Green Energy Advocate Masters Physics Course

Green Energy Advocate Masters Physics Course
MSc Physics graduate Mr Jashan Naicker.

After having completed his honours degree at UKZN and being impressed by the world-class research supervisors available, Mr Jashan Naicker decided it would be best for his future career prospects if he pursued an MSc in Physics degree at the University… and the rest is now history.

Naicker’s master’s research focused on electromagnetism and electrodynamics with his aim being  to develop a power supply unit sourced by waste magnetic field energy, as he is very aware of the demand for sustainable green electrical energy.

After investigating electrical engineering concepts involving power generation, he focused his attention on a specific transformer device known as a current transformer. 

Using the results of his research, Naicker designed and simulated a uniquely shaped current transformer that showed an improvement in performance efficiency compared to that of standard current transformer designs. In order to test its performance, he used a wireless power transfer technique which allowed him to draw a usable electric current from waste electromagnetic field energy that is present around a current carrying conductor.

‘This type of sustainable green energy is currently not being made use of, thus Jashan’s research is of great significance as there is an overall environmental aim to lower the country’s carbon footprint and eliminate coal fired power stations,’ said his supervisor, Professor Naven Chetty.

‘As scientists and engineers are continuously trying to find ways of improving the necessary technology, Jashan’s current transformer concept application is aimed at potentially allowing further research in improving the efficiency of existing current transformer applications and technologies.’

Naicker attributed his academic success to Chetty, his loving parents and siblings, and his supportive friends.

He hopes to land a job in line with his energy saving research, but is also open to the idea of pursuing a PhD.

Words: Nicole Chidzawo  

Photograph: Supplied

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Karate Expert Graduates Cum Laude

Karate Expert Graduates <em>Cum Laude</em>
Humanitarian and black belt karate expert, Ms Shriya Misra who graduated with a cum laude MSc Chemistry degree.

Second dan black belt karate exponent, Ms Shriya Misra graduated cum laude with a Master of Science (MSc) degree specialising in Organic Chemistry. 

The Westville Girls’ High School old girl matriculated in 2013 with five distinctions and graduated with a BSc degree in Applied Chemistry in 2016.

A lot of her inspiration to study Chemistry stemmed from volunteering as a research assistant with her mother, a pharmacy manager, at the Centralised Drug Resistant Tuberculosis Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal at the King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex.

This early exposure to pharmacy and medicine led Misra to pursue the study of drugs.

In 2017, she completed her BSc Honours degree with a research project in Organic Chemistry alongside Dr Parvesh Singh. 

Misra started her Master’s degree in Chemistry under Professor Neil Koorbanally; however, she placed this on hold after being offered a National Research Foundation (NRF) internship as an Analytical Chemist. In February 2019 she returned to UKZN with an NRF bursary to complete her master’s degree.

Misra’s research focused on the synthesis, characterisation and anti-bacterial activity of novel Dihydrochalcone-Triazole-Coumarin hybrids. She found two compounds with interesting antibacterial activity, which may be lead compounds for new and improved drugs.

‘With successful further studies, such as cyctotoxity, these compounds can be developed into new drugs to help combat antimicrobial resistance and improve the lives of patients,’ said Misra.

‘Shriya was a very dedicated and motivated student,’ said Koorbanally.  ‘She has exceptional research skills and is a powerful speaker.  She has worked very hard to produce excellent results, which are well deserved.  I have no doubt she will succeed in her future endeavours.’

Misra was awarded first prize for presenting her master’s research at the annual Postgraduate Research and Innovation Symposium (PRIS) in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science.

Misra acknowledged the support from her parents, brother, fiancé, extended family, friends and colleagues throughout her studies.

Besides constantly excelling academically, Misra holds a second dan black belt in karate, and is affiliated with Shotokan Karate International South Africa (SKISA). With both KZN and South African Karate colours under her belt, she was rewarded for her outstanding performance with a full sports scholarship from UKZN in her second and third years, as well as her varsity blues colours. She was a trainer in semi-contact karate at the University from 2014-2017 and in 2015 was named UKZN Sportswoman of the Year. 

Misra has her own company, The Health Ninja, which aims to empower young folk to become employable and to help in the fight against communicable and non-communicable diseases. Outreach projects undertaken by the company include a children’s book series titled: To be Healthy; the provision of food and sanitary hampers to child-headed households during lockdown; and ongoing health education programmes at community halls, schools and children’s homes.

‘My belief is that one should give wholeheartedly and without regret, and in return, one will never go short of health, love and light in your life,’ said Misra. ‘Health education is of utmost importance for all people to know and spread.

‘Volunteers are more than welcome to join The Health Ninja, in the fight against all disease, and in the fight for a better tomorrow.’

Misra lives by the words of Abhijit Naskar: ‘Never ask what the world has given you; ask what you can give the world.’

Words: Leena Rajpal

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Master Baker is Now a Master Chemist Too!

Master Baker is Now a Master Chemist Too!
Ms Pamela Joseph, master of chemistry and a champion baker.

Independent Media Home Chef Supreme Cookie Competition winner, Ms Pamela Joseph is now a master chemist too, having graduated with a Master of Science degree in Chemistry from UKZN. 

After completing her matric at the P.R. Pather Secondary School in Merebank, Joseph worked as an outsourced labourer for a year. In spite of being faced with the hardships of working long hours for a minimum wage, she never stopped believing in the power of education.

‘With guidance from God and the help of my job, family and friends I was able to save enough money to study teaching at UNISA,’ said Joseph.

However, her passion for Chemistry was awakened when she was accepted to study a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Chemistry at UKZN.

Joseph successfully completed her undergraduate degree and pursued her honours in Chemistry, where her curiosity grew about how the active ingredients of commercial drugs are synthesized and everything that goes into making the compounds.

‘I wanted to learn more to enable me to apply this knowledge in the area of developing new drugs that could potentially save lives,’ said Joseph. She subsequently enrolled for an MSc in Organic Chemistry under the supervision of Professor Neil Koorbanally.

Joseph’s research examined the synthesis of a class of heterocyclic compounds known as benzimidazoles, which were combined with short-chained groups and screened against drug resistant bacteria in the hope of developing new antibiotic agents.

