Women movers & shakers at SU

PETRO MOSTERT talks to three women who are making a strong impact at Stellenbosch University.

We are stronger together – Dr Therese Fish, Vice-Dean: Clinical Services and Social Impact

If there is one person who understands and embraces the value of partnerships, it is Dr Therese Fish, Vice-Dean of Clinical Services and Social Impact at SU’s Faculty of Medical and Health Services. She is renowned for her extraordinary capacity to function within the complex space between the higher education and health systems of South Africa.

Her immense knowledge of challenges in rural South Africa’s health care led to her becoming a co-leader in establishing SU’s Worcester Campus and Ukwanda Rural Clinical School in 2011. This school gave undergraduate students substantial opportunities to immerse themselves in rural areas for extended training. Dr Fish was also instrumental in leading the strategic planning and implementation of the faculty’s educational platform, which now comprises more than 100 training sites, social services and education sectors, including in previously underserved areas. “Universities are pivotal in advancing knowledge that benefits society at many levels. This includes a future workforce, growing the economy and improving health outcomes, to name a few.”

Dr Fish reminds us that partnerships with communities benefit both the university and the community. “Together with communities, we can advance our science in the service of society. Communities have local and indigenous knowledge that they bring to the table to resolve the challenges facing their worlds. Universities such as SU must engage with our communities to strengthen our work and learn from them. At Stellenbosch, we have to go further in our community partnerships, given the historical role we played in the architecture of apartheid and its impact on our local communities and society in general.”

She believes SU has to give effect to its 2018 restitution statement through purposeful partnerships with communities that were affected by the establishment of the university. “These include the places we annexed to build our university, the academic programmes we developed and research we did, and the people we excluded. We are stronger together.”

Dr Fish received the prestigious Chancellor’s Award in 2021 for her incredible contribution to SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Services over nearly two decades. Born as a mixed-race child in the apartheid system in South Africa, she has been through many challenges of her own. As a long-time advocate for social justice, equity and transformation, she courageously challenged the status quo.
“As important pillars of society,” she says, “women fulfil essential roles as primary caregivers, nurturers, teachers and holders of community knowledge. Women’s education significantly impacts the health and early development of children, especially during the first 1000 days of life. As a society, we must protect our female children from gender-based violence in school. Positioning women as equals in all spheres of society will strengthen our communities.”

Leave no one behind – Prof. Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies

“Women in South Africa make up almost half our population. Leaving this group out as part of a skilled labour force to contribute to high-end skills training, research and innovation would inevitably imply that our economy cannot thrive, and many families will be left behind. We need to unleash the potential of all our people. If we don’t, we will continue to live in fear and insecurity, with high levels of gender-based violence, crime and inequality.”

So says Prof. Sibusiso Moyo, SU’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies, a role she has been filling for eight months. As an experienced higher education executive with a background in the mathematical sciences, Prof. Moyo’s aspirations – and those of the teams supporting the university in this area – are to launch and strengthen transformative programmes that involve developing SU’s next generation of scholars and future professors.
The Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies portfolio includes a focus on strengthening Early Career Academic Development programmes, which provide the university’s scholars and academics with a collaborative network that will help them to plan purposefully and excel in their careers.

Creating sustainable communities includes contributing to socio-economic development, and in this area supporting students’ entrepreneurial interests is important. “To achieve SU’s vision of being Africa’s leading research-intensive university, globally recognised as excellent, inclusive and innovative, where we advance knowledge in the service of society, we need to ensure we continue to build an enabling environment for all the people who find themselves in the university environment, whether they are students, staff, collaborators, community members or other external stakeholders. Research for Impact is our main objective.”

Prof. Moyo adds that SU is indeed a place of discovery and excellence that provides, among other outcomes, thought leadership in advancing knowledge and an excellent place to groom the next generation of scholars. She believes women play a significant part in providing role models for girls and other women who want to contribute as leaders in various sectors. “We have a significant role to play in addressing gender-based violence, unemployment, inequality and all its remnants, including crime, corruption, poor governance, health challenges, supply and demand of renewable energy, poor education facilities and access to quality education. Women can help articulate these issues and provide evidence-based solutions for transforming our communities.

“The government will not be able to do this for our communities on its own. As educators and staff within the higher education sectors, we need to embrace technology, create and build in order to address the key challenges we face, such as the power supply challenge that is affecting our efficiency in many sectors of the economy. We are glad, for instance, that we are already making an impact and finding solutions to address our local, national and regional priorities through the Centre for Renewable and Sustainable Energy Studies based in the Engineering Faculty at SU, together with our various partners and funders.

Funding the future – Anita Nel, Chief Director: Innovation and Commercialisation

Anita Nel, the University’s Chief Director of Innovation and Commercialisation has since 2006 been the driving force behind all that is entrepreneurial and innovative at the institution. She spearheaded various SU spin-off companies, established an incubator – the LaunchLab – and ensured a steady fifth income stream for the university.

She finds herself in one of the most stressful positions at SU at a time when universities, in addition to producing academic excellence to new generations, are also expected to find new income streams to survive.

In her career at SU, Anita has seen companies come and go. Some make it, and some don’t. Every time they learn something from an experience or interaction, she and her team at Innovus and SUNCOM integrate it into their new ventures, whether it is a unique online platform for learners to augment their high school curriculum (SU Advantage) or one where students and companies can link up to create access to talent for industry and employment opportunities for students (Gradlinc).

Many companies have been created under her leadership and she was the prime mover behind the establishment of the national University Technology Fund. From companies manufacturing control systems for satellites with Nasa as a client (CubeSpace) to biotech pioneers (Bio-Code and Flurobiotech) and climate change (Terraclim) and green energy (GreenX) businesses, last year Anita’s team established a record of six spin-off companies. Currently, the 30 companies under the Innovus flag provide employment for 342 people – no other university in Africa can equal this achievement.

As part of her portfolio, Anita also oversees SUNCOM, the university’s commercial entity, which includes the university shop (Matie Shop), an events and conference division (CECO), all the residences, and other commercial entities.

“My dream is to make SU a globally recognised entrepreneurial university that also boasts technologies that are improving people’s lives. Our team works towards providing the best residential services for students, the most valuable university botanical garden, the best transport services and many other value-adding services that make our university a great place for staff and students. Making the university more sustainable is also part of our mission. We have come a long way and are showing the world what kind of cutting-edge research is being done here on campus, research that directly influences and adds value to our communities.

“I have a fantastic team who believe in our dream,” Anita says. “They see and understand the big picture and know where to fit the pieces of the puzzle. Together we remove hurdles and create opportunities. I could not ask for anything better.” V