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Leadership Editor Prof JJ Tabane tells the inspiring story of the Director of the Materials Modelling Centre at UL Prof Ngoepe’s against the grain impact at home and abroad

The year 1953 remains the year of huge significance in the history of the world, the continent of Africa, and South Africa as a country. It was the year of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. She would become the longest-reigning British monarch and longest-reigning queen regnant and female head of state in the world. Queen Elizabeth II passed away just months before the 70th birthday of one of South Africa’s long-serving physicists and researchers, Prof Phuti Ngoepe. Leadership Editor Prof JJ Tabane spoke to this humble yet dynamic physicist; a native of Limpopo Province in South Africa who has been in the world of science for more than 50 years, 30 of which as a professor to this day at the University of Limpopo—his alma mater.

Humble beginnings

Prof Ngoepe was born in the same year as the notorious Bantu Education Act. This apartheid legislation was the product of the recommendations of a commission headed by Werner Willi Max Eiselen—an ally of Hendrik Verwoerd. Eiselen had issued a report in 1951, urging the apartheid government to tailor the education for Black South Africans to the needs and values of their cultures, as part of the broader socio-economic plan for the country. This socio-economic plan presupposed the subservience of black South Africans to white Afrikaaner supremacy. Flowing from the recommendations of the Eiselen Commission, the Department of Bantu Education was created in 1958, and the University of the North (now Limpopo) incepted at Mankweng, Polokwane, in 1959.

Young Phuti Ngoepe, at the time, was only six years old. He started schooling near the Normal College (a precursor of the University of the North) in Mamelodi, Pretoria, and after some family relocations he landed in Form 1 (now Grade 8) at a remote school at Ga-Seleka.

“Some of the teachers at that school were the best. One teacher, who taught us arithmetic —because mathematics was not on offer—left a lasting impression on me. He would drum into us the basics of expressions like, ‘a + a = 2a’, or ‘a donkey and a donkey is equal to two donkeys’; ‘a + b = a + b’, or ‘a donkey and a horse is equal to a donkey and a horse’,” he adds.

Yet, these seemingly mundane routines proved crucial in his grasp of mathematics. Since his school did not offer mathematics in Form 2, his parents got a place for him at Setotolwane. So crucial were the basics from his former school that his principal at Setotolwane, when he matriculated, had a crisp career advice for him in line with his psychological scores: ‘Ngoepe, I think you will do well with numbers!’

The formative but eye-opening university years

The year was 1972, and young Phuti headed to the University of the North. He got thrust with fellow freshmen like Cyril Ramaphosa, Matthews Phosa, Mahlo Mokgalong, and Samuel Risenga into the maelstrom of apartheid, where Verwoerdian principles negated the very essence of higher education.

As minister of native affairs in 1950, Verwoerd had proclaimed the “Bantu” must know their place, and that was as far away as possible from the sciences, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM).

So, what propelled Phuti Ngoepe towards a BSc, studying Mathematics, Applied Mathematics, Physics, and Mathematical Statistics?

“It was all about being defiant,” he says, almost defiantly, “and persuasion from parents”.

Having passed biology, physical science and one language well, and mathematics not so well, young Phuti was determined to go where his weakest matric subject directed him not to go.

“The idea of going for a mathematical sciences degree was to avoid chemistry, which was a terror. I also understood that although my matric maths was not very good, I had the potential to do well in maths,” Prof Ngoepe emphasises.

As long as he could avoid chemistry, he was willing to tackle any other devil. That devil turned out to be not the subjects, but some of the lecturers’ attitudes. One chemistry lecturer had the reputation of walking into a first-year class and asking: “Goodness, do you all want to be doctors? If you all become doctors, who will be your patients?”

Another would announce his arrival in by saying that he was like a ‘train passing by the station—if you miss me now, you can always catch me next year’, then proceed to write notes on the chalkboard with one hand and immediately erase them with the other.

Mathematics… a not-so-obvious choice?

Why did young Phuti not just follow history? After all, that was one of his favourite subjects, as part of secondary-school social studies.

“I consider myself a historian. I loved history, I loved geography,” he says, “but the sciences were fashionable and scarce, so we had to take that leap of faith.”