Joseph’s research discovered that some of the synthesized compounds were almost just as active as the currently used antibiotics. If further tested for their cytotoxicity, these compounds had the potential to be developed into antibiotics.

‘Pamela’s tenacity and attitude toward her studies are qualities that will hold her in good stead throughout her career,’ said Koorbanally.  ‘I have watched her grow into a fine chemist over the years. She has done well in her degree and produced work that she can be proud off.’

While studying for her master’s degree, Joseph worked as a Chemistry demonstrator and tutor for undergraduate students.  At weekends she also worked as a transport co-ordinator for the Airport Bus Transport company operating out of Durban’s King Shaka International Airport.

Joseph described her studies as frustrating, intense and challenging but also rewarding. ‘There were times when I wondered if all the frustration was worth it, but with the strength of God, I never gave up. I have learned a lot from all the adversities and believe that it made me a stronger and better chemist,’ she said.

Besides chemistry, Joseph has a passion for baking. She recently entered and won the Independent Media Home Chef Supreme Cookie Competition. ‘I love experimenting and making up my own combinations in the kitchen, and I am now focusing on sugar-free recipes,’ she said.  Joseph runs a small business called ChemiCakes selling baked goods and specialising in sugar-free desserts.

From a family with a history of diabetes, a disease which led to the death of her father, Joseph was motivated to work on her passion for baking and developing a range of sugar-free treats.

‘My immediate goal is to secure a permanent position as a research and development chemist in industry, and a future goal is to open my own shop selling baked goods, especially diabetic friendly products,’ said Joseph.

Joseph lives by the following words: ‘You can do anything you set your mind to, no matter how impossible it may seem. Nothing great is achieved without hard work.

‘I am among those who believe that science has great beauty,’ she added.

Words: Leena Rajpal

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MSc Graduate Designs Commercially Viable Version of Pulse Plethysmography Device

MSc Graduate Designs Commercially Viable Version of Pulse Plethysmography Device
Ms Cindy Mphara at her previous graduation.

Ms Cindy Mphara graduated with an MSc in Physics cum laude for her design of a fully tested, low cost but extremely accurate pulse plethysmography (PPMG) measurement device.

The instrument is used for measuring changes in volume within a human organ or whole body usually resulting from fluctuations in the amount of blood or air in them.

Mphara’s achievement was significant, especially considering her humble beginnings. From Ha-Ravele village in rural Limpopo, where access to basic services is practically non-existent and obtaining an education difficult, she always had a deep love of learning and dreamed of attending UKZN to study for a degree.

Circumstances prevented Mphara from registering at UKZN for her undergraduate studies but through sheer perseverance and hard work she won a Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) bursary to do a master’s degree at UKZN.

Supervised by Professor Naven Chetty her research project produced a low-cost pulse plethysmography measurement device.

The devices – found in most hospitals in major city centres and within the private healthcare system – are relatively expensive, however, and not easily available to the local community who use rural hospitals and clinics.  Mphara identified the need for low-cost medical devices to be made more readily available for the diagnosis of medical conditions across all health facilities, especially in rural hospital and clinics.

Mphara focused on designing and testing her low-cost PPMG device, which was subsequently found to be suitable for diagnostics at local health facilities while meeting the requirements for low-cost production. Commercial opportunities for the device are now being considered following large-scale testing among a diverse population group.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic Mphara’s research has become even more relevant, as a PPMG device is useful in determining coronavirus infections and can help health professionals with diagnosis and subsequent treatment plans. 

Mphara plans to pursue a PhD and further her investigations under the continued supervision of Chetty, who is extremely proud of her achievement. ‘Cindy has shown that pure determination will help overcome all barriers to success,’ he said. ‘What is even more exciting about this, is the fact that Cindy is an inspiration to all female students and will help encourage them to take up studies in male-dominated fields such as physics and excel!’

Mphara attributes her great success in her master’s studies to her faith in her Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, who she says gave her the strength and devotion to push on even through the difficult times of her studies.  She thanked Chetty for his exceptional guidance and support throughout her project and his contribution to both her academic and personal development.

Mphara also paid tribute to her amazing family:  ‘Nobody has been more important to me than the members of my family in the pursuit of this research. I want to thank my parents, whose love and guidance in whatever I pursue inspire me. They have always encouraged me to work as hard as they have their entire lives.’

Words: Nicole Chidzawo

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Early Interest in Radio Astronomy Leads to Master’s Degree

Early Interest in Radio Astronomy Leads to Master’s Degree
Mr Austine Acro Gumba inspects radio frequency over fibre (RFoF) units at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cape Town.

‘Studying towards my masters degree was a fun journey blended with hard work, sacrifice and discipline,’ said Mr Austine Acro Gumba, whose interests lie in the cutting-edge world of radio astronomy and astrophysics.

Gumbas Higher Education journey began at the Durban University of Technology where he studied towards a National Diploma in Electronic Engineering. After completing his BTech, he became interested in radio astronomy and how to bridge the gap between Engineering and Science.

He was aware that UKZN hosted the HIRAX* project, a leading radio telescope investigation under the auspices of Principal Investigator Professor Kavilan Moodley, and Co-Principal Investigators Professor Jonathan Sievers and Professor Cynthia Chiang. Accordingly, he enrolled for an Honours degree in Physics in the National Astrophysics Space Science Programme (NASSP) at UKZN in 2017 trusting it would give him a greater understanding of radio astronomy basics.

My interest in radio astronomy started when I was eight years old,’ said Gumba. I would come up with crazy antenna designs in the hope that our black and white TV set would broadcast foreign channels.

Despite his love for science and the desire to find solutions to real world problems, Gumbas academic path was not always easy, with the programme being demanding on many levels.  But I invested myself wholeheartedly in my studies,’ he said.

Gumbas masters project involved building, testing and putting pieces of electronics together on a radio telescope antenna in order to pick up signals. Once we have the signal, we can analyse and understand it by relating it to the predicted theory in physics,’ he explained.

