UKZN Partners to Boost KZN COVID-19 Testing

UKZN Partners to Boost KZN COVID-19 Testing
At the handover of the mobile clinics. From left is UKZN’s COVID-19 War Room Head, Professor Mosa Moshabela; KZN Premier; Mr Sihle Zikalala; Professor Busi Ncama; and KZN’s MEC for Health, Ms Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu.Click here for isiZulu version

The College of Health Sciences (CHS) has handed over 10 mobile COVID-19 testing clinics to the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Department of Health.

The hand over - at KwaZulu-Natal’s Disaster Management Centre in Durban - was done with University partners in the project, the Aurum Institute through its subsidiary Global Health Innovations (GHI), as well as corporate sponsors, Nedbank, the Spar Group and Chroma Capital.

The clinics have equipment and trained staff to test an average of 120 to 150 people during a six-hour day

Said Dean of Research in the College, Professor Anil Chuturgoon: ‘The aim of this project is to reach out to extremely poor communities in the KwaZulu-Natal region and provide COVID-19 testing. All of the testing is completely free of charge to the community.

‘In partnership with the Aurum Institute, we will examine samples extracted through swabs taken on site. These will be examined in our state-of-the-art laboratories at UKZN with the conduction of the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) through which we will be able to amplify the small samples extracted from the swabs in order to study them in detail. UKZN will also provide an interpretation of the results which we will share with the COVID-19 National Command Centre,’ said Chuturgoon.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College Professor Busisiwe Ncama, said: ‘This partnership project is in line with the mission of the College for social justice in health - we strive for inclusion and access to poor and marginalised communities. We are grateful to all our partners for making this a reality and to the UKZN team that is spearheading this initiative, under the leadership of Professor Churturgoon.’

The world class team will provide screening and testing - endorsed by the Department of Health - for the virus. The UKZN team will also conduct novel research into the virus.

Said Professor Veron Ramsuran, a high impact researcher at UKZN and KRISP: ‘We are working with the Aurum Institute, GHI and UKZN to offer testing to the community at a reduced rate. Using our specialised skill set, we aim to contribute in a responsible manner.

‘We are changing the way academia and diagnostics function by working hand-in-hand to provide support during the epidemic.’

Central to the project is accurate scientific testing and Dr Ravesh Singh of UKZN and the National Health Laboratory Services have made a significant contribution to the project. Said Singh: ‘As an NHLS scientist working with UKZN on the COVID-19 epidemic, I am assisting with the training of researchers at UKZN and the GHI. The specialised testing requires rigorous training to ensure proper diagnostic conditions exist and are followed and accurate results obtained.’

The GHI organisation is a team of scientific experts who have come together with specific expertise to fight the COVID-19 pandemic through high quality services in healthcare including clinical, laboratory, surveillance and epidemiological prevalence studies in a cost effective manner.

The Aurum Institute has a reputable track record as being the best in mobile screening centre for infectious diseases. The recent loss of its Chief Scientific Officer, Professor Gita Ramjee, to COVID-19 has motivated the team to work harder in fighting the virus.

Words: MaryAnn Francis

Photograph: Supplied


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Clinician Recommends Tailored Response to SA’s Unique COVID-19 Circumstances

Clinician Recommends Tailored Response to SA’s Unique COVID-19 Circumstances
Data@breakfast provides an update of the COVID-19 epidemic.

We have to understand “our epidemic” as a unique thing and build our own tailored response, says clinician and UKZN COVID-19 war room Epidemiologist Dr Richard Lessells.

Speaking at the latest data@breakfast Friday morning webinar, Lessells provided a general update on how the epidemic was unfolding in South Africa and challenges that could be expected during the gradual easing of the lockdown.

Lessells noted that the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continued to increase steadily, but not exponentially as was the case before lockdown. ‘If we consider South Korea, they flattened their curve due to large scale testing,’ he said. ‘We are scaling up testing and also expanding the reach with active case findings in communities. But it is still early days to judge success.

‘Personally, I think it is unlikely that we will replicate the success of South Korea and get to zero deaths because we have other challenges, such as a stretched public health system and a population with a high prevalence of HIV and TB. But because of our very early response we have bought time. This has enabled us to prepare and get ready for an increase in cases. Many facilities are now prepared and operating.’

With regard to progress with testing, Lessells said South Africa had significantly scaled up the number of tests it was conducting, which in the past week had been on average of 7 000 tests a day. This trend was driven by both increased capacity and demand, with the majority of tests conducted switching from private labs to the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS). South Africa’s current rate of testing stood at around 40 tests per confirmed COVID-19 case, ‘which places us somewhere in the middle compared with other countries and their rate of testing.’

‘With tests being conducted on people displaying symptoms of acute respiratory illnesses, and with 2%-3% of those tests coming back positive for COVID-19, what it is also telling us is that there are a lot of other respiratory illnesses out there,’ he said.

Lessells touched on the particular challenge highlighted by outbreaks in hospitals, prisons and other institutions in South Africa. ‘The worry is that these institutional outbreaks become amplifiers of transmission in the community,’ he said. ‘We have had some outbreaks in our hospitals and we expect to see more of this. What this is telling us is that the virus can spread easily in any environment where there is close contact between people. It highlights the importance of the government’s hygiene messages.’

‘We have to think what we can do to protect our healthcare workers and other essential workers.’

Lessells elaborated on what was known so far about COVID-19 deaths in South Africa and compared the country’s rising number to those of other countries. ‘With only 75 deaths as of today (24 April) it is still early days here,’ he said, ‘but the graphs show two different international trajectories: a high European/USA one and a lower Asian/Australasian one. South Africa seems to be following the low growth rate at the moment, again because of the very early response.’ 

Lessells advised that while deaths were concentrated among the elderly and those with comorbidities such as high blood pressure, diabetes and lung disease, ‘in other countries we are seeing young healthy people dying, and also seeing deaths of health care workers. It is important for the public to understand this’.

Lessells said that it was too early to show to what extent COVID-19 was affecting trends in death from all causes in the country, but this was something the South African Medical Research Council was now monitoring. He cautioned that with the advent of winter months and the influenza season there would be a natural increase in deaths, ‘which will bring its challenges.’

‘What the mortality stats do show us is a decline in trauma deaths, namely deaths from traffic accidents and homicide. This is one positive side-effect of the lockdown,’ added Lessells.

Words: Sally Frost

Image: Supplied


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UKZN Professor Collaborates on Diagnostic Tool for COVID-19 Using X-Rays

UKZN Professor Collaborates on Diagnostic Tool for COVID-19 Using X-Rays
Professor Evariste Bosco Gueguim Kana, and on the right are CXR images of (from left) a healthy individual, other viral or bacterial pneumonia, and a COVID-19 positive patient.

Academic Leader for Research and Higher Degrees in the School of Life Sciences Professor Evariste Bosco Gueguim Kana, has collaborated with researchers in South Africa, Nigeria, Cameroon and the UNESCO regional office for Southern Africa to develop a web-based diagnostic tool for COVID-19 that employs machine learning to detect evidence of COVID-19 on chest radiographs (CXR).

The method could provide much-needed decision support for radiologists and clinicians tackling the pandemic.

Gueguim Kana explained that the medical interpretation of CXR to draw information about a possible disease takes time and requires substantial medical expertise, leading to delays in obtaining an outcome. In the preliminary report, published on theMedRxiv server, Gueguim Kana and colleagues used machine learning to develop a model that has the capacity to recognise pixels of glass-patterned areas on CXR as distinguishing features of COVID-19 and to differentiate these from other viral- and pneumonia-infected lungs or healthy CXR images.

The model comprises a web interface where medical practitioners can log on and upload chest X-ray images within stipulated specifications. The system analyses the image and generates an outcome, specifying its probability of certainty, within seconds.

The system, freely accessible online, is intended to help where there is a lack of available medical expertise and high demand for swift results to determine a diagnosis. The exponential growth of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an equal upsurge in the demand for chest radiographs. Considering that expert interpretation of these images may not be affordable or accessible in all clinical settings, and that screening goals recommended by the World Health Organization to flatten infection curves could generate hundreds of millions of images for analysis, the researchers developed a computer-assisted decision support to relieve the burden on human experts and help prioritise cases.

