/ 21 October 2022

UMP research recognised

Professor Thoko Mayekiso, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga

From fresh start to humble beginnings

For an institution that opened its doors less than a decade ago, the University of Mpumalanga (UMP) has set itself quite a lofty goal — to be a continental leader in knowledge generation and dissemination, and a university that creates opportunities for sustainable development through innovation. Professor Thoko Mayekiso, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga, says that despite this high bar, UMP is not just reaching this target — it’s overshooting it! 

In September this year, the university was awarded the National Research Foundation (NRF) Excelleration Award — an accolade in recognition of an institution for achieving and maintaining the most improved research performance over recent years. “The award looks at research publications, research funding, scholarships for Honours, Masters and Doctoral students, the number of staff with NRF ratings and the percentage of academic staff with Doctoral degrees,” Mayekiso explains. “This truly is an acknowledgement of the strides we’ve made as a new institution to embed a culture of research in what we do, and create an environment that is conducive to academic and research excellence.” 

The importance of research underscores the university’s mission, she says. After all, research and innovation go hand in hand. 

Perhaps institutional youth is a blessing, rather than a curse: the world is changing fast, and many established universities have struggled to adapt to the pace, weighed down by their history and inherited systems. UMP, however, had the opportunity to start fresh. “As the university’s first and founding vice-chancellor, it is exciting to be part of the pioneering journey — ‘uhambo lwemhlahlandlela’ — and thereby contribute to the institutional building blocks that will be the foundation for what is accomplished here for many generations to come.” 

From fresh starts and humble beginnings 

From its initial 2014 intake of 168 students enrolled in just three programmes — a Bachelor of Education degree, a Bachelor of Agriculture degree and a Diploma in ICT — Mayikeso says it has been exciting to see how the institution has expanded: “We currently have 7 100 enrolled students and offer 64 qualifications, ranging from higher certificates to doctoral degrees!” 

With Mayekiso at the helm, the success of UMP should not come as a surprise. Born in the Eastern Cape in Lusikisiki, the internationally-renowned psychologist, academic and researcher has come a long way since those early days in a town named after the sound of reeds rustling in the wind. A deep desire to understand human behaviour inspired her to study psychology, but her search for understanding did not end after she graduated with a Masters in Clinical Psychology from Fort Hare University; she went on to complete her DPhil in Psychology at the Free University Berlin in Germany. 

Committed to lifelong learning, the HPCSA-registered clinical psychologist also holds a Postgraduate Higher Education Diploma from the University of South Africa. She rose through the ranks of academia, from a senior lecturer at the University of the Transkei to executive management roles at Wits in Johannesburg and at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) in the Eastern Cape. Today, she is in charge of UMP’s strategic leadership and management and oversees the day-to-day running of the institution. 

She says her time at each of the four universities — fundamentally different institutions that sometimes felt worlds apart — equipped her with the skills, knowledge, and experience needed to provide strategic leadership. “Those four universities provided different contexts, histories and trajectories and, therefore, contributed in different ways to my academic, professional, leadership and management development,” she explains, adding that her experiences as an international student, visiting scholar and practitioner in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States broadened her perspectives on matters of higher education. 

Research underpins knowledge and innovation, and changes lives

Mayekiso says she got her first real taste of research as a Masters’ student and developed a deep appreciation for this academic pillar. This was where her passion was ignited: a flame she continues to nurture to this day. “I continued to conduct research as an academic member of staff and supervised a number of Masters and Doctoral students, and this eventually culminated in my appointment as Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Engagement at NMU,” she recalls. She is a C3-rated scientist by the National Research Foundation and is a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa. 

As the Chairperson of the Universities South Africa Research and Innovation Strategy Group, she knows first-hand how important research is — high-quality research with real-world impact. “Research is one of the core missions of UMP, together with teaching, learning and engagement, and at the heart of that is knowledge,” she explains. “Knowledge is our core purpose, and this knowledge is generated through research and disseminated through teaching and learning.” 

She says none of the institution’s three core missions should be seen in isolation from the whole: “It’s integrated. What this means is that what is taught in class informs the research conducted, and similarly the research findings are incorporated into what is taught in class.” 

