National Research Foundation CEO Speech at the UNISA's 150th Anniversary Gala Dinner

National Research Foundation CEO Speech at the UNISA’s 150th Anniversary Gala Dinner


  • Programme Directors, Professors P. Segalo and T. Pooley
  • The Chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA), Dr Thabo Mbeki (in absentia)
  • The Principal and Vice- Chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA), Professor Puleng LenkaBula
  • Members of the UNISA Council Present
  • Members of the Extended Management of UNISA 
  • Directors-General, and DDGs present.
  • Members and representatives of the Diplomatic Corps
  • Members of the staff and students at the university
  • Distinguished guests,
  • Ladies and Gentlemen

Good evening

I extend my warmest appreciation to the Chancellor  and to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa, for the invitation to partake in this auspicious occasion, a ceremony concluding UNISA’s 150th anniversary celebrations. I have been made to understand that these have been taking place in the country and elsewhere on the continent since last June. I am privileged and equally honoured to have been requested to deliver the keynote address on this momentous occasion.

Programme Directors, the story of the University of South Africa is the story of South Africa. It is the story of hope, re-invention, pioneering, resilience, and academic leadership. It is the story of the transformative power of education and research. Indeed, the name University of South Africa is befitting. This is the only institution that can rightfully carry the country’s name on its shoulders.

Since I was asked to deliver this address, I have been asking myself a question, which I will attempt to answer tonight.

Q: What Disorienting Dilemma’s propelled a country like South Africa to establish UNISA?

To answer this question, I had to search deeper into the Universe, and into history. Let me invite all of you to work with me, as I draw this mind picture.

We are at some point in time, and space. The world is emerging out the first industrial revolution, with steam power, and overwhelming successes in mechanisation. The world is still not too sure of the sustainability of these new developments. Yet, there are several potential opportunities that one could imagined. They are scarry. There are talks about mass production. and what it will mean for the world. It is no surprise to me that the focus of the second industrial revolution was on key elements such as railways, different modes of production, and making life better and easier through further automation. We now know that the 2nd Industrial revolution is deemed to have started in 1870, ending in 1914. During this period there were a number of key inventions that changed the world as we know it.

  • It was in 1873 that James Clerk Maxwell presented the partial differential equations known as Maxwell’s equations which form the foundation of classical electrodynamics, optics and electric circuits.
  • In the same Year, 1873, Frederick Guthrie reported observing thermionic emission, which were further observed by Thomas Edison, seven years later. You would know Thomas Edison for inventing a Light Bulb.
  • Also  in 1873, the University of the Cape of Good Hope, was established in Cape Town and subsequently renamed the University of South Africa in 1916. It was established as an examinations body, but did not initially offer tuition. It conferred degrees upon the successful examination candidates. It was clear that South Africans did not want to be left behind.

The University’s history embodies the history of Higher Education in South Africa. As the oldest University of its type in our country, UNISA is indeed the living ancestor of our university landscape. UNISA emerged as one of the world’s mega-universities providing access to all, transcending geographical and historical boundaries.  Of historical importance, is that as a federal body from 1918 to 1951, nearly all the major university colleges, as they were known, were for different periods affiliated to UNISA which coordinated curricula activities and examined their students. The subsequent university status of these universities can, therefore, be traced to this national academic asset.

Esteemed colleagues, given the market and political turbulences associated with the 21st century, very few organisations survived into their centenary years. The Harvard Business Review tells us that in the US, the average lifespan of S&P companies has fallen in the last 80 years, from 67 to 15 years. UNISA must, therefore, take pride in the fact that it has not only surpassed its centennial but has sustained itself until this very significant moment – celebrating its sesquicentenary [sɛskwɪsɛn-tɛn(ə)ri/ ] and firmly on its way to another 150 years.            

As a pioneer, the University of South Africa reminds us of how much our country can teach the world. The world of “independent study by correspondence”, later known as Open Distance Learning, has its genesis in this institution. In 1946, this institution became the first university in the world to offer degrees through “independent study by correspondence” as it was then known. Not only did the institution pave the way to Open Distance and e-Learning (ODeL), but it also paved the way to scientific research and scientific pedagogy for ODeL. As the National Research Foundation, we see this as a major contribution to the scientific achievements of our country.