Leveraging the advances in Artificial Intelligence by using a machine-learning algorithm, the team trained a model architecture on over 9 000 chest X-ray images, of which 2 000 were for COVID-19 patients, then validated it on other images not used for training. They achieved an accuracy rate of more than 90%.

‘Further collaboration with the medical fraternity in the validation of locally available images, fine-tuning with more local datasets, or the extension of the model’s capacity to accurately discern other medical conditions, will create a robust free system that could save time, resources, and lives,’ said Gueguim Kana.

The first phase of the project involved the establishment of the online system and the pre-print publication on MedRxiv - the report was downloaded 100 times within 48 hours. Gueguim Kana and colleagues say that, with relatively little funding and commitment of time and resources, the project could move into a second phase of approval and wider implementation.

Gueguim Kana, whose background is in applied biology, microbiology and biotechnology, has conducted research in the application of artificial intelligence and machine learning to microbial processing and to bioproduction systems for commodities like biofuels.

He is an innovative teacher, whose use of information technology in his instruction earned him a Distinguished Teacher Award from UKZN for 2017. One of UKZN’s Top Published researchers, Gueguim Kana holds a C-rating from the National Research Foundation.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied


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Arts Student’s Animated Movie to Premier at International Festival

Arts Student’s Animated Movie to Premier at International Festival
Student and animated film maker, Ms Kayleigh Gemmell.Click here for isiZulu version

The Next Few Months – an animated film by Master of Arts student, Ms Kayleigh Gemmell - will premiere at the first virtual Annecy International Animation Film Festival in France later this year.

Annecy is a competition for animated films of various techniques, including animated drawings, cut-out papers, modelling clay and computer generated imagery.

The film - among four selected from South Africa - is the practical component of Gemmell’s master’s thesis in Digital Art and Animation Studies on the topic of animated documentaries and whether or not they can be considered viable forms through which to represent documentary narratives.

The film itself is a highly personal animated documentary dealing with the after-effects of terminal illness: more specifically, on Gemmell’s father, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2018. The film documents his diagnosis and treatment from the perspectives of those closest to him, using different styles of animation to represent the results and effects of the treatments on the mind and body.

‘The biggest challenge of the film was grappling with the subject matter, which was incredibly personal. While the film was cathartic in the sense that it allowed me the space to process and deal with my father’s diagnosis, it was also very painful to relive, re-work and re-present some of the most difficult times for my father, myself and my family members,’ said Gemmell.

She sees Annecy as important for students ‘because they are sites for learning, growth and inspiration.’

Nominated in the graduation films category, Gemmell said the festival provided a platform for graduates to showcase work that often went unrecognised due to a shortage of funds, marketing or experience. ‘Ultimately it gives students access to an international network of interested and like-minded individuals willing to provide anything from support to education and job opportunities.’

Gemmell advised other filmmakers and artists to work hard and smart. ‘It is very easy to get bogged down by the process and its difficulties, and it’s just as easy to be distracted by more “interesting” ideas or whims. We have to learn to focus on the end goal but allow the process itself to occur as naturally as possible,’ she said.

‘Give yourself more credit and believe in yourself and your work. We are often unable to see the potential greatness in ourselves and that stops us from taking necessary risks and making the most of the opportunities we are presented with.’

Gemmell said she planned to travel and gain more experience within the field of teaching. ‘I am currently teaching English in Zhongshan in China; an experience that I hope will broaden my horizons and provide me with the skills to become a better teacher and lecturer.’

The film can be viewed on video platform Vimeo https://vimeo.com/368453877

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied


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“ShapersCare” Distributes Hampers to Needy During National Lockdown

“ShapersCare” Distributes Hampers to Needy During National Lockdown
Global Shapers, staff of Domino Foundation and representatives of the Durban Chamber of Commerce at the delivery drop-off in Clermont, Durban.

The Durban hub of the Global Shapers Community - an initiative of the World Economic Forum staffed by UKZN students, alumni and others - is spearheading a COVID-19 response campaign dubbed “ShapersCare” to distribute food and hygiene hampers to the most vulnerable within the eThekwini municipality during lockdown.

This initiative includes partners the Domino Foundation, the Durban Chamber of Commerce and the Disaster Management team of the eThekwini Municipality.

The initiative aims to deliver about a 100 000 food and hygiene hampers to augment the food supply of the vulnerable whose livelihoods have been badly affected by the lockdown.

Global Shapers have delivered food and hygiene hampers to folk in Umlazi, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu, Clermont and Durban Central with the content of each hamper deemed enough to feed four people in a household for about three weeks. Together with partners Global Shapers have handed out more than 4 000 hampers since the beginning of the lockdown.

Hampers include a 20-litre bucket branded with COVID-19 graphics and educational information in isiZulu, and then filled with basic hygiene and non-perishable food items, including bleach (750ml), four soap bars (175g), four toilet paper rolls, a box of tissues, maize (5kg), sugar, Instant Amabele Baby’s soft porridge, cooking oil, a bag of potatoes, and a bag of butternut.

Discussing what motivated the initiative, “ShapersCare”, the team lead of the initiative and UKZN student Mr Clement Agoni, said: ‘Not everyone can afford a three-course meal during the lockdown, especially when the restrictions have prevented many from working, so we decided to do something about the situation. We believe one of the ways to fight COVID-19 is to be each other’s keeper in these trying times. We cannot do it alone, so we are open for further partnerships and donations to enable us to extend a helping hand to many more who will be in need.’

Leading the health team of the Durban hub are current students and alumni of UKZN. They include Mr Clement Agoni who is a doctoral student in the Discipline of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Miss Yanga Mdleleni, a PhD candidate in the School of Laboratory Medicine. Alumni include; Dr Cindy Sibusisiwe Nkosi and Dr Thandeka Maphumulo-Ngcobo of the UKZN Medical School.

Founded by the World Economic Forum in 2011, the Global Shapers Community (https://www.globalshapers.org/) is a network of young leaders working together to address local, regional and global challenges. With more than 9 686 members worldwide, the network has representatives at 423 city-based hubs in 150 countries around the world.

 In each city, Shapers create initiatives to meet the needs of their community whether responding to disasters, fighting climate change or combating poverty. The Durban Hub (https://www.globalshapers.org/hubs/durban-hub) is one of the many across the globe.

Words: Ndabaonline

Photographs: Supplied by Global Shapers Communications team


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Scientists Warn Against Antibiotics Use in COVID-19 Treatment

Scientists Warn Against Antibiotics Use in COVID-19 Treatment
From left: Professor Sabiha Essack, Dr Ariel Blocker and Dr Maarten van Dongen.

Healthcare providers treating COVID-19 patients have been urged to be prudent in prescribing antibiotics because of the danger of increasing resistance to the treatment.

The call was made by UKZN’s Professor Sabiha Essack, who is the South African Research Chair in Antibiotic Resistance and One Health, and collaborating scientists, Dr Ariel Blocker of France and Dr Maarten van Dongen of The Netherlands.

The three, who are part of the international Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Insights Ambassador Network, have expressed concern around the inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat COVID-19 patients, which can lead to antibiotic resistance.

‘The causal relationship between inappropriate antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance is well established in both hospital and community settings,’ said Essack. ‘ It is therefore essential that all healthcare providers treating COVID-19 patients, implement diagnostic stewardship/microbial diagnostics and exercise prudence in prescribing antibiotics so as not to unintentionally exacerbate antibiotic resistance.’

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) coronavirus is an infectious disease caused by the newly discovered COVID-19. ‘Most people infected with the virus will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness and recover without requiring special treatment. Those more likely to develop serious illness include the older population and those with underlying medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic respiratory disease and cancer.’

There are no specific vaccines or treatments for the virus available yet although a variety of clinical trials are underway throughout the world. As such, healthcare providers have been using anti-retrovirals, anti-malarials and antibiotics either singly or in combination to manage COVID-19 patients. According to Essack and team, there is currently minimal robust evidence to support their use.

A study recently conducted in China, which was the epicentre of the virus, found no difference in the rate of virologic clearance at either seven days with the use of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine or without it over a five-day period. They were no differences in clinical outcomes such as the duration of hospitalisation, temperature normalisation and radiological progression.