The Kenyan student described himself as passionate about education and hungry for knowledge. I come from a humble background and  my parents always encouraged me to work hard at school.  This MSc degree means a lot to me and my family.  It has always been part of my dream to achieve this and I am confident it will open avenues for new opportunities.

Currently, Gumba is pursuing a research assistantship within UKZNs School of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science.  He is building on his masters research, as there is still much to be done to obtain useful data for our instruments and to perform some calibration analyses. He plans to enrol for a PhD next year.

Gumba thanked the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) for funding his master's research, his supervisors Professor Jonathan Sievers and Professor Cynthia Chiang, and Professor Kavilan Moodley, who accepted him for work on the HIRAX project.

Finally, he thanked his friends and family for their prayers and encouragement.

* The Hydrogen Intensity and Real-time Analysis eXperiment (HIRAX) is a radio telescope array that will map nearly all of the southern sky in radio continuum and neutral hydrogen line emission over a frequency range of 400 to 800 MHz. 

Words: Saneh Mahlase

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“Hope of the Family” Graduates with MSc

“Hope of the Family” Graduates with MSc
Mr Njabulo Mbanjwa with his mother, Ms Sizakele Mabaso (left) and sister, Ms Nontuthuko Mabaso.

Mr Njabulo Mbanjwa carried the excellent results he achieved during his school years into his tertiary education career graduating with an MSc Physics degree, specialising in Space Science.

Mbanjwa completed his schooling at Injoloba Secondary School where his teacher, Mrs N G Mazibuko, described him as the most exceptional student she had encountered in her 21 years in education.

He completed a BSc in Physics and Mathematics on the Pietermaritzburg campus, followed by an honours degree on the Westville campus where he had his first encounters with space science, which he found very interesting.

Mbanjwa eventually specialised in space science with the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme (NASSP).

‘As a Pure Physics graduate, the transition to astrophysics and space science was a bit challenging,’ he said.

Mbanjwa’s master’s research involved using data from space-based satellites to investigate the sources of waves which have ultra-low frequencies (ULF) in the magnetosphere – the upper atmosphere region.

‘My research plays an important role in understanding energy processes from the sun to earth which is crucial for space weather research,’ he said. ‘This involves the impact of the sun in causing skin irritations, damaging satellites and electrical blackouts in a technologically dependent society.’

Attaining this master’s qualification was not without it challenges. ‘At first it was really difficult to work consistently since I had no course work to put me under pressure,’ he said. ‘But I sharpened my self-discipline and learned other soft and programming skills during my time spent at conferences and programming workshops.’

Mbanjwa plans to gain relevant work experience in scientific computing to complement his academic qualifications and to secure a professional career in data science. He is currently doing an internship in systems development and data analysis at Tritech Media.

Mbanjwa enjoys playing soccer and cards as well as travelling in his spare time.

Mbanjwa thanked his supervisors Dr Zolile Mtumela and Dr Judy Stephenson as well as the South African National Space Agency (SANSA) and NASSP for sponsoring his studies. He dedicated his master’s degree to his father, Mr Oscar Thulsizwe Mabaso, and mothers, Miss Ellina Dombi Mbanjwa and Mrs Sizakele Mabaso, whose love, support and guidance led him to this moment.

Said his sister, Miss Sebenzile Mbanjwa: ‘We would like to congratulate you as a family. ‘May God continue to bless you with success.  You are the hope of this family.’

Words: Samantha Ngcongo

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“Superfood” Sweet Potato has Enhanced Nutritional Value

“Superfood” Sweet Potato has Enhanced Nutritional Value
Dr Sonia Naidoo developed new sweet potato varieties with enhanced nutritional value.

Ms Sonia Naidoo can now add the title of doctor to her name after completing a PhD in Plant Breeding in which she bred new sweet potato varieties with enhanced nutritional value she hopes will contribute to fighting poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity.

A professional development student at the Agricultural Research Council’s Vegetable and Ornamental Plants (ARC-VOP), Dr Naidoo’s research was supervised by the ARC’s Dr Sunette Laurie and co-supervised by Professor Hussein Shimelis and Professor Mark Laing at UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement.

A graduate of the University Eduardo Mondlane in Mozambique, Naidoo worked with sweet potatoes during her master’s degree and was fascinated by the vegetable, which is a staple food for both privileged and underprivileged communities.

‘Sweet potato is a superfood,’ said Naidoo. ‘It is one of the food security crop choices and it can make a difference in the livelihoods of underprivileged communities as a source of nutrients, caloric energy and fibre.’

Naidoo set out to help close what she perceived to be a gap in the knowledge about the crop’s nutritional values. The hardy crop’s short growing period of five to six months made it ideal for a PhD study.

Naidoo’s research included a novel investigation of the genetic diversity of protein content in sweet potato root among the South African germplasm collection, and – with a team involved in this study –  she was able to develop a Near Infra-Red Spectroscopy model for quantifying sweet potato protein, revealing the diversity and range of protein content in the South African collection.

Her research was not without its challenges – a severe storm in January 2018 almost destroyed her quarter of a hectare experimental site at the ARC-VOP research station in Roodeplaat.

A mother of two, she juggled raising her children and completing her studies. Passionate about the advancement of women in the sciences, Naidoo encouraged those engaged in science and research to press forward despite challenges, and to seize opportunities presented to them to advance their careers.

She said great women in her life – particularly her grandmother, mother and aunt – taught her to value education.  Her grandmother, a smallholder farmer, cultivated a love for plants in Naidoo who saw how the elderly woman managed to put food on the table for their whole family off her small plot of land.

Naidoo, who said her mother and aunt had supported and encouraged her to pursue her dream of acquiring Higher Education, thanked her children for their support as she often had to travel to other provinces to plant and harvest crop trials.

Through this research, Naidoo hopes that the importance of sweet potato as a strong contributor to the alleviation of poverty, malnutrition and food insecurity can be better appreciated, and that information uncovered on the diversity and the range of protein content on the South African sweet potato germplasm collection will be well used for future breeding of improved nutritious cultivars, and attract stronger research funding support from the private sector.