The future of research, she says, is collaborative. “There has been a trend towards embracing interdisciplinary research, multidisciplinary research, trans-disciplinary research, and this in addition to the traditional discipline-based research. Embracing these trends has led to collaboration across departments, between faculties and even with other universities, both nationally and internationally.” UMP has collaborated with universities across the globe, from Swaziland, Malawi, Uganda, Kenya and Mozambique, through to the US, Switzerland and Germany. Research partnerships are critical enablers of conducive research culture, research environments and research infrastructure.

Real-world impact drives UMP research goals

The impact of high-quality research extends far beyond the lab and sends ripples into society: ripples that sometimes become waves. This is especially true of the type of research conducted at UMP. “We make research accessible through something known as ‘engaged research’, which is research that directly addresses societal needs and provides opportunities for members of the society to contribute towards the conceptualisation of the research project.”  At the conclusion of the research, the findings are not only published as scientific reports, journal articles or other publications for the benefit of the scientific community; they are also interpreted and reproduced in a way that is accessible to the public, understandable for the man on the street. 

The recent NRF award is a testament to the fact that this new university is growing in the right direction as it continues to strive towards excellence. “It proves that we are an institution that paces itself; an institution that is agile and responsive,” she says. “And we will only grow from strength to strength while continuing to focus on results, and on creating and maintaining an enabling environment for teaching and learning, for research and for engagement — and, of course, for the innovation that will follow.” — Jamaine Krige


Collaboration, opportunity and innovation

For a university to bag the coveted National Research Foundation’s (NRF) Excelleration Award is no mean feat; to win this title just two years after offering its first Master’s Degree and a year after launching its first Doctoral Programme is nothing short of astounding. But Professor Phindile Lukhele-Olorunju, Director of Research Management at the University of Mpumalanga (UMP), knows how much work went into this achievement.

Professor Phindile Lukhele-Olorunju, Director of Research Management at the University of Mpumalanga

Encompassing both “excellence” and “acceleration”, the NRF’s Excelleration Award celebrates South African research institutions with the most improved research performance over recent years. The 2022 award recipient is an academic institution that opened its doors in 2014 with just under 200 students and only three academic course offerings. “Being a young university, we have grown fast in terms of our research outputs as measured by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET),” Lukhele-Olorunju explains. “Our results speak for themselves, despite the fact that we only started offering Masters and Doctoral degrees the last two years and the last year, respectively.” 

She says that UMP is fast on its way to being recognised as a research centre of excellence, a goal entrenched in the institution’s vision to be an African university that creates opportunities for sustainable development through innovation — homegrown solutions tailored to the country and the continent’s unique problems and varied contexts. 

International underdogs shine despite challenges

The fact that local research does not receive the same levels of financial backing as their American and European counterparts has not held UMP back from doggedly pursuing these goals and ideals: “People may think other countries are superior or better at research or problem-solving, but we know this isn’t the case. The research community from South Africa and other African countries has proved itself over and over again; you just need to look at the continent’s pandemic responses to know that.” 

Research is not a competition, she explains: “We do not have to compete with Western countries; we all have our own challenges and should focus on solving our own problems in our own way. We understand our context better than any outsider could, and our solutions are tailored and relevant to our situations. This is important because context, background and trust matter when you’re working to assist people.” 

There are exciting things happening at the moment, she says, both at UMP and elsewhere on the continent: “Our researchers and those in other African countries are working on indigenous knowledge systems, which will make our science more relevant to our local needs.”

This does not, however, mean that research does not benefit from international collaboration. To see South African scientists and researchers stand alongside their international peers and present cutting-edge projects and pioneering studies with confidence and integrity is a source of pride and joy. Gone are the days when research took place in institutional silos: “The benefits of this shift are that our researchers are gaining international recognition for their work; they become more adaptable and can interact with other researchers all over the world. This broadens their horizons and allows them to relate to complexities happening elsewhere, and this is how pioneers are made.” 

Local is lekker, but global collaboration changes the game

Her own academic career has been shaped by local and international influences; Lukhele-Olorunju started her studies in eSwatini, where she was born. Her decision to pursue a BSc in Agriculture was a literal seed planted at a very young age. “We were compelled to go with our grandmother to plant, weed and harvest in her very many maize and groundnut fields,” she remembers. “Her maize fields were intercropped with pumpkin and melon plants.” 