The team mention various studies undertaken across the globe which indicate the inappropriate use of antibiotics, including a single centre study of 99 COVID-19 patients in Wuhan, China, where 71% of patients were prescribed antibiotics despite elevated procalcitonin levels being recorded in only 6% of patients and bacterial co-infection in a mere 1%. Another example is of the first 12 COVID-19 patients in the United States who received empiric antibiotic treatment for possible secondary bacterial pneumonia in the absence of bacterial co-infection.

According to the WHO, ‘Antibiotics do not work against viruses, only bacteria. Since the new COVID-19 is a virus, antibiotics should not be used as means of treatment or prevention.’

Essack and team commented: ‘Such indiscriminate use in the absence of bacterial infection exerts avoidable selection pressure for the escalation of antibiotic resistance.’ The team further endorsed the four Rs of antibiotic stewardship where the right antibiotic is prescribed at the right dose and administered at the right time for the right duration so as to promote rapid recovery from infection, prevent antibiotic resistance and reduce health care costs.

Words: MaryAnn Francis

Photographs: Supplied


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UKZN Alumnus Wins International Writing Award

UKZN Alumnus Wins International Writing Award
Mayor of Markham in Canada, Mr Frank Scarpitti with award winning writer, UKZN alumnus Ms Kass Ghayouri.

Award-winning author and UKZN alumnus, Ms Kass Ghayouri is the grand prize winner in the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading Awards competition run annually by the Guardian newspaper in England.

Ghayouri was chosen by public vote from a field of hundreds of authors.

Her win was for her novel An Era of Errorwhich is about an Indian girl growing up in a period of racial segregation enforced through the legislation of the apartheid government in South Africa from the late 1940s until democracy in 1994.

Said Ghayouri: ‘It is imperative to conquer fear and articulate the problem clearly, for the international audience to recognise the issue. In retrospect, the world will gain momentous strength to help eradicate political turmoil and acts of ethnic cleansing or racism.’

Another of her novels, A Note from the No Fire Zone, was awarded five stars by Readers’ Favourite Awards. This novel has gained the attention of politicians worldwide and is a memoir of a medical doctor, who worked to alleviate pain and suffering in the war zone in Sri Lanka.

Both of these books are being studied by Grade 12 Literature pupils in Canada and worldwide.

Some of her other books include Fugitives Baby, Punch Buggy, Governess Poetry and Illustration, Universe Poetry and Illustration, and I Tried but I Died.

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Supplied


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New School of Education Magazine Puts COVID-19 Under the Microscope

New School of Education Magazine Puts COVID-19 Under the Microscope
School of Education launches Creative Network, a magazine for students by students.Click here for isiZulu version

Academic Leader for Community Engagement in the School of Education Dr Angela James is spearheading a new e-magazine for students by students.

Titled: Creative Network, the magazine is circulated to students through various communication channels such as email, the School’s student Facebook page, the Creative Network Magazine Facebook page and WhatsApp.

The past four issues have focused on COVID-19. Students were encouraged to write about their experiences of the pandemic in a creative way - a story, lyrics to a song, poems, drawings, and also their method of learning - how it can take place wherever they are. 

According to James, there was a need to provide a platform for the School of Education community to interact through.

‘This is a digital platform to foster creativity, engagements and innovation and to promote social cohesion, which is relevant,’ she said. ‘Students are creative, which is evident from the activities they plan and engage in during the modules and in their free time,’ said Ms Phakamile Mazibuko, a co-editor and student. ‘By sharing the students’ experiences of COVID-19, it is hoped to foster notions of solidarity, compassion and support…a space for release, growth and comfort. The magazine is for sharing experiences and learning possibilities and challenges.’

Ms Mandisa Luthuli, another co-editor and student, added: ‘This is an opportunity and a platform for students to express their creativity and gives them a voice for that which inspires greatness within or around them…each person’s piece should encourage and spark the next contribution.’

On the future of the magazine, Mazibuko said: ‘We hope to bring a sense of engagement and social cohesion for students, the University community and others. Moreover, intellectual ability is of importance in today’s world. We need young leaders who use creative and critical skills to “think outside the box” to plan and implement impactful solutions for sustainable living within communities.’

Words: Melissa Mungroo

Photograph: Lihle Mbatha


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Student Helps Organise Masks for UKZN Community

Student Helps Organise Masks for UKZN Community
Third-year student, Mr Sibonelo Mhlongo, is assisting his mother’s small business in the manufacture of 15 000 masks at a discounted rate for the UKZN community.Click here for isiZulu version

Masks in UKZN colours at a specially discounted price is what a young student is organising for members of the University community.

The student, Mr Sibonelo Mhlongo of the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science, is working through his mother’s small clothing manufacturing business in rural KwaZulu-Natal to arrange for the production and supply of about 15 000 fabric masks at a discounted rate before staff and students return to campus.

Mhlongo, a third-year student studying Applied Mathematics and Statistics, is originally from Mtubatuba where his mother, Ms Tholakele Ncube, has run her business, Sojikile, for the past three years.

During his vacations, Mhlongo assists the staff of about six with the manufacturing of clothing orders.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, Mhlongo says his mother’s business has suffered as orders for bespoke outfits for weddings and church events have all but dried up.

After the chairperson of Universities South Africa Professor Sibongile Muthwa announced that university students would probably need to be physically on campus for the completion of practicals, exams and, in some instances, internships, Mhlongo began thinking about how he could contribute to helping protect people on campus from the killer virus.

When UKZN issued a challenge to students to come up with ideas to enable teaching and learning to resume under pandemic conditions, Mhlongo and his family thought of making masks in UKZN colours, as the business had been manufacturing the facial wear for the local community and essential workers.

‘I am part of the UKZN family, so I really wanted to help make a difference in these tough and unpredictable times,’ said Mhlongo, who hopes to complete his degree this semester.

‘It has been a struggle for my parents to support me financially, so I was keen on something that would hopefully benefit everyone in the end, including UKZN getting quality, washable, reusable masks,’ he said.

Working on a possibility that the University will re-open later this month, Mhlongo estimated that the informal business, which makes more than 3 500 masks weekly, could recruit extra labour and produce the 15 000 polyester masks within a few days.

So now, it’s full steam ahead!

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photographs: Supplied


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Amaranth – an Aid to Eating and Staying Healthy during COVID-19

Amaranth – an Aid to Eating and Staying Healthy during COVID-19
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In these difficult times, fresh vegetables to provide food and immunity against disease can be scarce as farmers are also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indigenous and cultural foods can be valuable as sources of fibre, nutrients and vitamins, while some also have medicinal value. Many can be grown quite easily at home - seeds can be obtained from elders and neighbours - and some are found as wild plants.

One herb plant that is widely available and grows vigorously and easily, is the amaranth. In Greek, amaranth is defined as a “never-fading flower”, in Sanskrit the word amar means immortal, while in Tamil/Hindi it is known as keerai/bhaaji or palak, but it is commonly known in South Africa as misbredie (Afrikaans), marogo, tepe (Sotho), imbuya (Xhosa), and in isiZulu as umfino/utyutu.

Both the green and red leafing varieties of amaranth (Amaranthus) are nutritious, providing plenty of fibre, protein - amaranth leaves provide some African societies with as much as 25% of their daily protein - and micronutrients. Yet this species has received little scientific attention.

Amaranthus has a high concentration of antioxidants and phytosterols so it has been associated with several health benefits, including reducing inflammation, lowering cholesterol levels1 and increasing weight loss. The leaves are low in saturated fats and have micronutrients such as vitamin A, vitamin B6, folate, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin C, calcium, iron (29% of RDI), magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

A curry containing amaranth was a very common vegetable dish my mother and elders in the community used to make. My brother refused to eat it when he was young calling it “wild grass” but now finds it a rare and delicious treat that is also good for his constipation!

In some cultures, the seeds and oil and even the roots are used. The seeds can also be sprouted, roasted and used to flavour rice or mixed with honey to form cakes. While amaranth is indeed an undervalued plant today, it has been used for centuries by the Aztecs, Mexicans, Africans, and Asians.

•    Curry Preparation: Young fresh leaves should be cut and added to stews, soups and made into a curry by adding oil, dried chillies (in which, the active compound capsaicin gives its burning sensation and is another rich source of vitamin C and other vitamins), garlic (with anti-inflammatory properties), onions, tomatoes (small amount), and if needed, potatoes.