Despite the uncertainty and slow-down caused by COVID-19, Naidoo hopes to progress to a career in research and development or to postdoctoral research, and looks forward to applying the knowledge and skills she has gained for the betterment of society.

Naidoo thanked the ARC and the National Research Foundation for funding her research, and also Laurie, Shimelis and Laing for their guidance and support, especially Laurie for the professional mentorship she provided.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Canada Trip Leads to MSc

Canada Trip Leads to MSc
Master’s in Environmental Science graduate, Ms Gugulethu Tshabalala.

Ms Gugulethu Tshabalala, an intern project manager at the Duzi-uMngeni Conservation Trust (DUCT) in Pietermaritzburg, graduated from UKZN with a Master’s degree in Environmental Science for research conducted at Fountainhill Estate (FHE) near Wartburg, which explored the impact of land use practices on sediment yields and nutrient loads on grasslands and maize crops.

Gugulethu’s work formed part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) project* which involves erosional control and monitoring in a rural setting. The technical project, supervised by Professor Trevor Hill, comprised hours in the field installing tanks dug into fields to measure water runoff and quality from grazing land and maize crops to assess the impact of erosion and sedimentation from agricultural practices – important work in a water-scarce country threatened by land degradation and desertification.

In examining which practice, whether rangeland or maize cultivation, loses more soil and water nutrients, Gugulethu discovered there was minimal runoff from the pasture site, concluding that the 100% vegetation cover provided by the pasture resulted in no nutrients being lost thanks to good root penetration, ultimately minimising erosion. The maize till site with its exposed soil experienced loss of soil and nutrients, leading Gugulethu to suggest that intercropping could be considered a potential solution.

Describing the project as difficult but worthwhile, she said it taught her new skills as she negotiated project management, co-ordinating with the farm where her trials were situated, purchasing materials, and asking for assistance with some aspects of her research. She said with Hill’s faith in her capability, she learned to take initiative, even attending farmers’ meetings to learn more about pest management on her crop trial.

Gugulethu developed skills that she had been introduced to in her undergraduate studies, such as report-writing, as well as soft skills like interpersonal relations, patience, requesting assistance, and setting of boundaries. These skills, she said, have helped her assist other students across disciplines starting their own studies.

Gugulethu has been applying her skills in her role at DUCT, where she is working on a three-year Groen Sebenza internship, managing the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP). The URP project aims to increase resilience of vulnerable communities through interventions. The grassland restoration component of the project has given her the experience of working with rural communities and combining her scientific and people skills to meet new challenges and step outside her comfort zone.

Her research can still be built on, and she is keen to explore what collaborations it could produce in the future. In 2019, research took her to Canada to present at the International Conference on Water, Informatics, Sustainability and the Environment. With the international research space she has enjoyed and being a believer in lifelong learning and service to others, she hopes to gain experience overseas one day, planning to continue with PhD studies when she has settled on a topic.

Gugulethu is the outgoing president of the Pietermaritzburg campus branch of the International Association for Impact Assessment in South Africa, and served as a guest lecturer and a demonstrator for other students in the Discipline of Geography during her postgraduate studies.

A committed Christian, she relied on her faith in God to complete her postgraduate studies, backed by her sisters and family, church, and fellow postgraduate Geography and Hydrology students.

Gugulethu thanked the WRC for the opportunities provided to postgraduate students, which made her presentation in Canada possible and not only enabled her to complete her research, but also provided benefits by situating it in a larger project with frequent progress reports, deliverables, student development, and continuous investigations.

She acknowledged staff at FHE, the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development at Cedara, Umgeni Water and DUCT for their assistance and support.

*WRC Report No K5/2402: Assessing the Impact of Erosion and Sediment Yield from Farming and Forestry Systems in Selected Catchments of South Africa.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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MAgric Teaches “Old Dog” New Tricks!

MAgric Teaches “Old Dog” New Tricks!
Master of Agriculture graduate, Mr Danie le Roux measures a sprinkler nozzle size.

Seasoned irrigation technician, Mr Danie le Roux has rebooted his academic career using his considerable experience and skill to complete a Master of Agriculture (MAgric) degree in Agricultural Extension and Rural Resource Management (AERRM) at UKZN based on research that explored problems with collective irrigation schemes and developing farmers.

Le Roux completed his Diploma in Agriculture in the 1980s, going on to work as an irrigation technician at Lowveld Agricultural College, now part of the University of Mpumalanga (UMP) in Nelspruit, where he gained experience in Higher Education and agricultural development. A meeting with Professor Steve Worth – who would later supervise his research – while they worked on the development of agricultural qualification courses for the new UMP spurred le Roux into enrolling for a Bachelor of Agriculture (BAgric) honours degree at UKZN, and then his MAgric.

Worth said those involved in running UKZN’s AERRM Honours programme have been keen for some time to demonstrate its capacity to draw students from many spaces and enable them to meet the requirements of the BAgric Honours degree and thereafter the MAgric.

Le Roux is one of three experienced agricultural professionals who have thus far been granted admission to the BAgric Honours course through recognition of their prior learning combined with experience, and is the only one thus far to complete the master’s degree.

Despite the challenge of completing his MAgric while working, and re-entering student life many decades into his professional career, le Roux successfully navigated the challenges and acquired new experience while doing so, saying he found the journey transformative.

Le Roux says his academic perspective on the concepts and practicalities of agricultural development has changed completely from one that was focused on the technical infrastructure and production processes to where he recognises that agricultural development or agricultural extension is not primarily about the farm, but about the farmer.

He dedicated his research to farmers whose problems he observed, expressing hope that his work could be of value and benefit to them and to future research on the topic of developmental, collective irrigation schemes.

Buoyed with a renewed sense of vision, le Roux now plans to pursue PhD studies and is busy working on topics, with hopes of further advancing his academic career.

Among his acknowledgements is a tribute to his cat, which kept him company through the process of conducting and writing up his research!

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Life Science Teacher Awarded PhD, Now Set on Postdoc Research

Life Science Teacher Awarded PhD, Now Set on Postdoc Research
Thomas More College Life Science teacher, Dr Gary Robson.

