Wits looks at the benefits of genomic medicine in Africa 

Academics are looking at adding a new medical discipline that could help transform Africa’s healthcare sector. 

The Wits Health sciences faculty facilitated a research lecture on genomic precision medicine to help advance the treatment of diseases on August 1, at the Wits School of public health, Parktown.  

Genomic precision medicine, an emerging field in Africa, looks at an individual’s variability in genes, environment, and lifestyle before administering treatment.  

Director of the Wits Sydney Brenner Institute for Molecular Bioscience, Professor Michele Ramsay and Dr June Fabian, research director at the Wits Donald Gordan Medical Centre presented a lecture on the matter titled, “Unlocking Opportunities” for genomic precision medicine in the African continent. 

Dr Fabian said that precision medicine has been pioneered in the West; and it is now a matter of Africa catching up and tailoring treatments meant for the African continent. 

Meanwhile, echoing her colleague, Ramsay added that it is important that the continent gather more data, do more research, so that the treatment can be better tailored to the African population. 

“It is necessary for us to develop our own tools; we can’t use tools that were developed for European populations because we have different variations [genomic sequencing]”, explained Ramsay.   

She added that this will help healthcare professionals in the diagnostic setting to prescribe suitable treatments for patients. 

Ramsay explained the use of genomic precision medicine will develop “African solutions for African problems”. This will be a game changer because infectious and noncommunicable diseases account for 50 to 88 percent of deaths in Africa, according to a 2022 report from the WHO.  

Dr Fabian said that more than 80 percent of clinicians recognise the value of precision medicine and how this can improve care – especially in the public healthcare sector. However, he said that its full potential has not been realised yet due to the high cost, training gap and limited access to genetic services.  

The lecture made it clear that genetic medicine is the future; and if the African continent is to benefit from it, it would require collaboration efforts from pharmaceutical companies.  

Fourth-year medical student, Amin Borda told Wits Vuvuzela that the presentation was interesting and he cannot wait for the discipline to be brought into their working environment.

FEATURED IMAGE: Dr June Fabian making her presentation during the research lecture. Photo: Sbongile Molambo


Going bananas for sorghum beer

In Kliptown, Soweto’s oldest residential district, the Oushun family has played a significant role in the community for over 50 years. Peter Oushun has made it his mission to keep the art of drinking traditional beer alive. The 87-year-old man’s tavern remains the longest standing tavern, providing solace to the employed, unemployed, young and old community members of Kliptown.

“Kan ek ‘n plein een kry? (Can I get a plain one please),” a 66-year-old coloured woman by the name of Margret Wax asks the bartender. He passes her a one-litre carton of Chibuku plain through a small window with metal burglar bars. She shakes the carton, opens it up at the top corner, careful not to tear the paper fabric of the carton. She then takes a big sip of the sour, thick malt fermented drink and sighs in relief. A thick white foam remains on her upper lip.

“Chibuku must be drunk sitting down,” Peter Oushun says to her as she makes her way to take a seat next to him. He is the owner of the shop and has a habit of mingling with his customers as they indulge in drinking traditional beer at his tavern every day from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

It is 11 a.m. on Sunday, September 29. Of the taverns that are open for those returning from church services, only one is busting with life. Oushun Place on Beacon Road seems to be the place to be. Vibrant Kliptownian customers come in one by one, old with a few young ones, either ordering a Chibuku plain or the banana flavour which is the most requested by customers.

Customers sit on benches in the dark tavern with just the light from the sun making its way through the doorway. They sit in groups conversing and laughing about their stories from the weekend as if replicating the traditional customs of families conversing over a jug of traditional umqombothi. The tavern is simple and the atmosphere is peaceful. Everyone is laid back and relaxed, sipping their own “khathun” (carton) of Chibuku.

Margret continues to drink hers. She doesn’t seem bothered by the fact she is the only woman drinking in the tavern at that time. She has been one of Peter’s loyal customers since 1976.

“I prefer Chibuku more than bottled beer. Bottled beer is acid,” she says. Peter nods his head in agreement just as he is about to give a breakdown of how he believes that Chibuku can change Africa’s problems.

The 87-year-old man loves to talk about the traditional beer business that took him and his family from rags to riches.

SELLING SORGHUM: Peter Oushun’s family has made a living from the sale of traditional sorghum beer to the Kliptown Community for decades.