Disclaimer: This information is based on decades of personal and family use as well as online information and research (cited). It does not represent professional opinion. Consequently precautions need to be taken as some foods may not fit specific health circumstances.

Professor Nadaraj Govender is involved in Science and Indigenous Knowledge Education in UKZN’s School of Education.

Reference:

DM Martirosyan; LA Miroshnichenko; SN Kulakova; AV Pogojeva; VI Zoloedov. Amaranth oil application for coronary heart disease and hypertension. Lipids in health and disease 2007, 6 (1), 1.


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Mathematics PhD Candidate Features in Video About her Research

Mathematics PhD Candidate Features in Video About her Research
Ms Chevarra Hansraj, UKZN PhD candidate.

Ms Chevarra Hansraj, a PhD candidate in the School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science’s (SMSCS) Astrophysics Research Centre (ARC), is featured in a video by the Centre of Excellence for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences (CoE-MaSS) in which she speaks about her research and the appeal of pursuing studies in applied mathematics.

Hansraj, whose research under the supervision of Professor Sunil Maharaj and Professor Rituparno Goswami concerns relativistic astrophysics, is the recipient of a doctoral bursary from the CoE-MaSS, an initiative of the National Department of Science and Innovation and the National Research Foundation hosted at the University of the Witwatersrand.

As a bursary holder, Hansraj attended the CoE-MaSS annual research meeting in October 2019 at the University of Pretoria, where participants from diverse fields were tasked with developing elevator pitches to promote their research after discussing new research areas and participating in science communication activities.

‘Often we are asked about what we do and the importance behind it - because research is so detailed, it is hard to sum up an answer in a few words,’ said Hansraj. ‘The whole process of writing, editing and shooting was really fun and professional and it’s an experience I won’t forget.

‘I really am grateful to the CoE-MaSS for their continued support and hospitality,’ said Hansraj, highlighting the importance of such workshops for developing young researchers.

In her pitch, Hansraj discussed using mathematical representations of the observations recorded by telescopes, such as the Square Kilometre Array, to understand these observations. This involves the use of equations, and in Hansraj’s case, these are the field equations developed by Einstein. She noted that some of Einstein’s mathematical theories predicted the existence of black holes before they were substantiated experimentally and with observation, confirming the importance of equations.

‘We aim to solve the Einstein field equations, which describe gravitational behaviour,’ explained Hansraj. ‘In order to analyse the properties and development of astrophysical objects like stars and galaxies, one needs to study the behaviour of their gravitational fields.’

Through her research, Hansraj is building on the work of many well-known scientists to contribute to answering fundamental questions about the universe.

Hansraj’s father, Professor Sudan Hansraj of the Discipline of Mathematics, encouraged her interest in science, mathematics and astrophysics. She attained eight “As” in her final matric examinations at Eden College, going on to study applied mathematics and computer science at UKZN. There she received several academic accolades and graduated with her BSc summa cum laude, achieving the same result for her BSc Honours, which she pursued through the ARC.

She conducted her masters’ research in general relativity through the ARC under the supervision of Maharaj and Goswami, achieving a mark of 93% and graduating summa cum laude.

Hansraj set a record for the highest mark ever recorded for an MSc (completed in a year) in UKZN’s College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science. For this research, she also received a South African Association for the Advancement of Science S2A3 medal for the best master’s thesis in the Sciences and Applied Sciences at UKZN in 2018.

Words: Christine Cuenod

Photograph: Supplied


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Excessive Screen Gazing May Cause Digital Eye Strain

Excessive Screen Gazing May Cause Digital Eye Strain
UKZN lecturer, Dr Alvin Munsamy.

Too much time staring at a screen during lockdown can cause digital eye strain previously known as computer vision syndrome, says UKZN lecturer in the Discipline of Optometry, Dr Alvin Munsamy.

‘If you consider that a computer is not the only electronic device we use today then digital eye strain is a better description as it encompasses all electronic devices with LED displays.’

Munsamy said the condition could cause blurred distance/near vision, difficulty changing focus, eye fatigue, general discomfort and redness of the eyes. Neck and shoulder pain were other symptoms.

He suggests use of the 20:20:20 rule to avoid the condition - every 20 minutes look away about 20 feet (6m) for 20 seconds. The ideal distance between the eyes and the screen is between 50cm and 70cm.

‘Remember to blink every four seconds and ensure you are using spectacles prescribed by your optometrist. Consider wearing spectacles with blue blocking coatings and/or anti-reflection coatings and use artificial tear supplements which can be obtained over the counter at a pharmacy.

‘Your screen should be at eye level with gaze slightly depressed around 15-20 degrees,’ said Munsamy.

‘Ensure your children don’t work too close to screens or for long periods of time to prevent myopia progression. Make sure they have time to play and switch off devices being used one to two hours before bedtime to ensure sleep onset and quality are not affected.’

He said continuous screen use caused eye strain so it was important to take regular breaks. ‘In the case of mobile phones, be cautious as they have smaller font sizes and are used at a closer working distance. Screen time reduces blink rate and also causes poor blink quality resulting in evaporative dry eye.’

Light from LED screens emitted high energy visible blue light similar to the sunlight except not as strong and this was also thought to cause digital eye strain. The light in a working environment can cause discomfort glare.

‘Do not spend long, continuous periods at the screen of an electronic device. We must use these devices as part of our new norm so maintaining proper visual hygiene will ensure a healthy “relationship” with them,’ he added.

Words: Nombuso Dlamini

Photograph: Supplied


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Operation Lockdown and Raising the Higher-Self in Higher Education

Operation Lockdown and Raising the Higher-Self in Higher Education
Professor Fayth Ruffin, Associate Professor at UKZN’s School of Management, Information Technology and Governance.

- By Professor Fayth Ruffin

Higher Education is usually seen as that level accessed after one has completed the earlier educational levels of primary and secondary schooling. Similarly, the higher-self can be actualised - once one works through the “hard knocks” schooling - from life lessons. Higher Education prides itself on knowledge acquisition and intellectual achievements. Conversely, the higher-self recognises the incomprehensibility of divinity and the limitations of knowledge and the intellect. Considering these different realms, does this mean that “never the twain shall meet”? The global pandemic of COVID-19 and the consequent worldwide Operation Lockdown provide opportunities to explore this inquiry.

The United Nations (UN) came into being around 1945 after the end of World War 2, ushering in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (the Covenant) is an international treaty signed in 1966 and which became effective in 1976. Article 13 (c) of the Covenant, provides that ‘Higher Education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education,’ With the dismantlement of apartheid in 1994, the Republic of South Africa was quick to sign the Covenant in October 1994. Former President Nelson Mandela saw to this on his first visit to the United Nations. However, South Africa declared that it would ‘give progressive effect to the right to education, as provided for in Article 13 (2) (a) and Article 14, within the framework of its National Education Policy and available resources’.

Article 13 (2) (a) and Article 14 are about free basic education. This means the “right to education” in South Africa is the right to basic education. This is borne out in the Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution, Section 29 (a) and (b). Section 29 (a) gives rise to the right to free basic education and 29 (b) the right to further education. The latter, according to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) includes Grades 10 to 12 at NQF ratings 2 to 4, respectively. The designation “further education” cascades into the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges. Here, the government abides by the Section 29 (b) mandate of applying “reasonable measures” to make further education “progressively available and accessible”. This amounts to TVET college students receiving government subsidies of as much as 80% for tuition and fees.

But what about Higher Education? We have witnessed the #Feesmustfall campaign and annual, if not bi-annual, disruptions of academic programmes due to student unrest. There are calls for improved student residences, decolonisation of curricula, protracted delays in meeting academic requirements, and so the list goes on. Students have argued their cases before executive management forums and resorted to violence and arson to make their points. In 2020, student unrest led to a Higher Education academic shutdown that was followed by the national Lockdown. Now, Higher Education executive management, the heads of Colleges and Schools, academics and academic support providers are readily joining forces to shift to online and e-learning teaching technologies.

What a teacher COVID-19 has become. We were already confronted by the realities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and now a poisonous virus is catapulting us forward. COVID-19 is forcing us to figure out how to make electronic devices and internet-based teaching and learning available to students in remote rural areas who may be without optic-fibre network accessibility or even electricity.