As you all would know, many liberation struggle heroes, whilst languishing in jail, were able, through UNISA, to register, study and complete their degrees. This is an achievement not to be taken lightly. Their ability to study without tuition, and still excel, produced dynamic and independent thinkers who later become crucial assets in the building phase of our democracy in 1994. UNISA gave South Africa its first democratically-elected Head of State and its first Deputy Chief Justice, in the form of Nelson Mandela and Dikgang Moseneke respectively. Luminaries such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Ahmed Kathrada, Sizwe Nxasana, Eski’a Mphahlele, ZK Matthews, Robert Sobukwe, Oliver Tambo, Sir Seretse Khama, Jean Betrand Aristide and Gill Marcus, to name but a few, all have one thing in common – UNISA is their alma mater. No less than two Nobel Peace Prize winners count among its distinguished alumni. More importantly, UNISA continues to provides access to  tertiary education to hundreds of thousands of people across the continent,  who due a number of reasons, would otherwise have been denied such an opportunity.

Madame Vice-Chancellor, we have noted that during the 150 years of its existence, UNISA has been shaping the futures of many local and international students, given its impressive footprint. UNISA has made significant strides in teaching, learning, research and innovation. The National Research Foundation, has observed some notable achievements that we believe have added huge value to the country’s aspirations for a better society through science. These include, just to name a few:

  1. Contributions to Research in Renewable Energy

Through its dedicated Science Campus in Roodepoort, UNISA has significantly contributed to research in renewable energy, addressing the critical need for sustainable energy solutions. For instance, projects on solar photovoltaic systems and biofuel production from agricultural waste have garnered international recognition and funding, demonstrating UNISA’s role in advancing green technology.

  • Biotechnology and Health Sciences

The University has made significant strides in biotechnology and health sciences, focusing on issues pertinent to our country and the broader African continent. Research initiatives in this domain include the development of diagnostic tools for infectious diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, as well as innovative treatments for chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer. UNISA’s work in this field does not only enhance scientific knowledge, but also, directly impacts public health outcomes.

  • Environmental and Conservation Studies

UNISA’s environmental research has contributed to conservation efforts and sustainable resource management. Studies on biodiversity, ecosystem services, and climate change adaptation have informed policy and conservation strategies at local and national levels. The University’s collaborative projects with governmental and non-governmental organisations have added value to practical solutions for preserving our country’s rich biodiversity.

  • Nanotechnology and Water Research

UNISA’s Institute for Nanotechnology and Water Sustainability contributes to nanotechnology-based water treatment solutions and services for our country through groundbreaking water research and training programmes.   

  • Humanities and Social Sciences

UNISA’s scholars have produced influential work on social justice, human rights, and cultural studies, shaping public policy and fostering a deeper understanding of our diverse society.

  • Rated Researchers

In our National System of Innovation, Rating is seen by many as a measure of research excellence. This year alone, 53 additional UNISA researchers achieved an NRF-rating, bringing the total number of NRF-rated researchers from UNISA to 265, which is a significant number. Of these rated researchers, it is exciting to see that 35 have achieved a Y-rating. Y-rated researchers are young researchers who are judged promising in terms of their future careers. This is very relevant as we are in a continent that is likely to be home to 40% of the world’s youth in the next 7 years.

  • South African Research Chairs

The DSI-NRF South African Research Chair’s initiative is a vehicle aimed at strengthening and improving the research and innovation capacity of South African public universities. This includes the production of high-quality postgraduate students, with a focus on transformation. It is delightful to note that UNISA hosts five South African Research Chairs. Research Chairs are prestigious research centres, established through a competitive funding process. UNISA’s Research Chairs are in (1) Social Policy and the Family; (2) Law Society and Technology; (3) Development Education; (4) Information and Communication Technology for Development; and (5) Power, Energy, Network and Optimisation. The fields of these Chairs highlight UNISA’s future focus. All centres are in developmental areas, and South African priority areas. 

As a national funder of research, we see these achievements as compelling and impactful. It is for that reason that we will continue to support the University’s research agenda.

UNISA’s Internationalisation and Science Diplomacy vision has received a tremendous boost with the acquisition of highly strategic partnerships. Science diplomacy is intrinsic to any country’s innovation system and related strategy and policy-making, which interfaces with economic diplomacy.