After completing her four-year-long BSc in Agriculture at  what was then called the University of Botswana and Swaziland, she completed her Masters Degree in Nigeria and her PhD in the US. Her career embodies this commitment to collaboration and the global impact that quality research can have: “My supervisor at undergraduate level was from Ghana, and I have lectured and supervised students at universities in Swaziland, Nigeria and South Africa. I’ve managed and conducted research at National Research Institutions and Universities in Nigeria, South Africa and the US; I have membership in the University Senate and Council, and have served as a Board member at a CGIAR Centre in Rome, Italy.” 

The (Blue) Sky is the limit

This global citizenship has also opened her eyes to changes happening in the research space, and to how they can be adapted for local relevance. “Basic research and applied research are still important, but there is something exciting happening in the field of Blue Sky Research,” she explains. This type of scientific research ventures into domains where the ‘real-world’ applications are not immediately apparent; it is known as ‘curiosity-driven science’ and defined as ‘research without a clear goal’.

Research has not changed much, she says, but methodology, methods and data analyses have changed for the better. “New technologies and instruments are available now, but earlier we did not have the same access as other countries,” she says. “Thankfully that has changed, as we saw with South Africa’s Covid-19 research; South Africa gained international recognition for the excellent work done in this field.” 

Research is about people, theories just guide the response 

She believes accessibility is critical and engagement with the public is an important aspect of the research process: “As UMP, we engage with our communities — with industry, business, civil society, students and other stakeholders — to share information at different forums and in different settings. We encourage discussions and engagement, sharing knowledge from our communities and with our communities.” 

And it is a process of sharing, she says.”The university’s research focus aims to respond to development needs, technological advances, the decolonisation of universities in terms of curriculum, research and innovation; engagement with communities and students on their needs, while also being responsive to national challenges like inequality, poverty, unemployment and unrest, as well as emerging challenges like we saw with Covid-19 and vaccine research. These can only be addressed through discovery and transfer of new knowledge, and that is what research is!” 

It’s an exciting space to be in, she says, especially at a university where the trajectory is onwards to even greater heights. Still, research is not for the faint-hearted. To succeed as a researcher requires grit; to succeed as a black woman in research requires much more than that: “Research itself requires passion and determination to break through what others regard as impossible.” It is not always easy, Lukhele-Olorunju says; it is, however, worth it. — Jamaine Krige


Researchers: Profiles

Dr Gordon O’Brien

Dr Gordon O’Brien is a registered professional C2-rated water resource scientist with a career vision to carry out evidence-based research on water resources and their response to multiple stressors for a sustainable future. His expertise includes aquatic ecology, ecotoxicology, ecological risk assessments on large basin scales, ichthyology, fisheries and conservation research. O’Brien leads multi-disciplinary water resources management projects totalling more than R35-million throughout Africa, and has developed and implemented environmental flow determination and management projects for governments and the private sector in the Sahel, Nile Basin, Congo, Zambezi, and throughout South Africa. He has contributed to the protection of Africa’s largest, most important floodplains: the Inner Niger Delta, Sudd and Pongola. He has contributed directly to the developed national policies and legislation, water resource management, and mitigation plans for multiple stakeholders and the development of methods to establish targets and objectives for the Sustainable Development Goals, and contributes to this field internationally. O’Brien works with scientists around the world, and has published more than 50 peer-reviewed publications and book chapters. He has formally supervised 47 MSc and PhD students from universities around the world.

Professor Wilfred Otang Mbeng

Human infections, particularly those involving the skin, constitute a serious problem and a high dependence on medicinal plants necessitates the need for the scientific validation of their therapeutic value and safety. My research focuses on the identification of medicinal plants used for the management of skin disorders and the scientific validation of their therapeutic value and safety through in vitro antimicrobial and toxicological assays. Using an integrated approach based on pharmacognosy and taxonomy, I have identified more than 400 medicinal plants in 273 plant families that are used in the management of opportunistic fungal infections in HIV patients, allergic and irritant contact dermatitis and for cosmeceutical purposes. My study of allergenic plants enables vulnerable individuals to discover the source of their dermatitis and thus prevent re-exposure, and enables healthcare practitioners to be aware of possible occupational causes of dermatitis. Melanin is an important determinant of skin colour; therefore, its accumulation may lead to abnormal skin pigmentation. Our research is the first report that Scabiosa columbaria leaves extract demonstrated a dose-dependent decrease of melanin synthesis in -MSH-stimulated B16F10 melanoma cells without inducing cytotoxicity. This suggests that S. columbaria leaves extract offsets hyperpigmentation and melanin overproduction in skin cells and could potentially serve as important constituents in cosmetic formulations.