Moreover, COVID-19 and Operation Lockdown have granted nature a reprieve from humans. Air pollution indexes have reduced, swans are returning to lakes, ocean waves are billowing and rivers flowing happily, free from human-induced debris. Nature is restoring itself.

COVID-19, as a deadly poison, is saying to us humans: ‘stay away from each other or I will spread the infection and kill you off, one-by-one. We hear the instructions from our leaders to ‘stay home, keep safe and apply social distancing.’ We can read ‘stay away from each other’ and ‘stay home, safe and socially distant’ as, ‘get in touch with yourself – your higher-self.’

But, with COVID-19 killing us on the one hand and teaching us on the other, what have we learned during the national lockdown about raising our higher-self to help heal Higher Education? It is not easy to communicate with one’s higher-self. The mind, the intellect, the ego want no part of the higher-self infringing upon its “knowledge” jurisdiction. On the one hand, the mind is certain that it “knows” things and has you convinced that you can use it figure out anything you want to know. The mind uses the ego to assert itself and make determinations to manifest reality. On the other hand, the higher-self relishes in the unknown and thrives in the wisdom of uncertainty to manifest reality. With its focus on using what Deepak Chopra calls “pure potentiality” the higher-self is best equipped to guide convergence of opposing mental and intellectual dispositions into oneness that serves the greater good.

In this unprecedented level of uncertainty, to what extent are we each actualising our higher-self to direct Higher Education decision-making? How many performance management systems in Higher Education and other sectors have an indicator for actualising one’s higher-self? Operation Lockdown is an avenue for deep communication with one’s higher-self. The universe has its own customised healing modalities to which humans can be privy if we take the time to tune in, listen and allow our higher selves to advise us. This means disallowing the ego from being attached to one’s position and the ultimate outcome sought by one’s intellect. This amounts to moving beyond international treaties and domestic constitutions and laws to connecting to the infinite divine power of the higher-self that dwells within each of us.

Higher Education is broken. We can fix it. But the mind, intellect and ego are incapable, singularly or collectively of healing it. Rather, it is up to each stakeholder - internal and external - to use Operation Lockdown to raise the higher-self to heal Higher Education and other sectors.

Professor Fayth Ruffin is an Associate Professor at UKZN’s School of Management, Information Technology and Governance. Her career spans across the fields of law, business, government, the non-profit sector and academia.

Photograph: Supplied


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Online Learning Resources Developed for UKZN Academics

Online Learning Resources Developed for UKZN Academics
UKZN Teach Online Portal.

The need to provide alternative modes of teaching and learning in the wake of the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to various training opportunities being developed through UKZN for academics.

The following are currently on offer:

•    The Online Activated Teaching (ACT) short-course, facilitated by Dr Craig Blewett

•    A series of basic and advanced instructional videos developed by ICS for staff and students on using Moodle

•    Webinars/Workshops on assessing with Moodle (basic and advanced), facilitated by Dr Upasana Singh

•    Instructional guides on using PowerPoint to record slides as teaching videos

•    Instructional guides and videos on Zoom and Microsoft (MS) Teams for live lectures

•    Instructional guides on HandBrake and VideoLAN Client (VLC), which are free video compression tools

•    Details of the ICS help-desk support

•    Various other resources, including those from other universities

Most of the above offerings are freely available with no limits to participation. Those that limit class sizes will be repeated - with appropriate notices issued by the Teaching and Learning Office (UTLO) - until demand has been met. Additionally, recordings of workshops and webinars are or will be available at http://utlo.ukzn.ac.za/utop/Webinarrecordings

The offerings are available in the UKZN repository: the TEACH ONLINE PORTAL (UTOP). To access the Online Portal, go to the UTLO homepage via Google Chrome http://utlo.ukzn.ac.za and click on TEACH ONLINE PORTAL. The UTOP website houses instructional guides of online solutions in text, image, and video format. Mr Abdulbaqi Badru, a Technology Practitioner at UTLO, who conceptualised and designed the portal, said: ‘the instructional guides will be useful in assisting staff and students develop their capacity to engage in online teaching and learning.’

The portal is intended to be an evolving “agnostic communal facility” where colleagues share their online resources with the University community. The content is curated by the UTLO and the Teaching and Learning leadership. The site also foregrounds the UKZN Teach Online Forum, which enables academics to support each other: https://dmssupport.ukzn.ac.za/utlo/UTOF/

We invite academics and professional staff to contribute to the development of the portal by sharing teaching and learning resources. Please send contributions to utlo@ukzn.ac.za

Academics have highlighted the limitations of Moodle as the official UKZN Learning Management System, especially its capacity to accommodate videos and other blended learning materials. In response, UKZN is now offering Kaltura as an add-on to Moodle, which will offer seamless integration of a range of teaching resources.

Some staff members are concerned about access to data and devices for staff and students. The EMC Teaching and Learning Task Team will make an official announcement on this aspect as soon as the ongoing negotiations with service providers are concluded.

The UKZN Director of Teaching and Learning, Professor Rubby Dhunpath, said: ‘UTOP is intended to be an evolving “agnostic communal facility” where colleagues share their online resources with the University community. The content is curated by the University Teaching and Learning Office and leadership. The site also houses the UKZN Teach Online Forum, which enables academics to support each other.’

To contribute to responsive teaching innovation, please write to us at utlo@ukzn.ac.za and advise us of your training and development needs and offer your expertise and services to expand the suite of training opportunities.


Words: Abdulbaqi Badru and Rubby Dhunpath

Image: Supplied


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Protecting Mental Health While Working at Home

Protecting Mental Health While Working at Home
An image depicting the challenging task of balancing work and house demands.

Protecting Your Mental Health while Working from Home was the title of an address Clinical Psychologist in the School of Psychiatry, Mr Suntosh Pillay gave to UKZN staff.

Co-ordinated by the School of Clinical Medicine, the seminar targeted professional staff in the College of Health Sciences and focused on addressing stress associated with the new virtual environment setting posed by COVID-19.

A 2017 United Nations report found that 41% of remote workers reported high stress levels, compared to just 25% of office staff. The study also revealed association between stress and reduced productivity.

‘It is normal to feel anxious, uncertain, fearful, depressed and isolated during this period of COVID-19. The pandemic is new to all of us, thus its important knowing that we are all going through the same feelings of anxiety - you are not alone,’ said Pillay.

The disappearance of old routines and habits such as socialising with colleagues and working from your usual office space can be very challenging and can impact on competencies and accountability causing a person to feel defeated and underperforming.

Pillay, a founding member of the KwaZulu-Natal Mental Health Advocacy Group at UKZN, said customising work plans with one’s personality, emotional needs, productivity peaks and setting own limits was critical.

‘Keeping social contact with fellow colleagues and checking on them regularly can make a huge difference,’ said School Operations Manager at UKZN’s School of Clinical Medicine, Mrs Antoinette Botha.

Said Chantel Mathe who attended the seminar: ‘This seminar was informative and has provided me with valuable tips on how to balance my work and house demands without falling apart.’

Pillay provided the following tips to help cope better while working from home:

* Be patient and give yourself time and space to figure things out

* Create a routine you are comfortable with

* Discuss your needs with whoever else you share your space with

* Set boundaries, eg start and end times, weekends, cell phones etc

* Limit the intake of news and social media

* Connect with others when you need to but balance this with your work schedule

* Stay hydrated, eat healthily, do some light exercises and breathe!

* Embrace the positive aspects of working from home

Free counselling support is available for staff from the following organisations:

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group - 0800 456 78902; the Psychological Society of SA e-mail: fatima@psyssa.com, or go to: http://psytalk.psyssa.com/current-issue/; and the Durban Practising Psychologists’ Group:www.dppg.org.za or email:exec@dppg.org.za

Words: Lihle Sosibo

Photograph: Shutterstock


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Dimensions of the Impact of COVID-19 on Small and Micro Businesses in SA

Dimensions of the Impact of COVID-19 on Small and Micro Businesses in SA
Ms Lindiwe N Kunene, Management and Entrepreneurship lecturer at UKZN’s School of Management, Information Technology and Governance.

