    Ukukhanya Kwenyanga: A Moonlight Waltz, meaning “moonlight” in isiXhosa and isiZulu, by South African Craig Pedro was created to “attract our people [and] show them that classical ballet can have an African name, and that classical ballet can be danced in African attire”. It represented how our nation, when faced with many social issues, “continues to make something out of nothing and dance in the moonlight,” he said.

    Jorgé Pérez Martínez created Azul, a ballet that used movement to personify the feelings of being alive and spirited. Dancers described this work as representing inner peace and grace, capturing fluidity and musicality.

    This was starkly contrasted by Hannah Ma’s The Void which symbolised the vastness of human souls and highlighting the beauty of human existence and value of life. This evoked raw emotions from audience members, with audible gasps being heard throughout the entire performance, me included.

    Salomé by South African Dada Masilo interrogated the kind of desire, power, and passion that destructs. It spoke to the universal issues of lust and greed. The movement in this piece was fast, intricate, and awkward, telling the story of how scarcity of resources in one’s life can lead to a very vulnerable state of living and being.

    Dancers Luhle Mtati and Miguel Franco-Green during a centre exercise in class. Photo: Victoria Hill
    Josie Ridgeway assisting Savannah Jacobson with her hair in the dressing room before the performance. Photo: Victoria Hill

    Fillis-Bell said this is one of the first instances where ballet has been used to communicate in the form of a social movement in post-Apartheid South Africa. Interrogating the discovery and/or loss of one’s identity was at the core of this performance, eliciting transformative thoughts and reactions from all who watched he added.

    Tumelo Lekana, a member of Joburg Ballet’s ‘coryphée’, the leading dancers of the ensemble, described ballet as an “edutainment”, where stories told in this classical art-form depict South African contexts and lived experiences.

    I have always been a lover of ballet, and being a dancer myself, I have an appreciation for it that will never cease to be. My favourite choreography from the show was hard to choose, but The Void spoke to me on a personal level. The way loss was portrayed on the stage left behind philosophical meanings that life is worth living, even when you think there is no point in struggle and strife. It left me with a sense of hope, and I wish I could play the performance on repeat in my mind’s eye.

    SCARCITY showed audiences the variety of emotions that are simultaneously living in many hearts. Joburg Ballet brought these feelings and people together to reflect in the light casted by the social awareness left behind on stage.

    Vuvu rating: 8/10

    FEATURED IMAGE: Pointe shoes lined up in a principal dancers dressing room ahead of a performance. Photo: Victoria Hill


    A roaring 120 years at Joburg Zoo

    Approximately 20 000 men, women, and children flocked to the Johannesburg Zoo for birthday celebrations.

    It was a sheer coincidence that Joburg Zoo’s birthday celebration fell on Human Right’s Day, March 21, giving them the chance to create awareness around everyone’s “right to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations” (Section 24b of the South African Constitution).

    Executive Director, Louise Gordon, stated their priority has and always will be conservation and education. The zoo is involved in rehabilitation and exchange programmes on and off site to broaden their reach and ability in the environmental sphere.

    She said “if people don’t know, they won’t conserve,”: therefore, the zoo has slashed their entrance fee from R120 per adult to just R20 during their birthday month to encourage affordable access.

    Elephants enjoying all the attention at Joburg Zoo.
    Photo: Victoria Hill
    A lazy tiger enjoying the view at Johannesburg Zoo.
    Photo: Victoria Hill

    The concrete jungle, namely Johannesburg, has long said goodbye to preconceived ideas about animal treatment in zoos. Instead, they have evolved and revolutionised themselves into being one of a few zoos in an urban setting that homes the Big Five. As part of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Johannesburg Zoo has a high standard to uphold, putting animal welfare first.

    Whilst strolling around the enclosures, the many animals seemed to be having the time of their lives, with many sleeping under the sunny skies. Local artists were blaring tunes on the main stage, but Jenny Moodley, spokesperson for Joburg Zoo, assured the animals were protected from any harmful decibels by a buffering system actively established.

    Johannesburg Zoo plays an integral role in the Wits community, because of the educational opportunities it affords to environmental and medical students. Moodley said the ongoing exchange programme between the university and zoo, allows the youth of South Africa to learn from all angles.

    “For example, if we are doing an autopsy on one of our big species […] we invite the students to observe,” said Moodley. The zoo, therefore, offers Wits students a privileged opportunity to learn amongst South Africa’s natural heritage.

    Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, Nathi Mvula, a senior environmental education specialist, shared his views on why he believes Johannesburg Zoo reaching their latest milestone is important:

    An interview with Joburg Zoo’s senior educational environmental specialist, Nathi Mvula. Video creds: Victoria Hill

    To have opened in 1904, and to still be open today, Joburg Zoo has proved itself a national icon and beacon for wildlife conservation.