Nobel Prize winner among SU’s latest honorary graduates

The 2002 Nobel laureate for Physiology or Medicine, Prof Sydney Brenner, is among the six people to be honoured by Stellenbosch University (SU) with honorary doctorates. The other recipients of honorary doctorates are Prof John Kannemeyer, littérateur, researcher and writer; Mr Mosibudi Mangena, a former Minister of Science and Technology and leading figure in the freedom struggle; Dr Peter Wallenberg, international industrialist, banker and benefactor of Stellenbosch University; Prof Nina Jablonski, renowned anthropologist of Penn State University in the USA; and Ms Rhoda Kadalie, political commentator, academic and Executive Director of the Impumelelo Innovations Awards Trust.

At its upcoming December graduation ceremony, the University will bestow honorary doctorates upon Prof Kannemeyer, Mr Mangena and Dr Wallenberg. Prof Brenner, Prof Jablonski and Ms Kadalie will receive their honorary doctorates at the March 2010 graduation ceremony.

Prof Brenner, a visiting fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS) since 2005, will receive the degree Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), honoris causa, and Professors Kannemeyer and Jablonski and Ms Kadalie the degree Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), honoris causa. Mr Mangena receives the degree Doctor of Science (DSc), honoris causa and Dr Wallenberg the degree Doctor of Commerce (DComm), honoris causa.

In its pursuit of excellence, Stellenbosch University awards honorary degrees to individuals who have each contributed significantly to the promotion of a branch of science, the arts or culture or who have contributed significantly in service to society.

More information on the recipients

Sydney Brenner – Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), honoris causa

South African-born Sydney Brenner, along with H Robert Horvitz and John E Sulton, received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries concerning the “genetic regulation of organ development and programmed cell death”.

Prof Brenner made a number of excellent contributions in the emerging field of molecular biology, among others the identification of messenger DNA and the elucidation of the threefold nature of the code for protein translation together with Francis Crick, his colleague at Cambridge, in 1961. The latter gave rise to the discovery of so-called frameshift mutations, which led to a better understanding of the nature of the genetic code.

After this, Brenner focused on establishing the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans as a model organism for the investigation of animal and neural development. In recognition of his groundbreaking work in this regard, a closely related nematode was named for him, namely Caenorhabditis brenneri. The term codon, which refers to the unit of three nucleotides that encode a specific amino acid, was coined by Brenner.

Nina Jablonski – Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), honoris causa

Professor Nina Grace Jablonski, Head of the Department of Anthropology at the Penn State University in the USA, is an international expert on the evolution of primates, among others on the way in which our human forebears lost their hair, obtained skin pigmentation and, in some cases, became lighter in colour.

Her research results are of particular importance for the South African society, which has a centuries long history in which skin colour was (and sometimes still is) the cause of injustice and conflict. She has done groundbreaking work to indicate exactly how skin colour arose and developed in people and her findings demythologise the concept of “race”.

She has become famous because of her multidisciplinary approach to the problem of human pigmentation, in which anatomical, physiological, palaeontological, epidemiological and geographical data are processed.

The dramatic social impact of Jablonski’s findings is clear from her conclusion: “Darkly or lightly pigmented skin, therefore, provides evidence only about the nature of the past environments in which people have lived, rendering skin pigmentation useless as a marker for membership in a unique group or ‘race’.”

Rhoda Kadalie – Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), honoris causa

Ms Rhoda Kadalie is one of South Africa’s most outspoken political commentators. Although she originally gained fame as a leading political activist and loyal supporter of the struggle, she remains in the spotlight because of her columns and articles in which she launches razor-sharp attacks on maladministration and corruption. At the same time, she is a passionate academic, human rights crusader, feminist and mother.

She currently is the Executive Director of the highly reputed Impumelelo Innovations Awards Trust. This trust recognises excellence in government institutions as well as in projects in which the government and nongovernmental organisations work together to combat poverty.

Gender equality is of primary importance to Kadalie. It was largely through her drive and efforts that the University of the Western Cape (UWC) became one of the first institutions of its type in South Africa that offered maternity leave and child care; housing benefits were not linked to gender; and a just gender policy was put in place according to which women of all races were promoted on merit in academic posts. Thanks to her work for women’s rights, former president Nelson Mandela appointed her in 1995 as one of the country’s first Human Rights Commissioners. She later became a director for the Restitution of Land Rights and was also head of the District Six land claims unit.

John Kannemeyer – Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil), honoris causa

As an expert in the field of Afrikaans literature, John Christoffel Kannemeyer, an alumnus of Stellenbosch University, is in a unique position as researcher, writer and an expert in editing and textual studies.

Since the earliest part of his career, he was a growing authoritative voice in the Afrikaans literary world, among others because of his formidable memory, vast knowledge and ability to think big.