Durban’s Thomas More College was proud to announce that it now has a new doctor in the house – Life Science teacher, Gary Robson, who was awarded his PhD in Biological Sciences at UKZN’s Spring Graduation ceremony.

‘For my PhD, UKZN was a natural choice as the animals I wanted to study are endemic to the South African east coast and some of the lecturing staff there were contemporaries of mine during my initial six years at the University (1981-1986),’ said Robson.

‘I also needed a supervisor who would be willing to take on a mature student and, in that regard, I thank Professor Colleen Downs for giving me this great opportunity.’ 

An avid marine aquarist since a teenager and one who is passionate about marine invertebrates, Robson’s dissertation focused on two species of patellid limpets and expanded on previous research he had conducted for his master’s degree some 35 years ago!

‘As part of my master’s degree in 1985, I described a new species (Scutellastra aphanes) of patellid limpet and reinstated another (S. obtecta),’ said Robson. ‘An 11-month field study on the new species was also carried out in support of the taxonomic work. In the intervening years, research established that the two species I had described were genetic sister species.’

Despite being described 35 years ago, no comprehensive ecological research has been conducted or published on either species since then.

Robson explained that the southern African shoreline was inhabited by a great diversity of patellid limpets with about 20 species. Not only are almost half of all the known species of Patellidae endemic to southern Africa where they exhibit complex behavioural and ecological traits – including territoriality and gardening of algal resources – but because of their abundance, diversity, ecological importance, availability and intertidal occurrence, limpets are one of the most common taxa to be manipulated in ecological studies. Until recently, however, most of these studies were concentrated on the shores of the west coast and the south coast (east of Cape Town as far as Dwesa in the former Transkei, Eastern Cape). 

‘Indicative of the paucity of research in the east coast region is the fact that only four species added to the list of South African patellids in the last 35 years have been from that region,’ said Robson. ‘My PhD was, therefore, a continuation of my previous research.’

Robson’s PhD aimed to address the gaps in the current understanding of the ecologies and behaviours of Scutellastra aphanes and S. obtecta compared with each other and with other territorial species, and to determine whether these two species speciated while occurring together over their entire distribution range on the east coast of South Africa.

Robson undertook monthly field sampling over two years at four sites covering an area of about 600km: Mission Rocks at iSimangaliso Wetland Park, Isipingo, Port Edward and Coffee Bay/Dwesa in the Transkei.

‘Both species demonstrated a unique combination of ecological characteristics including asynchronous spawning throughout the year, where they can produce up to 50% of their total body weight in gonad,’ said Robson. ‘Both species are protandrous hermaphrodites, starting life as males, after which most become female later. And both species are territorial, defending a territory, which sometimes results in the death of the intruding limpet.’

Robson’s study is the only research to be conducted on a patellid limpet species on the east coast, and has demonstrated that the species there have very different life history traits to those on the south and west coasts.

‘In addition, my research has confirmed that these two species are protandrous hermaphrodites. There is only one other South African species where this has been confirmed.’

Inspired by his PhD, Robson is setting up a Marine Science teaching node at Thomas More College.  ‘As I am a high school Life Science teacher and I am getting towards the end of my career, I hope to complete the research on these two species and continue to do postdoctoral research as there are several limpet species endemic to the east coast that have had no research conducted on them.’

Robson thanked his wife Sandra – who he described as his ‘invaluable research assistant’ – for keeping him company on the many thousands of kilometres travelled for field trips, and for ‘acting as my wave spotter, thereby ensuring my safety.

‘In addition, I would like to thank her for putting up with the many late nights, with weekends when I was away and also for the lack of house and garden maintenance!’

Words: Sally Frost

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South African Vegans Under the Spotlight

South African Vegans Under the Spotlight
Ms Sansha Kohidh examined aspects of a vegan diet in South Africa.

Ms Sansha Kohidh earned a Master’s degree in Dietetics for research she did into aspects of what is involved in a vegan diet in South Africa, including dieters’ motives for making the lifestyle choice, challenges they faced and the nutritional quality of the diet.

‘A vegan diet is plant-based and excludes meat and animal products. Being a vegan and following the diet is becoming popular internationally as well as locally, yet very few studies have been done on it from a South African perspective,’ said Kohidh.

Kohidh, who also completed an undergraduate degree and a Postgraduate Diploma in Dietetics at UKZN, conducted her cross-sectional study, the first of its kind in South Africa, by posting an online questionnaire to vegans on the SA Vegan Society Facebook page.

Her results indicated that the main motive for following the diet was to help prevent cruelty to animals and protect the environment and its resources.

A serious challenge faced by vegans was finding vegan options in restaurants. Kohidh highlighted the need for fortified food products and the use of nutritional supplements to reduce possible nutrient deficiencies involved.

‘Despite its growing popularity, there are a lot of misconceptions about the diet, including that the food is bland and tasteless, expensive and lacking nutrition having no dairy or animal products in it,’ said Kohidh, pointing out that as vegan food grows in popularity, plant-based meat and dairy alternatives were becoming more easily available.

Kohidh’s study was supervised by Dr Nicola Wiles who she is now working with to develop a manuscript for publication and possibly continue towards reading for her doctorate.

A keen cook and a lover of discovering new cultures and places, Kohidh has been interested in health and helping people since her early life when she became aware of the chronic conditions of cancer and obesity suffered by people in her community. Aiming to help alleviate these conditions that Kohidh realised were linked to dietary choices, she chose a career that would help individuals develop a healthy relationship with food and nutrition.

After completing her community service at Montebello Hospital in Ozwathini and witnessing first-hand the challenges faced by rural communities owing to poor health and nutrition, Kohidh decided to develop her expertise and skills in dietetics further, aiming to contribute to the connection between scientific and technological research innovations.

Kohidh said completing her master's had been challenging but extremely rewarding, especially knowing that her research would contribute to advances in knowledge beneficial to society.

‘Completing my master's gave me a great sense of confidence and accomplishment in my academic career,’ said Kohidh, adding that she learned valuable skills in time management through the process.