- By Ms Lindiwe N Kunene

In almost all the messages, strategies and press conferences we have seen in these tough times of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing is clear looking at the situation from the perspective of SMMEs - some animals are more equal than others!

We listened with excitement and great expectations to the powers that be make announcements and put forward plans for the provision of assistance to small businesses. There was going to be a relief fund for SMMEs – the industry breathed a sigh of relief in potentially averting disaster. However, positive sentiments turned to a fear that the underprivileged and Black-owned small and micro businesses would be left out.

Most of this article draws on observations from people in the Black African group.

I was on the phone and in my social media space widely sharing the good news after learning about the changes government was putting in place. For those who know me, my work, research and solutions are always centred in the SMME space. It is no surprise then that I had many start-up entrepreneurs, and some established ones call me to discuss what this pandemic, legislation and responses meant and how I thought this would work? Since 7 April when the Minister of Small Business, Ms Khumbudzo Ntshavheni, announced the implications of the Disaster Management Act, 2002 (Act No. 57 of 2002) for SMMEs, it has been a roller coaster experience for most SMMEs and more so the Small and Micro businesses (DSBD, 2020). Although guidelines have been provided, there has been confusion around essential goods, and the loopholes in the definition of what constitutes these essential goods. Tenderpreneurs have found themselves in desperation chasing personal protection equipment (PPE).

On the one hand, the informal sector has been left with no consumer, and on the other hand the small business, has woken up to what was meant by business compliance, which they had, historically, not complied to.

The creative industry businesses which operate as micro businesses have been left in limbo and vacillating between the Department of Small Business Development and the Ministry of Sports, Arts and Culture for directives. By and large, there has been misinformation in most spaces, and the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) has been silent in communicating and translating their message to some of the Small and the Micro business practitioners.

According to the Disaster Management Act, as of 7 April 2020, all SMMEs in the business of providing essential goods (including groceries), can acquire a permit to trade. In the micro business space this includes the informal traders who mostly sell on the pavements and at the Spaza shops. The date 7 April was in response to calls from the micro industries who found themselves unable to make ends meet as their businesses were “closed down” on 26March when the first Lockdown period began. Big established, essential goods businesses however, were not as affected as they could continue to trade. During this time, most citizens who are working received their salaries and the grant system paid out as per usual. By the time government woke up to the need to include the micro traders, the first wave of spending had passed. This meant that some informal businesses would not rise again.

The Informal Traders

Not every informal trader sells essential goods. There are mechanics, electricians, restaurants, muthi (traditional medicines and spiritual consultations), shebeens, food stalls… the list is endless. All of them have been working and had a market. Suddenly they are no longer allowed to work, there is no income, and their families are going hungry.

And there has been a rise in illegal trade. These individuals, and usually their team of between one and three individuals, are not eligible to apply for any of the funding relief because they have never applied for or contributed to UIF, not paid tax or even registered their businesses. Informal traders receiving support for relief are strongly opposed by those complying who point out: ‘We complied therefore we should be first in line for any relief. Why should they get anything for failing to be upstanding citizens?’ This is the debate that is prevalent across social media platforms and in different webinar discussions. It reeks of failure to understand the dynamics of our country. It also shows that many who live in South Africa are not aware of the realities of being South African and living in South Africa. It does not dawn on them that if these businesses fail, they too will be affected by the economic impact that will follow and other socio-economic ills, like crime, that will be part of the outcome. What these individuals fail to comprehend is that this micro trading space, which is not counted in any of the official economic indicators, is worth billions and feeds millions.

The Tenderpreneurs

Over the years in South Africa, the term tenderpreneurship has been marred by racial slurs and insinuations of fraudulent behaviour and questionable service quality. It cannot be denied that South Africa has had many cases where failed control measures and unscrupulous individuals have created this unfortunate perception. It is however, important to note that this does not define all procurement processes observed in the country. A tender is simply an outsourcing strategy practised the whole world over. It is not true that a tender is synonymous with fraudulent behaviour. Tenders exist in both the public sector and the private sector as part of the procurement strategy. Unfortunately, in the current state, most Black tenderpreneurs do not own the factors of production that they are procured for. There are however some who become involved beyond the “middle man” title and become the manufacturer of that which they supply. The number of such tenderpreneurs is unfortunately quite low.

In reality, the big tenders available in business will always be procured from the fewer big companies, who have somehow avoided being labelled tenderpreneurs even though in principle they are. The smaller tenders are left to the masses to fight over. In this article I refer to the latter.

Many families are fed by individuals who participate in tender businesses. You realise how big the tenderpreneurship business form is when a big organisation publishes a call for tender and the number of people who pitch to the briefings is overwhelming. It is no wonder we have started seeing regional territorial wars when it comes to tenders because they have become an integral part of our socio-economic definition as a country. Tenders serve a purpose for big business and government. We cannot afford to suddenly shut them down. We do however need to find solutions of how to better manage their existence in such a way that it adds value to the tenderpreneurs themselves and they are able to participate as Small and Micro Entities they are meant to be.

Many tenderpreneurs have become jack of all trades and master of none, which hurts their credibility immensely and makes each contract they participate in a cash cow transaction. There is no sustainability, more so now in the time of COVID-19, when the best solution as the “master of none” is to secure a PPE manufacturer in China and locally and hope for the best as you kneel and pray that you do not starve for eternity. Sustainability, business acumen and credibility will have to take centre stage for most tenderpreneurs.

The Small Businesses

The Small businesses in the scope of SMMEs suffer from middle child syndrome. The informal sector views them as the blue-eyed boys while the powers that be, make decisions for them as if they are fully fledged like the small businesses. In truth, not all small businesses are performing as they were expected to even before COVID-19 hit. There is too much red tape, they cannot keep up. They do not have enough infrastructure and a market to warrant the hiring of personnel and in some instances they lack the maturity required to be formidable businesses. The stresses of being responsible for the full supply chain hits them and they usually do not know how to react and act when problems hit. In most instances they do not have the skill and knowledge to deal with the position they find themselves in. It is only after years of trying, failing and giving up that we see them morph into a more mature Medium Business form. Unfortunately, many get left in the vortex of not reaching this level due to lack of compliance, innovation, networks, skills and knowledge. In the time of COVID-19, almost all of the rescue funding schemes that have been made available require some business compliance, proof of business operations and income generation. As such, many of these businesses do not make the cut.

The list of business relief schemes so far includes the following:

1. Debt Relief Finance Scheme
2. Business Growth /Resilience Facility
3. COVID-19 Agricultural Disaster Support Fund
4. South African Future Trust (SAFT)
5. Tourism Relief Funding
6. Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) COVID-19 Essential Supplies Intervention
7. Old Mutual Insure business financial relief measures
8. MCEP COVID-19 Programme
9. COVID-19 Temporary
10. Temporary Employer/Employee Relief Scheme (TRS)
11. The Sukuma Relief Programme
12. Solidarity Fund
13. Motsepe Family Contribution
14. Mary Oppenheimer’s donation
15. COVID-19 Small Medium Micro Enterprises (SMME) Emergency Funding Package
16. Giving for Hope

It should be noted that, contrary to popular belief, not all of these are purely reserved for Black-owned businesses. Yes, there will be some organisations that are BBBEE centric, but not all of them are. The racial narrative that has taken centre stage is mainly due to the failure to clarify and provide information to the public by the relevant government divisions. There has to be corrective communication from the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD) and any other body before this gets out of proportion.

The Creative Industries

The Howkins Creative Economy Theory identifies just over 15 industries that fall into this Creative category. Some of these have thriving business models and strategies, however, many of them - operating specifically in a micro context like the arts, music, fashion and film spaces - are ignored. There has been a realisation that this industry has a positive impact on the country’s economy, however there has been waning support to build and improve the industry to make its contribution more formidable. Beyond their contribution to the economy they support families through their arts and with COVID-19 they find themselves unable to continue with the work they used to do.

Unfortunately, for too long, the creative industries have not been viewed as businesses. As such, most of the interventions in this space are not designed to help them with treating their creativity as a way to monetise their craft into business. Many performances as we know them, have been shut down. New innovative methods of availing creative products and services are shifting. The relief that was spoken of by the Minister of Sports, Arts and Culture has left many confused and lamenting.