Kannemeyer’s career as a literary investigator started with theorising about prose, and particularly about the novel, among others in Prosakuns (1968, an introduction to the reading and analysis of prose) and Die stem in die literêre kunswerk, which is regarded as groundbreaking work in some regards. Since then a large number of volumes containing critical essays have seen the light.

With the publication of D.J. Opperman ’n biografie (1986), for which he won the Old Mutual Prize for Non-fiction in 1987, Kannemeyer started taking the literary biography in Afrikaans to new heights through a combination of thorough analysis and precise, detailed historical investigation, which could be likened to literary detective work.

Kannemeyer’s excellent biographies of figures like Peter Blum, C.J. Langenhoven, D.J. Opperman, C. Louis Leipoldt, Uys Krige, Jan Rabie and Etienne Leroux received wide praise.

Besides all of this, Kannemeyer has also made a major contribution as an expert in the field of editing and textual studies, evidenced by Die dokumente van Dertig (1990). He has achieved monumental heights with his research on different aspects of Afrikaans literature and can be regarded as a literary phenomenon in his own right. As one of the most productive researchers in the history of Afrikaans, he constantly maintains a high level and thereby makes an exceptional contribution to the mapping of the literary terrain, to canonisation and to emphasising the value of Afrikaans literature.

John Kannemeyer can rightly be described as one of the most erudite, authoritative, influential and productive littérateurs in the history of Afrikaans, one whose virtually inimitable contribution has been noticed widely and regarded highly.

Mosibudi Mangena – Doctor of Science (DSc), honoris causa

Mosibudi Mangena has made an outstanding contribution to the development of human capacity in South Africa. His impact is evident throughout all levels of South African society, from basic literacy to the leading edge of science, technology and innovation.

From early in his career Mangena had demonstrated his commitment to education as one of the basic routes towards social and political upliftment. However, it was in his position as Deputy Minister of Education and particularly as Minister of Science and Technology (DST) that he could devote all his energy to this cause.

He successfully raised national expenditure on research and development to one percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Whereas he has managed to position South Africa as a global player in science, he always emphasised that science and technology must ultimately serve society and enhance the quality of life of all South Africans.

Under Mangena’s leadership the DST has embarked on many initiatives. Prominent among these was ensuring that South Africa is on the international shortlist to site the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the biggest radio telescope ever to be planned; the DST’s involvement in formulating the AU/NEPAD Consolidated African Science and Technology Plan of Action (CPA); and the DST’s support for the establishment of the National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP), hosted at the Wallenberg Research Centre of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study (STIAS). (NITheP is being positioned as a national and African user facility for theoretical physics.)

Other DST and National Research Foundation (NRF) initiatives that have directly benefited capacity at higher education institutions include the Centres of Excellence (of which three are situated at Stellenbosch University) and the South African Research Chairs Initiative.

The centres have successfully enabled human capital development and have raised the quality and quantity of research output in a number of key areas.

His term will be remembered both for widening support for scientists from all backgrounds in South Africa and for focusing support on a number of well-selected niche research areas.

Peter Wallenberg – Doctor of Commerce (DComm), honoris causa

Peter Wallenberg is regarded internationally as one of the leading industrialists of our time. Over the past forty years, this humble man has expanded the Wallenberg group into one of Europe’s largest banking and industrial enterprises.

The unexpected death of his older brother Marcus, in 1971, was a turning point in his life. Marcus had been raised from the outset to follow in the footsteps of their famous father, Marcus Wallenberg Sr., and to take over responsibility for the Wallenberg interests. Marcus Wallenberg Sr. had built the family business into one of the leading banking and industrial groups in Sweden and even Europe with a lot of energy and great success. Under the control of the Wallenberg’s umbrella company, Investor, shares (and often also control) were acquired in dozens of companies, including Ericsson, Electrolux, Stora Enso (Europe’s biggest pulp and paper group), SAS (the Scandinavian airline), SKF, AstraZeneca (pharmaceutical products), ABB (a Swedish-Swiss engineering group), Saab and Scania.

Although Peter was unprepared for his new position and not many people thought he would succeed, he quietly and thoroughly, and with great perseverance, started working himself into the complex world of the Wallenberg group and gradually emerged as an ever stronger leader. In 1982 he became chairman of the board of Investor, restructured the group and executed great reforms to make the holding company more effective and profitable. In contrast to what his critics predicted, he was the most successful leader (measured in financial results) thus far. On his retirement, the companies in the Investor group represented an astonishing 40% of the value of the Swedish stock market.

Education lies close to Peter Wallenberg’s heart. His group supported many educational projects over the years and he views high-level research as being of key importance, as is evident from his funding of R26 million for the Wallenberg Research Centre at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies (STIAS).

Over the past few years, Peter Wallenberg has developed a special interest in Stellenbosch University. He has already visited the campus on three occasions, during which he expressed his appreciation and support for the research focus of the University in particular.