Kohidh thanked God for the strength, knowledge, ability and the opportunity to study.  She also thanked Wiles for being an inspiration, guide, role model, pillar of strength and friend, and Mr Dylan Barsby and Ms Anna Jordan from the South African Vegan Society for providing her with a platform for her research.

She thanked the Halley Stott Foundation for funding the statistical analyses for her dissertation, and finally paid tribute to her parents and sister for their support and encouragement, which had been invaluable.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied

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Wheat Breeding Leads to Drought Tolerance

Wheat Breeding Leads to Drought Tolerance
Wheat breeder, Dr Zamalotshwa Thungo.

Dr Zamalotshwa Thungo is the proud holder of a PhD in Crop Science gained through UKZN’s African Centre for Crop Improvement (ACCI) for research she did into developing new varieties of drought-tolerant wheat that possess quality traits desirable for breeding.

Successful in developing new wheat populations, Thungo’s work earned her various scholarships throughout her studies and resulted in several of her papers being published.

Based on the Pietermaritzburg campus, where she completed her BSc in Agribusiness and her MSc in Agriculture in Crop Science, she worked to identify and select genetically divergent heat and drought tolerant wheat genotypes possessing yield-promoting agronomic, physiological and quality traits for breeding.

Thungo received scholarships from the National Research Foundation and the Winter Cereals Trust to pursue her research, which resulted in the development and selection of 15 novel crosses of wheat that incorporated high grain yield and quality which are recommended for further advancement and cultivar development.

The research, said Thungo, equipped her with critical pre-breeding skills needed for cultivar development. Field trials took place to select heat and drought tolerant genotypes while laboratory analyses helped select genotypes with high grain quality, and DNA fingerprinting to identify genetically divergent genotypes. She crossed parental genotypes identified with high yield and quality to develop new progenies, and tested the progeny to investigate gene action influencing transfer of superior traits between parents and progenies.

‘I discovered that, among other reasons, the low adoption rate of new varieties is responsible for low production gains for grain yield and quality in wheat,’ she said.

Remarking that genetic gains in grain yield and quality in wheat are inversely related, Thungo hopes the novel breeding families of wheat she developed that incorporate both high grain yield and quality attributes, increase genetic gains in both grain yield and quality.

With experience in crop science and soil science from her undergraduate and master’s studies, Thungo was keen to expand her expertise in Agronomy and so elected to pursue research in plant breeding to enhance her research profile. Pursuing a PhD was challenging from a time management point of view as she had to juggle her time between office and fieldwork, cope with many late nights in the laboratory and early mornings in the field, and meet and beat the challenge of balancing family time and commitments with her studies.  Thungo persevered to meet and master all the demands.

An aspirant academic, Thungo hopes to expand her experience through postdoctoral research and lecturing or get experience as a research scientist in the government or private sector.

Thungo thanked several people for their support during her studies, including her sister Ms Nkosingiphile Rose Thungo who bought Thungo a new car after hers was involved in an accident, enabling her to travel between campus and home. She also thanked Dr Jacob Mashilo for editing manuscripts and assisting her to get five papers published, with another two manuscripts under submission. She paid tribute to her supervisors Professor Hussein Shimelis and Dr Alfred Odindo and to the ACCI for being a reliable and vibrant association to support postgraduate plant breeding research, and praised God for seeing her through her PhD.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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PhD Graduate Completes Doctoral Team

PhD Graduate Completes Doctoral Team
Dietetics PhD graduate, Dr Laurencia Govender.

Dr Laurencia Govender was awarded her doctorate at UKZN’s virtual Spring Graduation, bringing the number of full-time PhD staff members in UKZN’s discipline of Dietetics and Human Nutrition up to its full complement of seven.

Govender, who completed her undergraduate degree, postgraduate diploma and Master’s degree in Dietetics at UKZN, investigated the potential of the use of bambara groundnut and provitamin A-biofortified (PVA) maize and sweet potato for improving the nutritional status of rural communities in KwaZulu-Natal.

Working with communities in Swayimane, Tugela Ferry, Umbumbulu and near Fountainhill Estate, Govender demonstrated that PVA-biofortified maize and orange-fleshed sweet potato can replace white maize and cream-fleshed sweet potato, respectively, in selected traditional dishes of rural communities studied to help alleviate vitamin A deficiency.

Govender’s research, supervised by Dr Kirthee Pillay and Professor Mthulisi Siwela, formed part of a Water Research Commission (WRC) project on water use and nutritional water productivity of food crops for improved human health and nutrition in poor rural households.

She has published three manuscripts in high impact journals, one with support from the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) project, while also getting support from the uMngeni Resilience Project (URP) for conducting her surveys and acceptability tests.

Govender said the opportunity to work with a range of people on the WRC project and in the SHEFS and URP programmes had been a bonus. She described completing her PhD as challenging but also a good learning experience.

‘If you’re dedicated to doing something and put in the effort, you will get it right,’ she said.

Participating in a WRC project provided support that enabled her to network with other researchers, have her research presented at local and international congresses in South Africa and India, and see her work published not only in academic journals but also in the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers Resource magazine.

Before enrolling for her PhD, Govender worked as a clinical dietician at Edendale Hospital for six years and was an accredited training dietician for UKZN’s fourth-year Dietetics students. She completed her master’s  summa cum laude while working and despite being passionate about her professional work, her desire to learn continuously led her to enrol for a PhD and to take up a lecturer’s post at UKZN in March 2018.

Govender said she was fortunate to work in academia while completing her PhD as it provided a lot of room for growth and practical experience which would be useful to her in tutoring students. While dietetics chose her rather than the reverse, she was confident she was on the right path and was passionate about helping and educating people.

With an approach characterised by a belief in the importance of examining the source of problems nutritionally, Govender is an enthusiastic lecturer, and enjoys working collaboratively with other disciplines, saying that nutrition is not a stand-alone issue but requires integrated research efforts.

Dedicating her research to her late grandmother, who she says was a driving force behind much of her work, Govender also credited her supervisors for their attentive mentorship, saying she could not have asked for better support. She thanked Professor Albert Modi and Professor Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi and their “green team” of researchers within the Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems for their contributions.

Govender made special mention of her fiancé, Mr Ishkar Danilala, for his vital support.

