Leading the way

Four women, four bright minds at Stellenbosch University, forging ahead into sometimes unknown territory. Elmari Rautenbach met up with them.

Debby Blaine 

There’s a good reason why Debby Blaine calls her office in the Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering building her “Harry Potter room”. She looks a little like a mature Hermione as she moves down the passage at speed, long grey cardigan and reddish hair flying. I have to skip to keep up as we go up and downstairs, around corners, across an interior sky-bridge looking down on exposed car engines before reaching a tiny office so cluttered with books there’s hardly space for anyone to squeeze in.

Debby explains that mechatronics is a fairly new engineering field. “The mechatronics programme was established only in 2001 and the name of the department changed to Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering in 2006. My speciality is mechanical engineering, the study of objects and systems in motion, whereas mechatronics is the study of how we use sensors and computers to control these systems. In a way, both have to do with staying one step ahead of the future.”

Debby Blaine loves nothing more than the clean, logical way a system works or to see how a small part, such as the tiny hinge in a cellphone, is made.

Greeted by a huge gas turbine in the front hall – with its integration of millions of mechanical components, electronic sensors, mechanical and electrical actuators and computer controllers – new students get an insight into what is possible with their academic training. In the same way, Debby was inspired by the production process she witnessed on her dad’s factory floor. “He had a small industrial factory producing parts made of powder metals, a novel way of making parts. There’s an art to an efficient system.”

Today she is associate professor (the first female in this position) in the department, focusing on materials research. In 2006, she was a leader in the materials research and development team at Bleistahl Produktions in Germany, the biggest producer of valve seat inserts in Europe, where she helped develop a new material. This followed a postdoctoral research appointment at the Centre for Innova­tive Sintered Products at Pennsylvania State University in the USA, where she worked on sintered products and powder
metallurgy. She was also recently elected president of the South African Institution of Mechanical Engineering.

Her work excites her immensely. “For parts used in the biomedical field or aerospace, the new powder technology is a hot topic. It’s similar to 3D printing but with this technology, the part is built up by layer upon layer of powder that is laser-melted according to the exact form needed of, for example, a hip bone. No waste, lots of design freedom, but expensive … for now.”

She would like to see more women in her field. “Even today, engineering is not perceived as a friendly environment for a woman. But we all know that disruption generates change. The more women enter the field of engineering, the more they will create a space for themselves and the more it will lead to eventual structural change. That is how systems work.”

Phumzile Mmope

Phumzile Mmope sits back and peers at me over her horn-rimmed glasses, pulling a cup of rooibos tea closer. “Who sang about being an Englishman in New York? Sting, yes? Well, I’m a Zulu woman in Stellenbosch,” she says, gesturing at the sash windows behind her, the high ceilings, the woodwork in her office.

Phumzile Mmope is an eternal optimist, and as someone who lost her husband at a relatively young age, she knows how valuable empathy is.

Okay, but then a Zulu woman who loves throwing in an occasional “Jislaaik” when she gets excited and refers to her matric daughter, Nqobile, as “my sonskyn”. Sunshine pretty much sums up what Phumzile brings to her job as senior director of corporate communication at Stellenbosch University: lightness and energy, plus a wealth of experience.

She came to Stellenbosch in 2016 after almost 10 years at the North-West University in Potchefstroom. She served as executive director of institutional advancement during the baby steps the university took after the University of North-West in Mafikeng and the Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and its Vaal Triangle campus merged in 2004. “Almost like a forced marriage. But it was necessary, and although it was hard and costly and a dramatic learning curve for me, they still made it work.”

Her Potch journey started with considerable personal heartache, though. “Barely two months after we arrived from Pretoria, where I’d been head of corporate media at Unisa, my husband passed away from cancer. My sonskyn was only four. My previous boss called to offer me my old job back. I loved him for it but decided to soldier on.” By doing this she displayed the same grit that has served her in good stead as an amateur half-marathon runner. You need perseverance – and empathy for others’ pain – in such a pivotal position as hers in the post #FeesMustFall era.

“There is a reason why this department was rebranded from corporate marketing to corporate communication. What’s our mandate? First, a solid PR function was established. It’s partly due to this department’s work in the past that Stellenbosch University has a stellar 100-year reputation. But our challenge now is to move forward together; so aptly coined by last year’s centenary slogan. 

“In a time I call ‘business unusual’ as opposed to ‘business as usual’, this means finding creative ways to engage our stakeholders to deliver on the university’s 2040 vision to be globally recognised as excellent, inclusive and innovative. And communication is key.”

Above the entrance to the administration building that houses Phumzile’s office, you can still see Stellenbosch University’s coat of arms, the familiar two acorns on the left. “I love Stellenbosch’s oak trees. But the identity of an institution is much more than its logo. Who we are and what we stand for shape the behaviour of our stakeholders, from our loyal staff, students, alumni, donors and media to the Stellenbosch town community. If we as a university say respect is one of our values, our stakeholders need to feel and see it. Students who choose Stellenbosch University do so because they want to come to the best. 

