Wits Chancellor addresses attendees of ASSAf Annual Awards Ceremony
Dr Judy Dlamini, Chancellor: of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) was the guest speaker at the virtual Annual Awards Ceremony of the Academy, held on 14 October 2020.
In her address she complimented ASSAf on the diversity of Members, not in a limited sense of race and gender, but at many levels; the different fields of science that the Members represent, the different universities from University of Venda (UNIVEN) in the North to the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the Southern tip of the country, diversity of age.
She said that diversity matters in all its forms. Diversity if used correctly enables a holistic approach to problem identification and solution. The resulting solutions are as good as the approach and process which ensures the incorporation of the intersection of all social identities.
On evidence-based solutions to national problems, she stated that it is important to understand whose evidence we are talking about and on what and/or on who it is based? For instance, the evidence basis of medicine may be fundamentally flawed because there is an ongoing failure of research tools to include sex differences in study design and analysis. Though it has improved, there is still a gap. For example, research funding for coronary artery disease in men is far greater than for women, yet the at-risk population of women, which is an older age group, suffers more morbidity and mortality. The lack of funding for women’s disease in effect maintains women’s lower economic status. It goes beyond gender – racial and social class differences also need to be factored in. Evidence based on one race and/or gender may not necessarily apply across all social identities. Failure to recognise this and mitigate against it exacerbates inequality at a cost to our economies.
According to Dlamini, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities, especially when it comes to gender. Women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. An analysis that looked at 13 medical journals found that the proportion of female authors for COVID-19 papers is lower than the average for all studies published in 2019 in the journals. Various reasons are suggested for this decrease including disproportionate allocation of childcare responsibility; disproportionate load of teaching by female academics, a pre-existing anomaly globally. The teaching workload was worsened by the change to online teaching and the curriculum adjustment that it required. Failure to recognise this and address it will compromise our national agenda to diversify academia. Diversity of perspectives enables an inclusive application of scientific thinking for the benefit of all society.
She referred to an article where Prof Tshilidzi Marwala identified the missing segment in spatial planning, namely, the forgotten informal settlements. Whilst there is technology that can map informal settlement, as alluded to in the article, the vast informal settlements in our country, need to be at the centre of our planning.
Dlamini said that this reminded her of Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka’s assertion, that when you solve for the weakest in the value chain, you solve for the whole society. Population, within countries and across the globe, is not homogenous, research should benefit all people, especially the most disadvantaged. Protective policies may exclude the people most at risk and benefit the privileged few that are close to power. Exclusion accords a lower status to those that are excluded and thus perpetuate inequality. It is for this reason that she is encouraged by the diversity of membership of ASSAf, stating that it is important that no social identity is left outside the net if inequality is to be eradicated.
She is also encouraged by the different initiatives by ASSAf to make science accessible to the general public. What she would add as another important ingredient in addressing our serious challenges as a country is an inclusive culture. Diversity is wasted if different cultures are expected to assimilate to the dominant culture. Embracing different ideologies, different perspectives within a common value system is the differentiator between institutions that thrive to those that retain the status quo in spite of bringing different groups around the table. An inclusive culture is driven by servant leadership.
It is during challenging times that the best and the worst of each one of us is exposed. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us how interconnected we are within countries and globally and the importance of collaboration. Though we encountered and continue to encounter many challenges, many positives came from this reality.
In her conclusion she identified three things that in her view will enable leaders in different areas of society to achieve an inclusive and prosperous South Africa. At the core of the three things is ethical selfless leadership with humility. The first one is leadership that genuinely believes and embraces diversity; the second one is leadership that believes in collaboration and lastly, leadership that has the integrity to do what’s right at all times, regardless of the consequences to self. She believes that if each one of us tries to lead with integrity wherever we are; allow diverse voices to be heard and seek collaboration across disciplines, institutions and indeed sectors, we’ll achieve more as society.