National honours for outstanding 'Unisans'

Top awards and accolades are putting Unisa on the map

10 May 2019 - 11:23
President Cyril Ramaphosa bestows the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver on Prof Malik Maaza.
President Cyril Ramaphosa bestows the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver on Prof Malik Maaza.
Image: Supplied/Unisa

Prof Malik Maaza, incumbent of the Unesco-Unisa Africa Chair in Nanosciences and Nanotechnology, and Yvonne "Chaka Chaka" Mhinga, Unisa alumna, were awarded the Order of Mapungubwe in Silver and the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver respectively by President Cyril Ramaphosa at an award ceremony on April 25 2019 at the Sefako Makgatho Presidential Guesthouse.

Speaking at the ceremony, President Ramaphosa said the orders celebrated individuals who had excelled and whose actions and works represented the triumph of the human spirit. “They are men and women driven by purpose and service.”

He said the recipients of the orders represented endeavour and achievement of immense scale and breadth, and gave each and every South African cause to be proud: “Proud of your determination, of your courage, of your unwavering patriotism, and of your persistence in pursuit of the common good.”

The Order of Mapungubwe in Silver acknowledges the excellent work done by Unisa’s Prof Malik Maaza in the country and around the globe.

Granted by President Ramaphosa and named after an African nation that existed a millennium ago in Limpopo, the order of Mapungubwe is SA’s highest honour, instituted on December 6 2002 for achievements in the international arena that serve the country’s interests. This order recognises citizens for excellence and exceptional achievement.

A letter from Dr Cassius Lubisi, Chancellor of Orders from the Office of the Presidency, describes Maaza as a pioneer on the African continent. “Your work has improved our knowledge and made headway in the development of cutting-edge modern technology,” he wrote.

A true role model

In his congratulatory message, Unisa’s principal and vice-chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya, said Maaza is an exemplar of the calibre of researcher that Unisa aims to nurture, develop and employ. He is the role model for all aspiring scientists, not only regarding his professionalism and outstanding work ethic, but the kind of acknowledgement and recognition that generally emanate from such endeavour.

Makhanya said the award comes hot on the heels of other accolades bestowed on Maaza in 2018, including the José Vasconcelos World Award of Education at the 35th World Cultural Council Award Ceremony in Hong Kong, the NSTF-GreenMatter Award at the 2017/2018 NSTF-South32 (a joint award), and the R1.2m Kwame Nkrumah award for Scientific Excellence (a joint award).

Putting Unisa and SA on the (nano) map

In her capacity as the executive dean of the College of Graduation Studies, Prof Lindiwe Zungu lauded Maaza for publishing widely and scooping awards that culminated in a partnership with Springer Nature Publishing House, with open access to cutting-edge scholarship on nanotechnology. “It is deeply satisfying that beyond the prestige and monetary value of Maaza’s work, the expanse of his body of work has significantly put the university and South Africa on the map,” she said.

National and continental partnerships

Maaza believes that this honour is not only a personal recognition, but one that acknowledges the National System of Innovation, Science and Technology of South Africa, as well as the South African Nanotechnology initiative Strategy (SANi) launched by the DST in 2006 and implemented by the National Research Foundation (NRF) via several platforms, among which the National Nanotechnology Equipment Programme (NNEP).

It is also a recognition of the continental Unesco-Unisa Africa Chair in Nanosciences and Nanotechnology (U2ACN2), a trilateral partnership between the United Nations Education, Science and Culture Organisation (Unesco), Unisa and iThemba Laboratories Accelerators Based Sciences of the National Research Foundation (iThemba LABS-NRF), he said.

Maaza believes that this award is a recognition of the vision of Unisa and its leadership in identifying the multidisciplinary field of nanosciences and nanotechnology as a strategic research and development area in view of preparing a large cohort of postgraduates to respond to the demand of the future workforce and climate change.

Quoting the late Nelson Mandela, who also was the recipient of the Order of Mapungubwe (Platinum), Maaza’s motto is: “It always seems impossible until it is done”.

President Cyril Ramaphosa bestows the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver on Yvonne ‘Chaka Chaka’ Mhinga.
President Cyril Ramaphosa bestows the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver on Yvonne ‘Chaka Chaka’ Mhinga.
Image: Supplied/Unisa

In recognition of her life of service to the arts, Unisa alumna Yvonne "Chaka Chaka" Mhinga, affectionately known as Mama Yvonne and the Princess of Africa, was honoured by President Cyril Ramaphosa with the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver.