Words: Christine Cuénod

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Laser Beam Research Leads to Cum Laude MSc

Laser Beam Research Leads to <em>Cum Laude</em> MSc
Mr Gareth Enoch who graduated cum laude with a Master of Science degree in Physics.

When Mr Gareth Enoch studied Geography in high school, he became passionate about the atmosphere and longed to learn more about the nature and properties of matter and energy. Fast forward several years, and Enoch has now graduated with a Master of Science degree in Physics cum laude from UKZN.

‘Having completed my BSc and BSc Honours degrees through UKZN, I came to know the staff of the Pietermaritzburg Physics department very well,’ said Enoch. ‘I knew first-hand what experts they were in the field, so choosing to stick with UKZN was an easy and smart choice.’

Enoch’s MSc research involved experimentally analysing the effects of a laser beam subjected to a thermally turbulent stream of wind directed at various angles to its axis.

‘Laser beams have a diverse range of uses in the scientific world with a proven track record of producing many robust results,’ said Enoch. ‘Turbulence in our atmosphere is inherently random. Therefore, developing a greater understanding of how light interacts with our atmosphere, through various turbulence models, will assist in advancing areas such as defensive and offensive military weaponry, remote sensing, power transferal, telecommunications and turbulence detection.’

When not exploring the wonders of physics, Enoch enjoys hiking, hanging out with friends and reading a good novel.  He is grateful to his parents, Clifford and Samantha Enoch, for playing a key role in his life by always pushing him to follow his dreams and guiding him every step of the way.

Enoch also named his supervisor Professor Naven Chetty as being vital in his success. ‘Prof Chetty has been with me from the very start at UKZN as my first Physics lecturer and now my MSc (and in future, my PhD) supervisor,’ he said. ‘His door was always open and he always took calls when I experienced difficulties. The latter is especially true since lockdown.’

Enoch hopes to continue with PhD research focusing on laser-turbulence interactions in a greenhouse gas medium in which he plans to subject a laser beam to turbulent water from sources ranging from distilled water to seawater.

Words: Ntokozo Dladla

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PhD Graduate is Worth her Salt!

PhD Graduate is Worth her Salt!
Dr Onajite Theresa Diejomaoh Abafe.

Dr Onajite Theresa Diejomaoh Abafe was awarded a PhD in Chemistry for research in the field of ionic liquids, which are liquid salts that have unique properties that make them suitable for a wide range of applications from catalysis to biomedical uses.

Onajite was supervised by Professor Bice Martincigh and Professor Annegret Stark.

Said Martincigh: ‘Onajite synthesised, characterised, and determined the physical properties of cation-fluorinated ionic liquids and their binary mixtures. Most noteworthy was the finding that the properties of ionic liquids could be influenced by fluorination and that making binary mixtures of fluorinated and non-fluorinated liquids resulted in ionic liquids with various properties allowing the use of her ionic liquids in a wide range of applications such as for the removal of carbon dioxide from flue gas streams, thereby reducing the atmospheric load of carbon dioxide.’

Born and schooled in Nigeria, Onajite was awarded a BSc Honours degree in Chemistry from Delta State University before starting work as a field chemist in an oil-servicing firm. She later proceeded to the University of Port Harcourt where she graduated with a Master’s degree in Chemistry summa cum laude in 2014.  This achievement fired her desire to build a career in research in order to provide solutions to real life industrial and environmental problems.

She says the results of her PhD research could be extended for the sequestration of carbon dioxide from the environment, thereby combating extreme climatic conditions such as global warming which threatens the existence of wild life and humans. ‘My synthesized ionic liquids have the potential for the remediation of the highly carcinogenic Stockholm Convention’s persistent organic pollutants such as the “Forever chemicals” - per fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) in the environment,’ she said.

Onajite found her PhD experience to be challenging. ‘I began this journey as a young nursing mother to a five-month old baby,’ she said.  With her husband working and residing far away in Pretoria, she had to deal with most parenting issues on her own and found herself shuttling between crèche and campus on a daily basis.

She was in hospital for a month during the third-year of her PhD owing to the diagnosis and subsequent treatment of a very rare and life-threatening blood disorder, which forced her to suspend her academics for that semester. ‘By the grace of God I recovered and was able to resume in the second semester of 2019.  I finished the rest of my laboratory experiments, and wrote and submitted my thesis in the same semester,’ she said.

Onajite Abafe thanked everyone who played a role in her success. ‘I am very grateful for my husband’s support from the beginning until the end,’ she said. ‘As a PhD holder in the same field, he was able to mentor and guide me throughout.’

She also thanked her uncle, Mr Fidelis Akpoghiran who sponsored her master’s studies in Nigeria; her parents Mr and Mrs Joseph Diejomaoh, who encouraged her all the way through her academic journey; Dr Muhammed Mohsin Azim, a postdoctoral fellow in her research group (the SMRI/NRF SARChI Research Chair in Sugarcane Biorefining); and her supervisors.

Words: Saneh Mahlase

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Son Fulfils Promise Made to Dying Father

Son Fulfils Promise Made to Dying Father
Ecological scientist and MSc graduate, Mr Bayanda Sonamzi.

Mr Bayanda Sonamzi was awarded his MSc degree in Ecological Sciences from UKZN – fulfilling the commitment he made to his dying father.

Said Sonamzi: ‘My late father, Mr Mthumeni “Ncanes” Sonamzi, was and still is my hero. To him I say:  RIP Sir... I’ve done what I promised you on your death bed.’

Describing UKZN as one of the best universities in South Africa, he said ecology – his area of specialisation – involved the study of organisms (living things) and their interactions with their surroundings. ‘It is very difficult to quantify these processes accurately, especially in aquatic environments such as rivers which are highly dynamic systems. If the right methods are applied, plants and animals can tell us a whole lot about their environment and how changes in such environments affect them.’

Supervised by Professor Colleen Downs, Sonamzi’s MSc project used remote measuring methods (FISHTRAC) to quantify the activity of the African tigerfish, largescale yellowfish and purple labeo as a response variable to a suite of water quality constituents (physical and chemical) as well as flow in the Olifants River in the Kruger National Park.