The NRF has been impressed with the number of UNISA academics who receive accolades in research awards such as the Annual NRF Awards, the NSTF Awards, and the World Academy of Sciences Awards, to mention but a few. This goes to show not only the passion for research, but the commitment of UNISA’s leadership to invest in research. This is a commitment that puts South Africa in a sound footing for the future.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this evening’s celebration takes place during a key moment in our country, as we celebrate 30 years of democracy while witnessing the changes after the recent elections, and as we await the formation of a government of national unity during the 7th administration. This formation will most likely present new opportunities and challenges, particularly in relation to the various policies that guide our nation. As the audience tonight is highly representative of leaders from various sectors of our economy, I trust we will all look with keen interest to the new opportunities, and seize these in order to contribute to an outcome that will benefit our society overall.

With this in mind, it is timeous to reflect on the nation’s priorities. The National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 highlights that our goal for education is to:

“Build a strong and coherent set of institutions for delivering quality education, science and technology innovation, training and skills development”

We are well on our way to achieving this goal thanks to our institutions, such as UNISA. In addition, our Ministry for Higher Education, Science and Innovation is well poised to contribute to Goal 2 of the African Unions’ Agenda 2063 – namely to ensure there are ‘well educated citizens and skills revolution underpinned by science, technology, and innovation’. In support of advancing this goal, UNISA is well positioned to support the African Virtual University and e -University initiative. The objective of this initiative is to use ICT based programmes to increase access to tertiary and continuing education across Africa, and thereby reach large numbers of students and professionals through the length and breadth of our continent, as well as in other regions of the world.


Let me briefly reflect on tonight’s theme and the UNISA’s vision “Reclaiming Africa’s Intellectual Futures”. Deeply embedded in this concept is the significant role that research and development play in ensuring that the historical context is well captured by us to boldly reclaim what is rightfully ours.

In an article by Souhila Amazouz from the African Union Commission titled, “Science as a game-changer for the African continent”, she asserts that,

QUOTE: More than ever before, the African continent is looking towards harnessing the potential of technology and science to address some of its lasting security and development issues.”

Given UNISA’s vantage point as a 150-year-old institution with a deep research legacy and a rich alumni community, its contribution to Africa’s growth and development can be further enhanced by assuming a leadership role of intentional and coordinated efforts with higher education and similar partners in the Southern African Development Community region and other parts of Africa. This becomes a responsibility that is now handed over to the next generation of academics, students, and leaders to implement. This implementation should not be carried out in isolation. In fact, both our institutions, UNISA and the NRF, can share, as it is the point at which our respective institutions’ paths and interests intersect.

[light moment] Without venturing into fortune telling, I want to say something about the future.


I had to tap into the Universe, and I had a conversation with Kevin Govender, the Director: IAU Office of Astronomy for Development, where I asked him to go far back in time, in order to project where UNISA will be in the next 200 years. He said to me, 150 years is a negligible blip in the vast timescales of the Universe.

We could deduce that, African science will revolutionise the world. Our unique challenges have enabled us to think far out of the box. Our work today will enable us to feed our people; power our lights; clean and recycle our water; treat existing and new diseases before they decimate our communities; and instil knowledge and pride into our youth so that, they too, will continue the journey of the next 150 years.

Many variables including technology advancement, access to food, water and healthcare, societal changes, environmental factors, global power dynamics, artificial intelligence and to a larger effect, REAL INTELLIGENCE and unforeseen factors will determine this. There will be many shifts in Globalisation and Geopolitics, affecting global power dynamics, trade relations, and international cooperation.

I want to end by touching on the technology shifts that will matter.

The world is seeing a shift from centralisation to decentralisation, in all areas of technology. The shift is driven by the voices of the people on the ground, and Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence are geared for customisation. Think of personalised medicine. Think of automation in houses, where your devices like fridges, can automatically order products as they get depleted, without much of your intervention. As these developments take shape, universities will move more to the centre of economic development, and social change. Social Impact in general will be driven by what the universities teach, and how they teach it.

Those nations and institution that will lead, will do so because they have mastered the following:

  1. Ownership of credible data
    1. Data storage facilities that ensures that the data is confidential, has integrity and is available whenever required by those authorised to do so.
    1. Best channel and network technologies. Think fibre with bandwidth unimagined ever before;
    1. Data processing technologies, which will include all aspects of computing, information security, cooling systems, electricity, etc.