If faith made young Phuti Ngoepe register for the mathematical sciences, it took even stronger faith to see him pass his first year. And he did, passing all four of his first year courses, with a distinction in Mathematical Statistics. Strangely, he did not proceed with Mathematical Statistics to his second year in 1973. Why did he drop the course in which he had scored a distinction?

“The lecturer was not worth the trouble. He was a belligerent man. Sometimes he would interrupt his own prayer, because lecturers used to pray during the first period back then, to reprimand one of us for not closing our eyes. He used to harangue me for the way I held my pen, which he found awkward,” he says, “but with the women he was consistently terrifying.”

Prof Ngoepe tells us how his Mathematical Statistics lecturer seemed bent on running every female student out of his class, often succeeding with more than just the females, but some males as well.

How possible was it for him to persist and achieve, in the absence of role-models, we quiz him.

Apart from their defiant spirit, he says, there were few black teachers and lecturers at the university who offered science courses, and one of them was the late Professor Sentsho Mashike, who taught mathematics. Solidarity among the natural sciences students at the time helped a great deal, too.

“We motivated one another, relying on second years and third years, for reassurance,” he elaborates, “but one major boost of our morale in 1972 was learning that Professor Robert J Seretlo had just obtained his PhD (Physics) at the University of Fort Hare.”

Prof Ngoepe is evidently more comfortable talking about things, concepts, principles, other people’s achievements, but not himself, especially when we ask him about his own abilities. In response to our question about his own grit and work ethic, he explains that he has always been studious and fascinated by events.

“When I was in Standard 4, I would do the Geography that was being done in Standard 5; when we were studying the geography of South Africa, I would study the geography of Africa and when in Standard 5, we were busy with the geography of Africa, I would study the geography of the world (for Standard 6),” he adds.

Shaping his personality

We enquire if he was socially awkward, considering how much time he spent reading and writing.

He responds with his default phrase, “not necessarily”, repeating it soon afterwards when asked if his inclination to study ahead of the syllabus made him a difficult child to teach.

In deference to his visible discomfort with talking about himself for too long, rather than concepts, we ask him to reflect on what he considers top scientific breakthroughs of our time. He lights up right away and his characteristic polite smile returns, accompanied by that twinkle in the eye that only his passion for the sciences can elicit.

“Science affects every facet of life. Improvements that made us to switch from walking to driving, sailing or flying, introduced a new brand of mobility,” he announces his first fascination. Prof Ngoepe has always been excited by motion. Some of his students from the 1980s still recall one of his favourite test questions: with the aid of Newton’s First Law of Motion, explain the importance of seatbelts in cars.

In an instant, the animated physicist is quizzing us, instead, about why electric vehicles (EVs) are so in vogue now, having been there during the 19th century. His eyes survey our faces for an answer. Unfortunately, there is none. Are EVs not a new thing?

“EVs are not new,” he schools us, “people were using batteries to drive cars. When petrol came along, they abandoned for batteries for petrol. So, who killed EVs in the first place? Petrol—because back then batteries did not perform. At least the trains have survived from the days of the steam engine and are getting faster.”

The physics lecture is now in full session. He moves glibly to his second significant scientific breakthrough: telecommunications.
Prof Ngoepe first used a telephone at 13. Even then, he says, it made him wonder whether it would ever be possible to see and talk to someone at the same time.

“Now, children younger than five communicate via video conferencing as a standard. Again, batteries are going to play a role,” he concludes his point.

We are only catching our breath, when he hits us with his third: energy, and how it is used in weapons, manufacturing, and utilities. That has revolutionised the world, he continues, as did the lasers, which were initially used to study properties of materials but are now employed in the cutting of objects and surgery.

The Internet: The biggest breakthrough of our time

The biggest breakthrough, however, is the Internet in Prof Ngoepe’s opinion. He makes a point to which he will return to later in our conversation about how the biggest scientific breakthroughs were almost by happenstance.

“There was nobody who intentionally went to invent it. Scientists at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) were simply looking for a way to share information, now look what they have given us purely because their solution fell on the lap of telecommunications,” he chuckles.