“Some people write Stellenbosch off as an isolated bubble. To them, I say, ‘Then do something. Bring your authenticity to this community. Be an agent of change. Just because you’re unfamiliar with something, you don’t have to fear it.’ I started school at four and university at 16. I have been the first black female in almost all the positions I’ve held. I don’t miss Lichtenburg and Ventersdorp, jissie no, but the North-West helped shape me. In the process, I’ve become fit for the race ahead.”

Heike Geduld

It was after midnight in the emergency unit at GF Jooste Hospital on the Cape Flats. Picture noise, bright lights, patients in pain, nurses, doctors, families milling about, announcements over the intercom …

“And amidst it all, in an oasis of calm, an ER doctor was talking softly to my granny. I remember walking out of the hospital that night knowing I’d found my path. I wanted to be a doctor, yes, but not just any doctor. I wanted to work in emergency medicine.”

A desire to help people led Heike Geduld to emergency medicine; today she is guiding the next generation of emergency doctors to hone their skills.

Heike Geduld was a medical student in her third year when her ouma suffered a stroke. “As the daughter of a single mom in Charlesville outside Cape Town, I know what hardship is. I always wanted to make people feel better. But how do you know if it should be your career? That night I did.”

As she laughs, it’s difficult to believe Heike works in a field of medicine where car accidents and knife wounds are part and parcel of her daily work. But she’s not called a pioneer of emergency medicine in South Africa for nothing. A member of the very first class of emergency physicians who graduated in Africa, Heike went on to become an associate professor and the head of Stellenbosch University’s newly established Division of Emergency Medicine, created in April after Stellenbosch and the University of Cape Town’s joint specialist training programme, Emergency Medicine Cape Town (EMCT), had split to allow each university to appoint its own head of emergency medicine.

“I’d been head of Education and Training at EMCT since 2012 and love the fact that I can now drive emergency medicine as a speciality field on the campus where I’ve built so many great relationships. We have a dire need for more emergency physicians. The highest percentage of deaths in South Africa is still due to motor vehicle accidents, but interpersonal violence and not being able to reach proper medical care in time follow closely behind.”

Heike is also the president of the College of Emergency Medicine of South Africa and the director of the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa and, until November last year, she was the president of the African Federation for Emergency Medicine.

“People assume that if you’ve trained as a doctor, you can act as a doctor at any time. Not true. An emergency physician is trained to be able to assess, diagnose and act quickly, often under huge pressure. You need special skills to be able to do this. As an emergency physician you don’t have time to go through all the diagnostic steps. Your first thought should be, ‘What can I do so my patient doesn’t die?’”

Training includes a boot camp for undergraduates and short courses for postgraduates, while the registrar programme focuses on all aspects of emergency medicine and on-the-job training. “How to address death and dying and the cultural differences associated with this is a core subject, as is developing resilience. An emergency doctor needs to know they will make mistakes; people will die on their watch. To be able to live with this as well as work under the type of pressure that comes with the job is very, very hard.”

Nevertheless, Heike would love to see more women in emergency medicine. “For a long time I was the only woman in management in the ambulance service. Although it’s a tough job, it’s easier for me because I don’t have children.”

It does have its lighter side, though. She has worked all over Africa, from Tanzania to Ghana, Namibia and Botswana. It was in Tanzania that she encountered what she still calls her weirdest case. “I was on call in ER when the victim of a car accident came in. But his wounds didn’t fit. When I questioned him, I learnt that he had been in a car accident but while pinned under the wreck, he was also attacked by a lion!”  

Ilhaam Groenewald

He doesn’t want his mom to be famous, Ilhaam Groenewald’s son announced one day. She was on TV, again, after her inclusion as the first female member of SA Rugby’s executive council and, as chief director, only the second head of Maties Sport to hold this position after the legendary former Springbok player, captain and coach, Dr Danie Craven. But if you come from the open spaces of Keimoes in the Northern Cape you know the virtues of being patient. So Ilhaam’s only comment about her so-called fame was a raised eyebrow and a half smile.

Some of her colleagues at University of the Western Cape, where Ilhaam held the position of director of sport for more than a decade, were shocked by her decision to accept the position at Stellenbosch in 2014, but for her it was a natural progression in her career.

“I have a chance here to make a real difference and a team to support my vision. Maties Sport has a proud tradition that I can harness to help us achieve a dominant position within focus sports at tertiary, regional, national and international level. Through our new high-performance unit I want us to develop world-class sportsmen and women. I want to increase participation in recreational sport, build social capital and raise the percentage of sportsmen and women who also achieve academic success.”

As president of Universities Sport South Africa, she has seen a need for sport leadership and, with SU’s emerging Centre for Sport Leadership, she wants to tackle two themes: thought leadership, where academic research can be applied to help inform decision-making by sport leaders; and sport for development, where professional projects can be utilised for sport programmes with social impact.

“The hard yards have been done and the platform for expansion is in place. Now I look forward to making a lasting impression on our country’s overall sporting performance.”

Or, as she tweets in true Maties’ – and Keimoes – fashion when excited about yet another achievement by Maties Sport, “#GooiMielies”.