Dr Ayanda Shabalala

Dr Ayanda Shabalala is a lecturer at the University of Mpumalanga and a registered professional natural scientist who obtained her PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Johannesburg. Her doctorate focused on the development of a pervious concrete reactive barrier for remediation of acid-mine drainage. Her research interests include surface and groundwater resources evaluation, acid mine drainage treatment, the impact of mining on agriculture and the socioeconomic impacts of mine closure. In her research, she investigates the application of pervious concrete-reactive barrier treatment technology to manage polluted mine water from abandoned mines. She has successfully demonstrated that the use of this treatment technology not only cleans up contaminated water but also provides for the reclamation of disused land due to mining. Furthermore, her research has shown that treated mine water can be re-used for beneficial purposes such as agriculture. Shabalala has presented her research work at local and international conferences and has published her work in high-impact accredited journals. She is a recipient of the Water Research Commission water technologies demonstration programme grant and is an NRF Thuthuka grant holder in the post-PhD track. In 2019, she received an NRF black academic advancement programme grant.

Tshepiso Ndhlovu

Childhood diseases constitute a significant proportion of the mortality burden in South Africa that could be alleviated if effectively managed. Hence, my research focuses on the identification of medicinal plants and indigenous knowledge used for the management of childhood diseases, their scientific validation and economic impact on livelihoods. Using a multidisciplinary approach based on ethnobotany, indigenous knowledge and economics, I documented 61 plants from 34 families with Asteraceae and Fabaceae being the most dominant families, followed by Solanaceae and Asparagaceae, used for managing childhood diseases in the North West province. Skin-related and gastro-intestinal diseases were the most prevalent childhood conditions encountered among the study participants. The most cited medicinal plants were Aptosinum elongatum, Commelina diffusa, and Bulbine frutescens. My research has revealed that the commercialisation of medicinal plants increases net returns and per capita total expenditure by 3.60% and 1.42% respectively, and this contributes positively to the livelihoods of indigenous knowledge holders in rural communities.

Dr Tatenda Dalu 

Aquatic ecology is an underdeveloped career path in Africa, and training students to fill this gap will assist in job creation and in national and regional strategic resource management needs. The retirement of limnological expertise is creating a training vacuum that Dr Tatenda Dalu and his team within the Aquatic Systems Research Group are helping to address. Dalu believes that as a Lecturer in Aquatic Ecology at the University of Mpumalanga, he is in a unique space that provides him a rare opportunity to strengthen high-level skills among young scientists and promote scientific excellence, thereby meeting the transformation needs of South Africa. He is a dynamic and goal-driven young research scientist who is always eager to share knowledge. He has an impressive publication record (two edited books, eight book chapters and 177 journal articles) in leading international journals such Nature, Global Change Biology, Water Research, Science of the Total Environment and Environmental Pollution. He has supervised 17 BSc Hons, 17 MSc and one PhD student to completion and believes in particularly empowering young women. He has been awarded the Honorary Research Associate at SAIAB, Chairperson Aquatic Sciences PAC, SACNASP, Member of the South African Alien Species Risk Analysis Review Panel and holds five Associate Editorship positions in leading international journals. He has been awarded the TWAS Young Affiliateship Fellowship, STIAS Iso Lomso Fellowship, South Africa Young Academy of Science membership, Southern African Society for Aquatic Scientists Bronze Medal Award, Zimbabwe Achievers Academic Excellence Award, Emerging River Professional and NSTF Awards finalist, and ASRT Young African Award. These accomplishments highlight Dalu’s growing stature, but he also attributes his success to his research colleagues.

Monicca Thulisile Bhuda

Monicca Thulisile Bhuda is an indigenous scholar, children’s book author, culture activist, and influencer of IsiNdebele culture. At the University of Mpumalanga, Bhuda coordinates a course and lectures on culture and heritage studies. She graduated from North-West University with a Masters in Indigenous Knowledge Systems. She is currently occupied with her PhD studies in indigenous Knowledge Systems, which she is also pursuing through North-West University. Bhuda’s current research focuses on Ndebele mathematics as a means of cultural identity. She has also written a number of publications on various subjects related to Indigenous Knowledge Systems, which is a multidisciplinary discipline.  Bhuda has chosen the field of Indigenous Knowledge Systems because she believes African cultural heritage needs to be promoted and taught in all levels of education. She also thinks that indigenous people and their knowledge deserve appropriate representation, which is why she decided to be an academic author and pursue a career in academia. Her interests include: decolonisation of education, African indigenous research methodologies, traditional medicine, traditional customary laws and leadership, promotion of indigenous languages, and indigenous knowledge preservation, protection, management and dissemination.