A society that supports the creative industries is in a better position to have innovative growth. According to Florida (2002, p. xiii) ‘human creativity is the ultimate economic resource.’ South Africa therefore cannot afford, in its economic reengineering taking place during COVID-19, to leave this industry behind.

Crime and Corruption

It would be disingenuous to discuss businesses in South Africa and fail to talk about the issue of crime and corruption. Many Small and Micro businesses do not have insurance because they cannot afford to have it. As such, stolen goods, vandalism and funds are not replaceable.

Many of these businesses are expected to pay kickbacks to some officials they are thus unable to develop to their full potential. In Mpumalanga recently, a councillor was found selling permits for informal traders. He probably is not the only official who has found underhand ways to benefit from the COVID-19 regulations at the expense of small and micro enterprises – he was just one who got caught.

Solutions for the Future of SMMEs

One thing COVID-19 has done is to expedite change in the SMME sector as a whole. It has made the gaps clearly visible and it has allowed the powers that be to change research and strategies towards the construction of an SMME industry that is robust, and sustainable. We may not all agree on what the solutions are, but a good start is considering different options and weighing them up.

Below are some suggestions given the current situation, which could help businesses and government carve out the SMME path post COVID-19: 

1. Innovation: It cannot be denied that SMMEs who are innovative will survive post COVID-19. Innovation should no longer be a subheading that simply exists in business plan documents and never practiced. This means for a business to truly exist and be sustainable it has to adapt to the ethos of entrepreneurship, which embraces change and the need for innovation to forge forward. Failure to do so by SMMEs will lead to their demise. Bail outs will not always be available for everyone but that should not have to spell out the end.

The call for more innovation-driven organisations also suggests that there is a need to use a multidisciplinary outlook to societal problems, and include and/or work with creative industries where need be.

2. Glocalisation and Local Content Manufacturing: These two strategies are going to ensure that economic activity is increased within the borders of the country. Government has to make it mandatory for a percentage of the manufacturing of goods sold in South Africa to be made in partnership with South African-based businesses ie passing certain supply chain activities to South Africa. Quality controls would have to be strengthened as part of the agreements between international businesses and their local manufacturing partners. Industries that do not exist would have to be developed by investing in knowledge building and infrastructure.

3. Enterprise Supply Development and Big Business: The Enterprise Supply Development (ESD) like all other BBBEE solutions has been met with resistance. So far, in most instances, ESD has presented training after training, year after year with no supplier role realisation. All of this happens while big corporates earn BBBEE points they are after. The ESD recipient in the meantime becomes frustrated as they at times have to put certain activities of their business on hold to fulfil the requirements of the ESD programme. You find that many end up dropping out as they do not see how it helps. The training is commendable; however, DSBD must consider the inclusion of a mandatory minimal supply benefit for those in the programme. This means corporates need to invite into their programmes SMMEs that fit their business model. There should be stipulated years to spend on the ESD programmes allowing the recipient to graduate and compete as a fully-fledged supplier.

4. Virtual Teams: The use of Virtual Teams is going to have to be the new norm for most businesses. During the COVID-19 pandemic we are seeing many businesses continue working without employees going into the office. Physical infrastructure and resources are becoming a thing of the past for some. Where there is no need to have a physical office there should be no physical office. Before COVID-19 hit there was a slow rise in virtual PAs, and functional managers. There is credence in reviewing your organisation’s structure to see what can be done remotely.

5. Business Compliance: Small and micro businesses as well as creative industry businesses need to ensure they begin to comply with the different requirements legislated for businesses. Even when not necessarily required for some, being compliant comes in handy. However, having said that, this speaks to government to urgently review their compliance systems for businesses. These need to be streamlined. There is also a need to look at how they can benefit from the informal industry worth billions, which is not taxed (except for VAT) and will most likely never be taxable using the tax models we know.

6. Economic Indicators for the Informal Sector: Economic decisions and strategies are concluded on what we know form part of the calculations. In truth, the economic indicators we use are flawed. They completely ignore the consumer whose grocery shopping is from this sector and undermine the micro trader who fulfils this demand. We have comfortably accepted that we simply ignore them and the billions they carry in our calculations.

7. Cooperation and Consortiums: In 2019 a student of mine, a colleague and I published work that delved into the understanding of the success of foreign-owned Spaza shops in the townships. One of the factors we found that set these Spaza shops in a higher level of performance than their local counterparts was their ability to work together. They were able to take advantage of opportunity costs, as they were bulk buying and solving problems as a unit (Lamb, Kunene, Dyili, 2019).

8. Training and Development: This should go beyond “how to write a business plan” - training needs to be changed completely. Outcomes of the training programmes that are offered should translate into actual plans and strategies, with business compliance completion forming part of the training programmes.

Innovative, creative thinking has to be socialised as early as Grade R to ensure it almost becomes innate in how our society reasons in their decision-making processes, especially during a crisis. Failure to do this will almost guarantee that in 100 years’ time, when humanity faces a pandemic forcing closure of businesses, we will still have a society that seeks government to help them because their own models are not robust, adaptable or responsive to the environment and are not sustainable.

9. Tenderpreneurs: These individuals as defined above should be given the opportunity and training to turn their ventures into legitimate small business entities. All eight suggestions mentioned above should form part of their re-engineering strategy now and post COVID-19.

10. Clamping Down Heavily on Corruption and Crime: As long as corruption and crime are not dealt with and consequences not felt by the wrong-doers, the MMEs will always be stagnant. Growth will be reserved for those who are on the inside track and well connected.

Not all businesses will come out on the other side of COVID-19, which is a fact we must accept. Only those businesses willing to accept change and make the necessary adjustments will prevail. As long as the bottom half of Small Businesses and the Micro Businesses are grouped together and blanket decisions are made for them, they will always trail behind and their worth never truly attained. The existence of Medium and Micro Enterprises boosts the economy immensely and the country cannot afford to lose them.

Ms Lindiwe Kunene is a Management and Entrepreneurship lecturer at UKZN’s School of Management, Information Technology and Governance. She publishes research on Entrepreneurship, Business strategy and Innovation strategy for Small, Medium, and Micro Enterprises (SMMEs).

References:

Lamb, B., Kunene, L. N., & Dyili, N. F. (2019). Lessons from Foreign Owned Spaza Shops in South African. Journal of Reviews on Global Economics, 8, 1351-1362.

DSBD (2020). Small Business Development on directions to assist SMMEs during the Coronavirus COVID-19 lockdown Retrieved 16 April 2020, from https://www.gov.za/speeches/small-business-development-directions-assist-smmes-duirng-coronavirus-covid-19-lockdown-7.

Florida, R. (2002). The Rise of the Creative Class. And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life. Basic Books.


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Leadership, Trust and Managing a Virtual Workforce During COVID-19

Leadership, Trust and Managing a Virtual Workforce During COVID-19
Dr Trevor Mtetwa, Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources Management lecturer at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership.

- By Dr Trevor Mtetwa

The adage coined by author and public speaker Brian Tracy that “the true test of leadership is how well you function in a crisis”, holds true for many leaders and organisations. Leaders have a special role in turbulent times with outstanding leadership being an essential survival component for contemporary organisations.

The current business environment, characterised by unprecedented changes and challenges, demands great flexibility and adaptability from organisations. To remain competitive and sustainable, leaders have to lead from the front and inspire and empower their teams. Crises create numerous uncertainties among employees and it is the responsibility of leaders to reassure employees and instill trust in relationships. Trust is a central and critical commodity in crisis management and business leadership. It is an antecedent of employee motivation, efficacy and performance. Leadership on the other hand also functions as an antecedent of trust - involving employees in decision making directly affects their trust in their leader.

Novel crises are recurring events in human history and defining moments for businesses of all sizes with time pressures demanding swift leadership decision-making characterising most. Without doubt, the outbreak of the global pandemic of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has brought about considerable challenges demanding leaders to act, and act quickly. With the current situation of COVID-19 requiring social distancing and governments imposing national lockdowns, many organisations are suddenly faced with new realities and have to adapt their operations to ensure continuity of business operations. The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an overnight need for many organisations to operate in virtual spaces and many have been found wanting. Virtual operations are not a new phenomenon especially in the 21st century. Globalisation accompanied by advancements in technology have enabled organisations to conduct business across geographic spaces. In fact, business executives believe the future of business is virtual. 