Beer built my home and family

To the left of the bartenders’ window, there is a black gate which divides the tavern from Peter’s home, in the style of many of the homes connected to businesses in Soweto.

There are two doors. Behind one is the storage room for all the Chibuku bought from South African Breweries (SAB), and the other leads to Peter’s home.

Peter sits in the sitting room on a green leather sofa watching the crime channel via his DStv decoder on a big plasma television. On the walls hang photos of his family and quotes about African culture and freedom.

A rotating fan blows cooling air, although he is dressed in a winter hat, black sweater and thick red woolen trousers.

“You know I started this business with just five cases in 1976,” he says. Peter explains that in those days, people didn’t want to drink Chibuku. “It was very low among the coloured people.

They used to call it kaffir beer.” He knew an Indian man named Chunara who owned a Chibuku store which was closing down.

“I am going away, coloured people don’t drink this,” Chunara had said to Peter.

FILLING FLAVOURS: The banana-flavoured Chibuku is the most requested by
Oshun Place customers.

At the time Peter had just left his job as a vendor selling sweets on the train. He then bought the land and shop from Chunara.

According to Peter’s granddaughter and heir, Shoenelle Ogbonmwan, Peter slept in the empty shop for six months trying to protect it from thieves. It was the year that beer halls in townships were burnt down.

“I then went to Langlaagte to speak to the white man,” Peter continues. “I asked him, ‘How can I promote this business?’” The ‘white man’ offered him five cases to sell. “I went there to a coloured street called Pampam to promote it there, especially to young people, and it was sold out. I went back and sold 10 cases. I asked for more until I ended up with 5000 cases.”

One of the tavern employees comes in and asks Peter if he is ready to have his lunch. She brings him some biryani and beetroot.

A FAMILY AFFAIR: Peter Oushun poses with his granddaughter, Shoenelle Ogbonmwan,
who will inherit the tavern, and her son, Amadeo.

“But, you see, people undermine me; they think ama-khathun,” he says laughing, as he holds a spoonful of food. “Everybody undermines me but they don’t know kanti I’m doing it! Do you see my home? Even my children in town have nice houses because of this business. I’ve got one who drives a BMW and the other has a nice house in the suburbs. It’s all because of me!”

Shoenelle confirms this when she says, “He bought me my first car, my first townhouse, because of this shop.” Oushun Place has sustained three generations: Peter, Peter’s daughter Shyanne, and her daughter Shoenelle.

The beer necessities

It is now 1pm. Different faces can be spotted back in the tavern, many of them elderly coloured men. They stare at me with bewildered eyes.

They seem to be wondering what a 23-year-old girl black girl dressed in polka-dot a skirt, holding a camera and notebook, could be doing in this tavern?

Marget is sipping her third round of Chibuku. This time she is seated at a table with two gentlemen, very quiet men who have travelled from Johannesburg to Kliptown for a drink at Oushun Place. I join them, and Peter joins us.

“You know, ever since I have been drinking this, I do not get constipation,” Margret says, looking at me with a wise, wrinkled face, and eyes with the irises circled with grey lines. Peter jumps in the conversation to add more benefits of Chibuku.

He has philosophies about them written up on the walls inside and outside the tavern. “Sorghum beer is good for pregnancy, breastfeeding and high blood pressure”; “One Africa One Hair, One nation”; and “Chibuku, one mashangane, the beer of Africa”.

n 2014 the Gauteng Liquor Board (GLB) introduced new regulations which significantly affected Oushun Place. One was that, “Taverns and pubs have been merged into a single category licence” and another, “Shebeen licence traders will only be allowed to sell alcohol until 10 pm. during the week”.

These were attempts to curb noise pollution in residential areas and to limit negative exposure of children and residents to beer.

Peter does not agree. He insists that because Chibuku is a traditional beer it should not have the same regulations as regular alcohol.

“Chibuku is a breakfast for blacks before they go to work!” he says passionately.

“I’m not selling beer, I am selling sorghum!” he added. Through this logic, it makes no sense for the tavern to open at 10 a.m. As a result of his belief Peter says he once had to sleep in jail because he refused to get a liquor licence.

“Oupa will always believe that Chibuku beer is natural. He even refused to get a licence because of that,” Shoenelle says. “We lost a lot of money because of that. They took away 250 crates every second day,” she adds.