‘Telemetry is relatively new in southern Africa and it is exciting to see the traction it’s gained over the past several years. I feel honoured to be part of this cutting-edge and technology-based development,’ he said.

Sonamzi explained that when the activity of biological organisms was used as a response variable to external triggers, it was known as a behavioural response. ‘Behavioural response provides an instant result of the current situation as opposed to other measurables such as physiology,’ he said.

Sonamzi found that tigerfish were susceptible to predation by fish eagles in very low flow conditions owing to the restricted movement in isolated pools. Largescale yellowfish appeared happy in medium to medium-low flows while low pH levels made them reduce their activity. Purple labeo showed little movement in temperatures lower than 16.5 degrees Celsius, and were active during the day and rested at night. They were also very strong swimmers and able to navigate in fast flowing water.

Sonamzi found evidence of predation on largescale yellowfish and tigerfish but not on purple labeo, possibly owing to its high mobility.

‘This opportunity of measuring animal behaviour in real time and remotely in their natural environment will enable managers to identify behaviours of potential concern associated with water quality, flow and natural environmental pressures such as predation,’ said Sonamzi. ‘With this knowledge, managers can then direct intervention measures to where they are needed, at the time they are needed, thereby saving costs on unnecessary site visits.’

Sonamzi explained that identifying “cut-off” water flow conditions for fish could help in reserve determination studies, for example, deciding how much water could safely be taken out of the Olifants River without adversely harming the river and its users.

‘This will then ensure that humans continue to benefit from the socio-economic services derived from rivers.’

Sonamzi said that growing up as a little boy, he was very inquisitive and always questioned why things worked the way they did. At university, he excelled in biology-related modules, especially Zoology. ‘It just tickled my fancy and it was at this point that I realised: “Why not do what excites me? This will be my motivation to succeed.”’

Sonamzi hopes to venture into the corporate world and put the skills he has learned into practice. He thanked his wife for her positive impact and sacrificial support during his studies. 

‘I thank God, the creator of the universe for his grace upon my life. He chose me among many and seated me with the kings. May his holy name be glorified!’

Words: Sally Frost

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Childhood Interest in Reptiles Progresses into Doctoral Degree

Childhood Interest in Reptiles Progresses into Doctoral Degree
Dr Cormac Price with a juvenile marsh terrapin.

Since a child, Dr Cormac Price has been fascinated by reptiles and amphibians even though he was born and raised in Ireland which has no snakes – ‘just one native lizard, one introduced range-restricted legless lizard species, one frog, one toad, one newt, and occasionally rarely seen visiting sea turtles in Irish waters!’ he quipped.

Price kept reptiles as pets when he was a youngster and it was that fascination which put him firmly on the path for a career in the field and eventually resulted in a PhD in Ecological Sciences. His thesis focused on the ecology of two species of freshwater turtle in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN).

Discussing the background to his research, Price said: ‘I was finishing contract work in Nepal in 2015 and looking for research opportunities in reptile and amphibian conservation when I was put in touch with UKZN’s Professor Colleen Downs who told me she was keen to involve a PhD student in investigations into aspects of the ecology of two freshwater terrapins in KZN.  So I took up the offer and moved to South Africa in January 2016 to begin the work.

‘South Africa has a rich variety of reptile species with freshwater turtles being possibly the most neglected in research,’ said Price, whose research focused on the marsh terrapin (Pelomedusa galeata) and the serrated hinged terrapin (Pelusios sinuatus).

Price said South Africa was an extremely water-stressed country, and with increasing population and land-use change, the demand for clean water would increase. ‘Clean water comes from clean habitats and clean habitats have a higher diversity and healthier populations of semi-aquatic (terrapins) as well as aquatic species.’

He explained that owing to their morphology, freshwater turtles – which have a long life-span – do not move over vast distances. ‘Examining how they are coping in wetlands and monitoring their behaviour as well as population ratios (genders and sizes) can be good indicators as to how the wetland is performing,’ he said.

Price originally intended to focus on the terrapins’ movements and spatial ecology, but when northern KZN (his study site) suffered severe drought in 2016 he found it difficult to find healthy animals in good enough condition to attach transmitters to. ‘So we added different elements to the project including morphology and chemical ecology. Terrapins produce secretions and we wanted to investigate the composition of those secretions.’ 

Price’s research highlighted the important role terrapin species play in South African wetlands. ‘One of the main areas of significance was how adaptable our methods were and how they could be replicated throughout Africa on many, many different species of freshwater turtle, some of which are threatened by extinction,’ he said.

During his PhD, Price began working with local snake conservationist Mr Nick Evans and now plans to continue with postdoctoral research in association with Evans, focusing on the urban ecology of the black mamba and the Mozambique spitting cobra in Durban.

‘Nick and I hope this research will help reduce snake/human conflict in urban areas, initially in Durban,’ said Price. ‘We aim to share our knowledge and findings with the international community to help reduce snake bite incidents globally and protect these highly valuable species in their habitats.’

Price was full of praise for his PhD supervisor: ‘Prof Downs has always encouraged me and steered me in the right direction in terms of my work focus. She has had a calming and positive effect on me when the work pressure was just too much or I didn’t know what the next step should be. Her supervision and encouragement have been invaluable.’

He also paid tribute to his parents, Brendan and Mary Price, who are passionate animal conservationists in their own right. ‘My parents more than anyone else are the reason I am where I am,’ he said.

Price had some advice for those interested in pursuing postgraduate research: ‘In my early teens I was diagnosed with dyslexia, which was shattering as I assumed the world of research was no longer available to me. I quickly learnt that I was completely wrong. Research is predominately about effort, not “natural talent” or being “gifted”.  It’s also about surrounding yourself with supportive and knowledgeable colleagues and friends. It’s a team effort as we all have different strengths and weaknesses.  Never be afraid to ask questions if there’s something you don’t understand.’

Price still enjoys keeping pet reptiles and remains a committed Leinster and Ireland rugby fan. ‘Being resident in South Africa won’t change that,’ he quipped.

Words: Sally Frost

Photograph: Supplied

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