To our question about whether we have seen all there is to see in science or if there is still a big discovery awaiting us, he is quick to state his reservations about how science today is almost exclusively expected to make commercial sense before research can be commissioned or funded.

“In the days of Isaac Newton people engaged in science out of love, almost as a hobby.

There is too much leaning towards action research to the detriment of basic research, instead of balancing the two,” he laments about how much this stifles creativity and innovation. Are the scientists to blame for this because they do not lobby and organise enough, we ask, or is commercial short-termism the culprit?

“The world of science can capture you so much that you end up living only in that world, without worrying about what is happening around you. Politicians, on the other hand, want to go to their electorate after five years and show them something tangible; which is why African governments are not spending as much as their European, Asian and American counterparts on research and development,” is his answer.

He reminds us that European countries spend 3% of their GDP on research, Scandinavian countries (4%), the US (about 2.5%). On the other hand, South Africa at the very best spends 0.7%! It has been shown that investment in research translates into economic growth of countries.

We return to how his long journey to the pinnacle of science academia influenced the kind of teacher he became, one who strives to make physics accessible without dumbing it down—as all of his former students will attest.

“I did the sciences the hard way, so I never wanted anyone to experience what I experienced. We used to have to conceal our real intentions to our professors when we did third year by saying we wanted to become teachers, to which they would respond: ‘very good, you must go and help your own people!’” That is, instead of dreaming of becoming scientists.

As he says this, the sparkle darts from his face and it is easy to see that his arrival at university during the time of Onkgopotse Tiro — the SRC president in 1971 who was later expelled for challenging apartheid education and then assassinated with a parcel bomb in Botswana —left a long-term impact on Prof Ngoepe.

He shares how his involvement in the Student Christian Movement (SCM), operating alongside people like Frank Chikane during the Snyman Commission into the problems that faced black universities, and the racist treatment at the hands of some of his lecturers forced him to think of ways to make his students understand and love physics by stooping to their level. This makes it clearer, what he meant by studying the sciences as an act of defiance.

Teaching maths mathematically

We ask him to share his take on what we are getting wrong in the teaching of STEM subjects in South Africa today.

“The way mathematics is being taught in schools could be a problem..

“When I started teaching in 1977, there were certain things—like playing around with algebraic expressions—that we could take for granted. Solving a problem in Physics, you could set up equations and approximations—the students could complete it by themselves. By 1986, I had to solve the problem for my students to understand; the problem got worse in the 1990s,” he explains.

Are we not losing the opportunity to use other scientific breakthroughs like artificial intelligence (AI) to teach, we ask. Again, he is quick to answer.

“Innovation is about using knowledge to solve problems or finding new ways to do things; but that has to be coupled with fundamentals. Finding that balance between the mastery of fundamentals and innovation is essential,” he says.

We ask him to share what he is most proud of, looking back upon his life. Discomfort reappears on his face before he says: “Working with people. I learned a lot from working with a lot of people worldwide – who are humble, down to earth, but great people, making a difference in the lives of others.”

Our penultimate question to Prof Ngoepe is whether he believes his talent, skills, virtuosity or the Materials Modelling Centre are being put to good use in South Africa and the continent.

He rattles names of his protégés, like Dr Happy Sithole — manager of cyber-infrastructure in the country who did his PhD at UL, the late Dr Khomotso Kganyago, whose contribution to super-computing still has to be appreciated, Dr Kenneth Kgatwane, among others, with the pride of a father — no longer a professor.

He then points out that most of these young PhDs were regular people who could have been rejected by the system, but UL kept them, trained them until they all helped their alma mater to build vital local and global linkages. These would result in even bigger impact if African governments would stick to their commitment to spend sufficient resources on research, development and innovation. Prof Ngoepe craves more continuity in how national policies are being implemented, with most leaders—when they take political office—scrap what their predecessors did, irrespective of how good that might have been.

Do you have any message to the leaders of Africa?

“I am a scientist, so I will say they must support science and innovation in Africa. They can learn from the developed world; countries like China are a good example of what investing in science can accomplish. With all these natural resources we are having on the continent, we could do a lot with science to extract and beneficiate them,” he concludes.

By Editor