Dr Rachel Nishimwe-Niyimbanira

My research work focuses on multidimensional poverty and socioeconomic issues affecting women using econometric models. 

One of my research projects provides an analysis and insights based on the broader perspective of multidimensional poverty as a necessary shift from the traditional unidimensional perspective of poverty, which basically centres on income. The wellbeing of an individual depends not only on income, but also on other intrinsically important dimensions including health, education and empowerment, to name a few.

In my recent work, a gender-based comparative analysis of labour force and employment trends in South Africa revealed that women are more likely than men to be unemployed and underemployed. Women’s share of the total informal workforce is higher than men’s share. Estimates indicate that elementary occupations, clerical and domestic work are the major sources of employment for women. Though women are emerging in the highest-paid occupational groups classified as managers, professionals and technicians, the percentage of management occupation is more than twice as high for men as for women. The gender gap in employment, occupation and sector translates into limited access to employment-related social protection among females.

In collaboration with other researchers, we are currently looking at the impact of climate change on women. 

Dr Zakheleni Dube 

Poverty and micronutrient deficiencies have been identified in the South African National Development Plan vision 2030 as interrelated major challenges facing the country (NDP, 2011). Under the New Growth Path (NGP) vision 2020, the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries was specifically mandated to lead the support of the development of the smallholder farming sector through the Presidential Outcomes number 4, 7 and 10. The three Presidential Outcomes focus on (a) decent employment through inclusive economic growth, (b) vibrant, equitable and sustainable rural communities for food security for all, and (c) environmental assets and natural resources that are well-protected and continually enhanced (NDP, 2011). The World Health Organization has also stated that for any country to secure sustainable food production, research must focus on local foods and feeding methods, which include cultivating all underutilised indigenous crops (WHO, 2019). African indigenous underutilised crops have the potential of being the future crops because of their ability to adapt well in marginal degraded lands, their high nutritional value, and their aptitude to reach maturity within a short period, making them important in supporting nutritional and poverty alleviation programs. Dube’s research focuses on environment-friendly ways of protecting indigenous underutilised plants, with more than 25 peer-reviewed articles, four book chapters, and over 80 national and international conference presentations forming part of this publication. Dube has established both local and international collaboration in his research, including the Department of Agriculture, the Agricultural Research Council, and other local and international academic institutions.  He helps students from disadvantaged communities secure international scholarships and training, is on the editorial board of two peer-reviewed journals and acts as an external examiner of academic institutions. He is also an active member of the Nematology Society of Southern Africa, Southern African Association of Plant Pathology and the Entomological Society of Southern Africa. His long-term goals are to document extensively on environmentally safe, effective, and sustainable utilisation of plant extracts in the management of crop pests as a climate-smart approach.

Professor Daniel Parker

Professor Daniel Parker

Professor Daniel Parker is a wildlife biologist who graduated with his doctorate in Zoology from Rhodes University in 2008 and is now an Associate Professor in the School of Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Mpumalanga. Parker is a passionate teacher and lectures a range of undergraduate courses, but his favourites are cell biology, African mammalogy, African vertebrate ecology and conservation biology. His teaching philosophy embraces the need for a firm understanding of theory, but also the ability to apply knowledge in a practical sense. The primary focus of Parker’s research is terrestrial ecology, involving a range of different environments, ecosystems and animal groups. His core research combines large carnivore ecology with human-wildlife conflict, and these are the fields of study that his postgraduate students generally choose to pursue for their degrees. Parker has supervised more than 35 Masters and PhD students to completion. He serves on the committees of numerous professional organisations, including The Zoological Society of Southern Africa; The IUCN South African Wild Dog Advisory Group; The Southern African Wildlife Management Association; The Scientific Advisory Board of the Cape Leopard Trust and the Advisory Board of the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute. He is also the immediate past president of the Southern African Wildlife Management Association and Editor-in-Chief of the African Journal of Wildlife Research. Parker has authored more than 150 scientific articles, technical reports, and national and international conference presentations.