The order is bestowed upon extraordinary individuals who have achieved excellence in the arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sports. Mhinga was especially recognised for her contribution to music and social cohesion.

Musician and humanitarian

The internationally acclaimed singer has been in the music industry for the past 34 years and has rendered outstanding humanitarian work as Unicef’s Goodwill Ambassador since 2005. She has been recognised the world over for her vocal prowess and her work to uplift women and children. She is passionate about curbing the ravages of malaria. In a fitting tribute, this Order was given to her on World Malaria Day.

Regarding the award, Mhinga says she is humbled. “It means SA, my country, is appreciating my work. I am grateful for the recognition given me. It grounds and humbles me, and, in many respects, elevates me. The award does not say I should fold my arms and not do anything anymore. In fact, there’s so much work to be done. I will continue to contribute to society,” she says.

Influential in business and philanthropy

Mhinga is the managing director of entertainment company Chaka Chaka Promotions and chairperson of Chaka Chaka Investments. She advocates for adult basic education and training. Her other achievements are in business and philanthropy, and she was named one of the Influential Women in Business and Government in 2009. She is the patron of Sanca, the Molteno Foundation, and Giving and Sharing.

Research must "speak to the people," says Unisa PhD student

Unisa PhD student Charmaine Tshangana in her favourite environment.
Unisa PhD student Charmaine Tshangana in her favourite environment.
Image: Supplied/Unisa

Many scientists are doing brilliant work, but if nobody else knows about it or understands it, much of its impact is lost. This is why the art of communication, including public speaking, is so important for up-and-coming young researchers.

“The key is to be able to communicate your science work to the general public so that it’s interesting, without watering it down,” says Charmaine Tshangana, PhD student at Unisa's Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability (NanoWS) research unit. “A lot of people don’t understand what we are doing and how it affects their lives – because it does.”

Intent on improving her ability to communicate about her water-purification research, Tshangana entered FameLab 2019, an international science communication competition where each contestant has just three minutes to present their science work or research to the judges.

Having won the Unisa heat of the 2019 FameLab competition in March this year, she participated in the national FameLab finals in Durban and was runner-up. Although she did not win, she relished the opportunity to compete against the FameLab winners from 13 other higher education and science institutions around the country.

Tshangana, who has "no fear at all" of public speaking, says she feels strongly about finding solutions to problems for Africa’s people. “A lot of innovations come from Asia and Europe. I am truly passionate about Africa being at the forefront of technological innovations.”

Wanting to make a difference sooner rather than later, she moved away from the research she pursued for her chemistry honours and master’s at Rhodes University towards her current PhD focus: solar-driven water purification using nano membranes.

"For my masters in medicinal nanochemistry, I was trying to find an alternative to chemotherapy for cancer patients, but that kind of research is extremely lengthy; it could take up to 20 years to bear fruit,” she says. “In my current work, I have more control over where this research can go and could start running my own business as an entrepreneur in the relatively near future.”

Most importantly, her work would be helping to make a difference to one of Africa’s most difficult challenges. "We have a water crisis. My granny lives in Mpumalanga and when I went to visit, the water that came out of the tap was a funny colour and smells. When I saw that, I asked myself how I could help. I did a lot of reading and found this group, NanoWS at Unisa."

In a nutshell – an important criterion in FameLab – her PhD work at the research unit is as follows: "We are working with a solar-driven water purification system. We harvest energy from the sun and it goes through a pressure system. Then filtration takes place, using nano membranes that I design, and from there, the water is safe to drink."

Tshangana learnt a lot about communicating science during her FameLab journey. "The challenge is to grab the attention of your audience and articulate the work while keeping to your science – all in three minutes."

Her supervisor, Prof. Edward Nxumalo, says he is proud of her participating in the national finals. "Charmaine is an extremely gifted individual who has set up herself for success; I don’t doubt that she is going places,” he says, adding that the annual FameLab competition is helping to hone Unisa’s young research talent.

“FameLab has become such an important vehicle for our postgraduate students to communicate and demonstrate their innovative technologies to the world.”

This article was paid for by Unisa.