Momentous Week For UJ, Wits Vice Chancellors

Professor Marwala will occupy the role of Rector of the United Nations University while Professor Zeblon Vilakazi was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

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By Tholakele Thabane
Image obtained from Unsplash

This week has been momentous for vice-chancellors of two Johannesburg-based universities, as University of Johannesburg (UJ) Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, received news that he has been appointed the next Rector of the United Nations University (UNU) headquartered in Tokyo, Japan. 

Up the road at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, joined the ranks of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking when he was inducted as a Fellow of the Royal Society. The London-based Royal Society is regarded amongst the world’s most prestigious scientific academies, whose fellows include eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the United Kingdom and Commonwealth.

Professor Marwala is set to take office on 1 March 2023 for a five-year term with a possibility of a second term, succeeding Dr David Malone, who has been in the role since 2013. Marwala was appointed from a panel of candidates selected by the university’s council and followed consultations between Audrey Azoulay, the Director- General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. 

Commenting on the appointment, Guterres said, “I look forward to working with Tshilidzi Marwala, drawing on his expertise, and benefiting our common agenda while building on the successful work of his predecessor, David Malone, under whom UNU evolved into the UN’s policy-focused think tank, trusted by UN agencies, member states, and many others.”

In his new role, Marwala will hold the rank of Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. UNU is a global think tank consisting of 13 institutions in 12 countries and works together with several other UN system organisations and leading research institutions. 

Mike Teke, the Chair of UJ Council said, “On behalf of UJ, we are proud of Prof Marwala for taking the reins of leadership as the first African to assume the role. A university is predicated on the various components that come together to make it work and we have the right systems and staff in place to ensure that this is a seamless transition. We congratulate Prof Marwala on this outstanding achievement, and we are proud that one of our own has attained such an honour.” 

Marwala will remain in his UJ role for the next eight months until a successor has been identified. South African President, Cyril Ramaphosa, congratulated Marwala and referred to him as an accomplished intellectual who obtained numerous academic qualifications and held various key roles in the global academic landscape of development. 

A brief biography of ProfessorTshilidzi Marwala

Marwala has been at the helm of UJ since 2018 and was Executive Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Built Environment from 2009 to 2013. He then became Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Internationalisation between 2013 and 2017 before being appointed as Vice-Chancellor and Principal in 2018. 

Born and bred in Duthuni village in Limpopo, Marwala holds a doctorate in Artificial Intelligence and Engineering which he acquired from the University of Cambridge. He also has a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pretoria, a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Magna cum laude) from Case Western Reserve University. 

He has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley, Wolfson College of the University of Cambridge and Nanjing Tech University.

Marwala has published 14 books on artificial intelligence, one of them having been translated into Chinese, over 300 papers in journals, proceedings, book chapters and magazines, and he holds four patents. 

The professor has received more than 45 awards, including the Order of Mapungubwe and is a Trustee of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Internationally recognised physicist

Professor Vilakazi, an internationally recognised nuclear physicist, was selected amongst 800 candidates and he is one of the 52 Fellows and 10 Foreign Members. 

Announcing his induction, the Royal Society said: “Professor Zeblon Vilakazi has made significant contributions to nuclear and particle physics in experiments at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research and has continued to build capacity for experimental particle physics and quantum computing in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Accepting the honour, Vilakazi said, “This is not just an honour for me, but also for Wits University, and all those who supported me.” The fellowship did not only acknowledge his achievements, he added, but also recognised the high calibre of science and scientists in Africa. 

A brief biography of Professor Zeblon Vilakazi 

Born and bred in Katlehong, Gauteng, Vilakazi obtained his PhD in Nuclear Physics at Wits University in 1998. 

Professor Vilakazi joined the university in 2014 as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Postgraduate Studies. He has been Vice-Chancellor and Principal from January 2021.

Some of his achievements include being a director of iThemba Labs in 2007 and a Group Executive for Research and Development at the Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa in 2011.

The Professor was nominated Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010. He is currently a member of the Programme Advisory Committee for Nuclear Physics at the Joint Institution for Nuclear Research and a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. 

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