Master talent at the top

He isn't all just nerdy, after all - there's a fun side to Professor Loyiso Nongxa, the mathematician who runs Wits University.

He isn't all just nerdy, after all - there's a fun side to Professor Loyiso Nongxa, the mathematician who runs Wits University.

Of course he watches sport - rugby and soccer - and takes his cue from Jomo Sono, the child prodigy who has unearthed enough gems to fill the national squads of several football playing nations.

Life after Wits for 54-year-old Nongxa, who has been at the helm of the historic institution since 2004, will ideally involve searching for gifted students to feed into maths and science programmes.

"What Sono does," says the bespectacled university principal, "is go around looking for talent in soccer. That's what we should all be doing, looking for talented kids; the next surgeon, scientist or the next Trevor Manuel.

"I see myself doing that, maybe using the title of former head of Wits to good advantage."

Like the "Black Prince of Soccer" who made his debut as a pimply 17-year-old at Orlando Pirates, Nongxa's rare pedigree of always getting things right became obvious the day he started school.

"And like many black students of my generation, becoming a medical doctor was the preferred option, and though I got the grades to get into medicine, I realised I did not like laboratory-based subjects," says Nongxa.

So he opted out of medicine to take up mathematics, where, 15 years later, he'd become the next student at Fort Hare after the late General Andrew Masondo, an ANC exile, to receive an honours degree in mathematics. He'd later get a Rhodes scholarship and go to Oxford University.

This was like turning the Verwoerdian thinking on its head, I gasp in awe but he lets this pass - he is unable to beat his own drum.

After him many students would follow suit at the Alice campus of yet another great university to excel at mathematics and prove the assertion untrue that they were just born to be mere "hewers of wood and drawers of water".

"So I guess one could modestly say that I demonstrated that it could be done," he says of his feat at Fort Hare.

Nongxa reels off the roll call of those who came after him: Themba Dube, now professor of mathematics at the University of Zululand. "I taught him."

Then there's Professor Thandwa Mthembu, vice chancellor of the Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein, Professor Duma Malaza, the chief executive of the Association of Universities, and Professor Sizwe Mabizela, the deputy vice chancellor at Rhodes University.

This is enough to give talent scout supreme, Sono, a run for his money!

But Nongxa has barely begun.

Ever since he took over at Wits, he's had some rough diamonds dusted off and, as it were, put on display.

Thamsanqa Wilkie Khambule, the maths guru affectionately known by his initials, TW, is not the only thing to have happened to the numbers subject, says Nongxa, who still receives Khambule when the latter comes a-calling on campus.

"There are a number of black mathematicians here at Wits," he says, taking his time to organise the names in his head.

"There's a young man from Zimbabwe who did a doctorate in computer science at one of the leading Australian universities. Then another, a guy from Limpopo; he finished a PhD at Howard University. He did quantum groups, a very technical area in mathematics. He started at the beginning of last year."

His face brightens up when he says the following: "Tshilidzi Marwala won many national awards; he's in his 30s, a full professor in electrical engineering."

Marwala, says the proud scout, already has got students he's trained at the level of masters "some of them now at Cambridge doing PhDs".

There's also a Professor Setati, who did his PhD at Wits and is now the executive dean of science and technology at Unisa. "He just turned 40."

In a classic case of "the good news and the bad news", Nongxa says while the alumni here really want to help the current generation of students, the private sector gives them sleepless nights with the obscenely hefty salaries they are prepared to pay engineers.

But, really, how does a mathematician run a university?

"Common sense," he says, wriggling his hands as he speaks, "you try to not take yourself too seriously. You need to work with other people, you can't do it alone."

And if you are clear about what you want to do, he says, all the better because if you are fuzzy, people can't hook into you.

Transformation, are you happy with the state of the university?

"When I first started, my installation address was around transformation. We need to go beyond just employment equity and numbers. We had a proposal put to the senate and the council where we identified a number of different areas that we should be focusing on above just employment equity. . Equity of opportunities, equity of outcomes.

"Student finance," he adds, sees predominantly black and poor students "on financial aid-part scholarship, so when they graduate, it is with a debt whereas if they got a bursary, they'd graduate and not owe anybody anything. But disproportionately, black students qualify with a debt and disproportionately students from other races groups would think about bursaries and scholarships."

"But to answer your question, transformation is a process. You can never be satisfied with what has happened. With student registration, there's been a gradual increase in the proportion of black students, from 40percent to about 47."

Incoming students in certain programmes - easily more than 70percent of the students who are coming into first year are of African ancestry.

"There is a difficulty in the area of staff. One of the programmes I'm looking into - African females - are under-represented in senior positions, Grades 1 to 7."

About 22percent of the staff are black but "they are concentrated in the junior positions".

So what do we do as a university to give them opportunities to qualify for promotion, he asks rhetorically.

Just about a month ago the university received a grant from the Carnegie Foundation, "a renewal, in fact, of R20million over three years, it's mainly to provide opportunities to young black female academics, to be able to build their careers in terms of research, grants, etcetera".

Even after he's left, "there'll still be a need for my successor to be engaged in transformational issues".

He adds: "There's satisfaction in certain areas and a lot to be done in others."

In the two world ratings of universities, Wits ranks number 319 in the UK edition and the University of Cape Town (UCT), 179th. The Chinese ranking puts Wits between 350 and 400.

Regarding student intake, of the 10percent of non-South Africans enrolled, 80percent are from African countries.

While the numbers could always go higher, he says he's not too unhappy with the trickle of black kids coming into the maths and science programme.

He's not been in front of a class since he came to Wits as meetings and running the university keep him busy.

He speaks glowingly of Education Minister Naledi Pandor and mentions that her stay at UCT and "the University of Botswana, I think", have stood her in good stead.

Born and raised in a village outside Queenstown, Nongxa says there are people who held great promise at school but couldn't go far because of apartheid.

When he leaves Wits, it will be to go out in search of such smart kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, children with the potential to do well in scarce skills - maths, science and accounting.

Outside his work at Wits, the father of two reads biographies and science magazines.

His grown-up son, Mzikeli, is a pilot with SAA and 10-year-old Buhle attends Emmarentia Primary School.