To make the most of virtual operations, businesses have to understand and embrace the complexities of such operations, such as challenges of adapting to new technologies, leading/managing virtual teams, and maintaining/instilling trust. Virtual operations are made possible by exceptional developments and diffusions in collaborative technologies. As such, the process of adaption involves understanding technology structures, which include restrictiveness, sophistication and comprehensiveness of its features as well as the general intent of technology regarding the values and goals of the organisation. Values and goals may range from simple reporting purposes to sophisticated decision-making processes. It is of utmost importance for leaders to provide support to employees’ through the adaption process. Training staff on simple configurations and dashboards would ensure smooth transition from traditional to virtual operations.

During times of crisis, the most critical issue is to reduce disruptions and try to stabilize operations. Virtual operations require leaders who are able to keep their fingers on the pulse of emerging issues. Central issues in leading/managing a virtual workforce include challenges of developing behavioral norms, few discussion opportunities, and lack of trust. Leadership during these times may prove to be the deciding factor between success and failure of virtual teams and the organisations as a whole. Clearly, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a host of uncertainties and imposed a situation where leaders have to step-up and weather the storm. For many, this includes adopting new styles of leadership suitable for managing a remote workforce, while maintaining trust with employees. Leaders have to be authentic and display unwavering honesty to maintain trust with employees. Today, information is readily available. Employees need to get accurate information from leaders rather than through the grapevine. Only when employees trust their leaders will change be brought about.

The question then remains: How do leaders maintain a balance in managing a virtual workforce, instilling trust and getting the most from employees during times of crisis? Here are some answers:

1) Prepare contingency plans - Leaders should keep their fingers on the pulse of issues and ensure that they are prepared for uncertainties. They need to detect early signs of crisis and devise strategies to mitigate any possible risks. Anticipating and responding quickly demonstrates dynamic and rapid leadership and shows great ability and resilience of leaders.

2) Take responsibility and accountability - Taking responsibility means leading from the front. It is perceived as a sign of capability and instils confidence in employees about their leader. When faced with a crisis, leaders have a lot of decisions to make and, showing initiative demonstrates confidence and reassures employees.

3) Build support- Building support ensures that employees do not feel isolated or left behind. Leaders have to provide support and guidance. Support may include training employees for virtual operations and ensuring that they have the tools of trade necessary to function during the crisis. Building support also involves delegating responsibility to employees. Authentic leaders know how to put their ego aside, empower and develop employees. Employees perceive delegation as a sign of trust in their abilities and usefulness. Leaders, who do not build support, risk increasing anxiety levels and decreasing commitment among employees.

4) Communicate - Communication is key not just during times of crises, but in all business operations. Leading in turbulent times and managing virtual workforces requires frequent communication from leaders and among employees. Communication increases a sense of belonging in employees in different physical spaces and ensures that employees make informed decisions. Frequent communication is also a sign of accessibility. Leaders have to be visible and accessible during trying times. Moreover, communication facilitates collaboration as leaders may not know all the answers and instead rely on the ideas of their employees.

The current crisis facing organisations is no different from other crises of the past. Leaders have to overcome their own fears and guide their employees through the challenges to emerge out of the situation with little disruption. Managing a remote workforce during times of crisis can pose serious challenges to the culture, performance and goals of an organisation. It is therefore of vital importance that leaders uphold and stay true to the culture and goals of their organisations. The type of leadership is central to the success of virtual operations and surviving crisis.

Dr Trevor Mtetwa is an Organisational Behaviour and Human Resources Management lecturer at UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership (GSB&L). His research explores transformation within Human Resources from the perspective of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.


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Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Culture and Mantra during Volatile and Turbulent Times

Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Culture and Mantra during Volatile and Turbulent Times
Dr Tony Ngwenya, an Academic in UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership.

- By Dr Tony Ngwenya

Iceland with a population of about 350 000 people has one of the lowest *Gini coefficient ratios in the world. South Africa in comparison has a population of around 58 million, making it in the region of 165 times larger than Iceland in terms of documented citizens.

Both countries boast efficient entrepreneurs but a fundamental difference between Iceland and South Africa is the frequency and the rate of entrepreneurial inclusivity with the entrepreneurship value chain showing Iceland to be more inclusive.

Under normal circumstances (ie without COVID-19) both countries have burgeoning travel, hospitality and tourism sectors that make a massive contribution to opportunities associated with the entrepreneurial value chain. Yet the standard of living in the two countries varies significantly with that in Iceland much higher.

The question is what structural and systemic impediments cause South Africa to lag behind and lack so much compared to a country 165 times smaller than itself?

The first question that comes to mind is how did South Africa go wrong in terms of entrepreneurial inclusivity which has decimated society especially in disadvantaged sectors such as townships, rural areas and - the most marginalised - informal settlements.

According to the Global Competitiveness Index Report (2018/2019), infrastructure, primary education and health can be categorised as major contributors for South Africa and the society to lay the foundation and the framework for competing.

Entrepreneurs are not exempt from the competitive stakes but when there are systemic and structural holes like the lack of access to finance or to an entrepreneurial curriculum from an early stage as well as an institutional deficit in terms of level playing fields, the country will continue to be a victim of its own doing.

A point to ponder from an entrepreneurial perspective: Is holding position number 60 out of 141 countries included in the competitiveness report? This suggests the four main propellers for entrepreneurs to reclaim their stakes while competing in the high velocity era presented by the Gig economy of the Fourth Industrial Revolution are Conducive Entrepreneurial, Harnessing Human Capital, SME Markets Absorption, and Inculcation of Innovation Culture.

Conducive Entrepreneurial

The environment will always be external to every entrepreneur but the pillars that are meant to facilitate a conducive environment should commence from legislation, programmes, and directives geared to catapult entrepreneurs. These should be supported by institutions which should account to policy-makers in case they do not fulfil their mandate. A case in point is that financial development institutions spend half their allocated budget on internal staff wages and their operational costs. So before they could even assist entrepreneurs to access finances and credit they themselves are shackled by burdensome overheads. Financial inclusion and resources play a critical role for the entrepreneurs to succeed and sustain their entities. 

Harnessing Human Capital

The competencies and the attributes that entrepreneurs would ordinarily possess are shaped and determined by the skills set they have acquired both formally and informally. The follow up challenge is whether our entrepreneurs’ access real-time existential capacities and capabilities that are commensurate with the demand of the modern customer who requires bespoke and tailor-made products and services. Maybe policy makers need to self-reflect in terms of the skills our entrepreneurs’ access and acquire so that they could outsmart and outwit their global counterparts in the bigger scheme of entrepreneurial schemes.

SME Markets Absorption

The segmentation, targeting and positioning of one’s entity depend on market forces of demand and supply in markets that have not been previously exposed to exclusion. But in South African markets for instance, the authorities have not made tangible and explicit progress in closing the gap between the big corporate and SME sector. Big corporates could dictate the price as they have the market to dominate much to the detriment of the SME sector and this happens directly under the noses of the authorities without any consequential management and accountability. A case in point is the price collusion within the construction sector during the build-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa, which led to big conglomerates being hit with heavy fines.

Inculcation of Innovation Culture

As long as there is still this continued silo mentality between the public sector, private sector and the Research and Development institutions, entrepreneurial inspirations will be hindered. The recent merger between the Higher Education Department and the Department of Science and Technology should act as a leverage to benefit entrepreneurs, among other things, in the acceleration of technological skills acquisition.

Way forward

Collaboration, dialogue, discourse and thinking out of the box are needed while a paradigm shift is warranted within the Public, Private and Public (PPP) or Triple Helix sector on behalf of entrepreneurs as a starting point towards their inclusivity in the productivity and manufacturing value chain otherwise radical economic transformation and black industrialisation will be reduced to rhetoric and platitudes. This will go a long way for the country to be a net importer while taking its rightful position as the net exporter of value added manufactured goods and a shift away from pit to port commercial entrapment.

*A Gini coefficient is a statistical measure of the degree of variation represented in a set of values, used especially in analysing income inequality (Oxford English Dictionary).

Dr Tony Ngwenya is an Academic in UKZN’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership. He has a doctorate in Business Administration.


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