SA’s Science Academy honours top UJ scholars with Gold Medals

​The Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) has bestowed gold medals – the Academy’s apex of recognition for outstanding achievement in scientific thinking to the benefit of society – on two professors of the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, UJ’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Leila Patel, the DST/NRF South African Research Chair in Welfare and Social Policy, and Professor of Social Work (UJ) were the recipients of the ASSAf Science-for-Society Gold Medals, this year. They were honoured at the ASSAf’s virtual Annual Awards Ceremony held on Wednesday, 14 October 2020. Up to two gold medals are awarded annually on South Africa’s foremost scholars in recognition of their outstanding achievements.

Prof Tshilidzi Marwala is an engineer and Artificial Intelligence (AI) Professor who has made a distinguished contribution to the development of AI and its various applications at the highest academic levels of research and postgraduate supervision. He has used his position as an academic expert and science communicator to allay the fears and concerns expressed by the public toward artificial intelligence. Through his outreach activities, he has become a role model to university students and an inspiration to high school learners. Prof Marwala’s personal journey is inspiring and captures the imagination of young and old. His unwavering commitment to excellence, which he attributes to his family, ensures that colleagues and students strive to be excellent.

Prof Marwala is a Fellow of the Academy of Science of South Africa, the Third World Academy of Sciences, the African Academy of Science and the South African Institute of Electrical Engineering, and is a Distinguished Scientist of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM). This acknowledgement from the ACM is reserved for the top 10% of ACM members who have made a significant impact on the computing field. In 2004, at the age of 33, Prof Marwala became the youngest recipient of the Order of Mapungubwe for his “inspirational achievements in the field of engineering science”.

He has made significant contributions to the international policy on Open Data in a Big Data World for the International Council of Science (ICSU). In South Africa, Prof Marwala is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The purpose of the commission is to assist the government to develop strategies to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the digital industrial revolution. Prof Marwala has shown that he is more than just a spokesperson for AI and 4IR; he is an influencer, motivator and commentator who engages with problems facing society.

Prof Leila Patel is recognised as a leading scholar in the field of social development internationally, and is deeply committed to using science to effect the betterment of society both in South Africa and in wider developing contexts. Prof Patel has refined social development theory, and developmental social welfare theory and practice for developing contexts. She has applied this thinking to informing social policy and developing and testing innovative programmes that aim to promote better social and economic outcomes for vulnerable groups. This ethos, which emerged in her PhD research, continues to infuse her scholarship.

Her PhD, further developed in her book Restructuring Social Welfare Options for South Africa, published in 1993 by Ravan Press, provided the conceptual basis for the social development approach to social welfare in South Africa. This later informed the White Paper for Social Welfare that was adopted by parliament in 1997. The policy document was, until very recently, the guiding document for the country’s welfare approach. It fundamentally shifts thinking about social welfare from being a state-led top-down colonial system to one of developmental social welfare.

In her role as Director-General of Social Welfare in the Mandela-led government, she brought scientists and policy makers together in the Lund Commission to conceptualise and promulgate the Child Support Grant (CSG). Her research continues to assess the important effects of the CSG – which now reaches over 11 million children – and to consider innovative mechanisms to enhance the outcomes of children who are recipients.

Prof Patel has used scientific knowledge and activity as a common ground to inform social policy and practice in South Africa and to serve society. This continues to be a core value of her ongoing research. Her career has been an inspiration to many researchers, policy makers and practitioners. Her own energy, ideas and enthusiasm have inspired countless researchers who have worked at the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) – a research centre that she founded and built over 14 years to promote cutting-edge basic and applied social development research to address complex development challenges.

The CSDA has flourished under her leadership to become a unit that now employs 18 staff members. Part of the CSDA’s mission has been to train social development researchers. Many of these researchers and students have gone on to play leading roles in national government departments, academic institutions, civil society organisations, and corporate social responsibility units in the private sector.

In 2014, Prof Patel received the Woman in Science Award in recognition of her outstanding work. Earlier this year she won the Katherine A Kendall Memorial Award from the International Association of Schools of Social Work. These awards recognise the immense contribution she has made to research excellence, teaching, and inspiring the next generation of social development scholars, policy makers and practitioners

prof tshilidzi marwala
Prof Tshilidzi Marwala
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