Data will, more than ever before, be the source of wealth. With this in place, we will see progress towards achieving general artificial intelligence (AGI), that can perform any intellectual task at least as well as humans. This could accelerate. This will lead to profound changes in various industries and everyday life, with data-driven insights and decision-making.

We are also likely to see resulting developments in education, such as personalised or customised education. All these developments require new thinking in terms of the Ethical and Regulatory Challenges that we face. There will likely be increased scrutiny and debate around ethical issues such as AI bias, privacy concerns, and the impact on jobs and inequality. Regulatory frameworks may evolve to address these challenges. Technology’s impact on culture, identity, and societal norms will prompt discussions on what it means to be human and how societies should navigate the rapid technological advancements. These are important areas for our universities to inform views and lead debates.


In the same way that Disorienting Dilemma’s at the onset of the second Industrial Revolution propelled South Africa to establish UNISA, its first university, we need to check the current Disorienting Dilemmas that will propel UNISA forward, and force it to chart new pathways for the next 150 years.

We have access to some reliable information that can assist in unpacking out future. The World Economic Forum expects that:

  1. Africa will add 1.3 billion people in the next 25 years, more than doubling its current population of 1.2 billion to 2.4 billion.
  2. By 2030, 1 in 5 people will be African.
  3. Also by 2030, 42% of the world’s youth will be in Africa.
  4. On the other hand, while the overwhelming majority of Africans today have access to a mobile phone service, less than two thirds have access to piped water.

We need to balance this reality as we move forward, making sure to provide for basic needs alongside growing developments with data and technology. Our adoptions of new and relevant scientific ways of education, will affect the fundamentals of the pedagogy as we have come to know it. The form and shape of education will change significantly, and this will affect all Universities. We must ensure that the change is for society’s greater benefit.

In light of this, the questions we should ask ourselves as we go away tonight include:

  1. What role are we going to play in ensuring the African identity and philosophy in technology?
  2. What role are we going to play in ensuring that we are able to select which technology would advance the African way of life?
  3. How do we ensure the new shaping of technology stems from Africa?
  4. What role will and should our students going to play in shaping the future?
  5. How do we shape the pedagogy to prepare Africans for the future we want to create?

The year 2073 will herald UNISA’s bicentennial celebration – 200 years of its existence – in just 50 years (just under 18 000 days away). That is a time frame when the current Zen G generation will still be alive. The question is what the legacy is that we wish to bequeath them. Looking even further in the future in 2173, the year of UNISA’s 300th anniversary, we should reflect honestly on the many challenges faced by the institution, and reposition the institution accordingly.


As I conclude, one prediction that looks obvious is this. All of us here will, one by one, stop breathing within the next 150 years. The challenge will be for us to depart in style, and to do so, knowing that we have played a part in changing the course of the universe, all enabled by science.

As we look ahead to the future, the University must continue to embrace change and innovation. The challenges we face as a country require new approaches and solutions. UNISA is uniquely positioned to contribute to this charge. Leveraging its expertise in distance education and digital technologies, the national goal of producing 5000 doctorates annually by 2030 might not be just a pipe dream. The University’s Science Campus with its state-of-the-art facilities in Engineering, Environmental Sciences, and Natural Sciences should be a premier research facility for our country. Solutions to our challenges in energy, poverty, and water quality, to name but a few, should be emanating from this campus.

As the National Research Foundation, we say this 150th anniversary of the University of South Africa should not only be a celebration of a glorious past, but also a moment to reaffirm our continued commitment to excellence, innovation, and social responsibility.

My wish is that UNISA will remain a symbol of resilience, adaptability, and excellence, inspiring generations to come. Let us embrace this bright future, fostering a community that learns, grows, and evolves as one. In the same way that UNISA has built South Africa’s knowledge economy and provided the dignity of a university education, may it continue to produce leaders across the spectrum of society – business, politics, education and, most importantly, science in all of its wonderful forms. I can also assure you that the NRF will also remain an important collaborative partner of UNISA.

Congratulations on successfully completing your sesquicentenary celebration, Unisa!     

Thank you all.

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