Peter even wrote letters to the presidency. In one letter, written on May 20, 2009, titled “Promoting sorghum beer” and addressed to President Jacob Zuma he advocates for sorghum beer and its benefits.

Written in blue ink, and neat cursive handwriting, a section of the letter reads: “I was the one who promoted this sorghum through clinics, suggesting to them that it cures illnesses regarding high blood pressure and kidney problems as well as ulcers.”

According to production manager of United National Breweries (UNB), where Chibuku is brewed, Chibuku falls under alcoholic beverages because of its percentage of alcohol after the fermentation period.

“It produces a maximum of 3% to 3.5% of alcohol after 3 days,” he says.

“We don’t sell it as alcohol but because of the properties it has it is classified as that,” he adds.

According to a report from Eye Witness News in July 2017, “Government wants to tighten the screws on the production and sale of malt and sorghum beer, including traditional African beer.” This may cause further problems for Peter’s business.

However, after the jail incident, Shoenelle says they managed to “pull through” and finally obtain a liquor licence and Oushun Place became a big name with UNB.

“They [UNB] offered Oupa to become a distributor for the whole of Soweto, but he declined,” she says. She blames his decision on being very “set on his ways”.

Preserving African traditions and cultures to Peter is of utmost importance. But what’s even more important to him is his loyalty to his customers. They love Oushun Place. It is one place that they seem to get a break from all the troubles they experience. At least one community member thinks so.

A local security guard named Patrick Shongwe says the tavern is always packed.

Even in Soweto they do sell this drink but here [in Kliptown] it is very popular,” he says as he waits to collect his shoes from the shoesmith neighbouring Oushun Place. Although Patrick doesn’t drink, he is convinced that the community members drink as a way to escape from their problems.

“The problem is that they are not working, that’s why they can enjoy themselves. And it’s cheaper, unlike buying beer. So whatever they get, that amount they buy the beer,” he says waving one hand in the air while the other tries to fit his refined shoe on his foot.

Unemployment is a huge issue in Kliptown. According to the most recent statistics from Wazimaps and Stats SA, as of 2011, Kliptown’s unemployment rate is more than 60%.

This is evident as young and old people can be seen loitering along the streets. That’s if they aren’t Chibuku drinkers. “Crime is very rife here; you cannot take chances, especially at night,” Patrick adds, as he carries his shoes away.

Across the street from Oushun Place a woman named Johna Mabasa sells braai’d chicken feet, called ‘runaways’ by locals. Her stall is held together with torn cloth and wooden sticks, shading her from the sun.

Drinkers from Oushun Place like to buy there. “Ekuseni, nasemini, kugcwele kakhulu, and bayathenga amakhathun (In the morning, in the afternoon, it is always full and people buy the cartons),” she says, turning the chicken feet on her small braai stand.

Oushun Place is a source of business for Johna. She has been at the same spot for three years now selling BBQ-spiced ‘runaways’ to Peter’s customers as well as by passersby in order to support her two daughters.

“He was very strict, I used to read a page for R5 because at the time Barbie dolls cost R5,” Shoenelle says reminiscing about growing up in the Oushun home.

After Peter showed me the letters to the president, he took out from one of the drawers in his room a photo of Shoenelle. He stared into it like she was his prized possession.

“Everyone knows he is close to my heart,” Shoenelle says. “I’m sure they wonder how hard it would hit me when he is to die. He is my father figure.

If I have any issues I don’t lack with him,” she says about Peter. Shyanne, Shoenelle’s mother was a single mother. They moved to the city when Shoenelle turned 12. The shop continued to finance their family, taking her to the best schools and giving her the best education in the suburbs.

Although Peter would love for her to move back to Kliptown to run the business when she takes it over, Shoenelle doesn’t see herself living there. “There’s nothing there for me, sweetheart. He has been buying these flat screen TVs, and tries to make everything nice for me,” she says.

Shoenelle would rather stay in Johannesburg with her husband and one-year-old son. They have adopted the suburban lifestyle of the affluent Winchester Hills. “I can’t take my husband to move there, he has his pride and he has also built a home for us here,” she adds in a frustrated voice.

At the moment Oushun Place has been transferred to Shoenelle’s name while Peter continues to manage the tavern.

“All I am waiting for is for him to finally rest his eyes in the next five years, my dear.” She says she would like to keep everything the way it is so as to keep her grandfather’s legacy of Oushun Place: “One Nation, one mashangane, the beer of Africa”, and ensuring that it remains a place for Kliptownians, non-Kliptownians, the old, the young, the jobless and the employed to come and enjoy an affordable, thick, malt, fermented taste of Africa’s favourite sorghum beer.

FEATURED IMAGE: Peter Oushun poses with his granddaughter, Shoenelle Ogbonmwan, who will inherit the tavern, and her son, Amadeo. Photo: Karen Mwendera.


Cool kid on campus: Thando Gumede

Thando Sibongiseni Gumede, a final year Law student at Wits, is not only an Allan Gray Scholarship recipient and a Brightest Young Minds (BYM) awardee, but is also an advocate for the education of black girl children and substantive equality. A self-proclaimed feminist, she remains highly competitive in a male dominated industry.

COOL KID: Thando Gumede, a final year law student is not only interested in Law but in the advancement of black girl children through education. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

COOL KID: Thando Gumede, a final year law student is not only interested in Law but in the advancement of black girl children through education. Photo: Katleho Sekhotho

You are studying Law but also have a keen interest in entrepreneurial activities, why?

Where the world is going is something I like to call cross-educational pollination. It means that gone are the days where law students go to law school to become a lawyer. So now, faculties will be teaching skills, skills that can go anywhere and in any way they want to.

Entrepreneurship is a mind-set where you identify inefficiencies and then solve those problems. So when you have cross-educational pollination, then someone who’s an engineer has got the hopes of becoming the president, not just a politics student.

You were chosen as one of the ‘Brightest Young Minds’. What exactly does that mean and how do you feel to be chosen as one?

It’s about collecting the brightest young minds on the African continent, 100 people all over Africa came together through a selection process. It wasn’t about marks, it was really just about people who presented ideas and presented themselves in a genuine way. All I can say is wow! The event was a great networking opportunity.

What are you currently working on?

There are basically two things I’m working on, it’s a new technology for sanitary pads and the other is a tech company. I’ve written a research paper on that [the former], it was about the right to basic education for black girl children in rural South Africa; one of the hindrances of going to school is [a girls] menstruation, so their biological disposition.

The postulation I make is that I say to the state, it has a constitutional obligation to balance the scales for both boys and girls.

You say you are an advocate for education and particularly substantive education, what does that mean?

Government needs to provide proper sanitation in schools, pads and panties to girls, particularly to girls in that community, either through social grants or making those things freely available to them.

That is called substantive equality. It’s better than formal equality, substantive equality asks why? At the starting line you need to remove all the rocks and boulders that are on the race track for girls to be able to manoeuvre themselves freely and equally.

Gauteng Premier worries about the people of his province

Reinventing Pan-Africanism in the Age of Xenophobia, a international symposium, was hosted by the WISER Institute last week.

Gauteng Premier David Makhura says he worries about the people of his province as “many of those [people] come from the rest of the continent”. Makhura was speaking at the discusson on pan-Africanism in the age of xenophobia, hosted at Wits University by Wiser, (the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research) and the Ahmad Kathrada Foundation.

Makhura said the the dangers of xenophobia lie not only in the “absence of opportunities” but also in narrow “national interests”. Makhura said that if we want to build a great Africa we can no longer make “catching up” with Western civilization our intention; we must offer something new and unique to the rest of the world.

“If there is something Western capitalism teaches us, is that in fact you can even become more less of a human being as your material needs are met,” said Makhura.

The two-day symposium aimed to fostering dialogue on a number of issues affecting the African continent including xenophobia, racism, tribalism, nationalism and colonial boundaries.

Other speakers on the day included academics Neocosmos and Associate Professor Suren Pillay.

Michael Neocosmos, an academic, stressed that it remains problematic to associate xenophobia with poverty and that research shows that some 65% of South Africans feel that the country’s borders should be secured through electric fencing which is a good indication that xenophobic attitudes are prevalent throughout society.

He also mentioned that people live in subhuman conditions and the assumption is that poor people can’t think, this means that we exclude them from what we think humanity is.

“If we want to expand pan-Africanism it means we must expand knowledge,” Neocosmos said.