Message from NSTF Executive Director
Transforming the world one lab at a time
I had the unexpected and delightful opportunity to visit China for a week in September this year. I
had never done so before, and did not know what to expect.
Feelings about China
There are plenty of reports on recent developments and on the astounding progress China has made
in its economy and the improvement of citizens’ lives in just a few decades. However, I remembered
reports on the sweatshops in (roughly) the 1950s to 1980s, and the severe repression of citizens’
resistance to government.
I have also experienced the nervousness related to the rise of China as a superpower, and the
general fears of South Africa and other African countries being subjected to a new colonialism.
These concerns remain. During the visit, however, I was inspired by the collaboration between a
Chinese and South African university. It’s a win-win situation (more about that below). If deals
between our countries are brokered in a similar manner where both countries benefit, it could be
very productive and allay some of South Africans’ fears.
Seeing a country prospering
I also got a glimpse of everyday life in Beijing and Shijiazhuang, and saw for myself what millions of
others have seen – that the people seem to be prospering, at least in the big cities.
It is hard, coming from a country like South Africa, to grasp the size of the People’s Republic of
China. China’s population is about 1.42 billion, which is about 20% of the world’s population. This is
four times the population of the USA, and twenty-five times the population of South Africa.
To have lifted the majority of the Chinese population out of poverty required political will and
enormous determination. Currently about 70% of the population attends tertiary education.
Although the manner in which China has achieved this remarkable transition cannot be transplanted
to South Africa, we can nevertheless be inspired and learn from them.
Sino-South African collaborations
Sino-South African collaborations have been taking place for some time, at various levels of society
and academia. This is part of the ‘great opening up’ of the People’s Republic of China over the past
20 or so years. Our respective Presidents, Cyril Ramaphosa and Xi Jinping, have had reciprocal state
visits and agreed to our countries working together.
High-level science and technology delegations have paid reciprocal visits. It is not entirely coincidental then,
that this collaboration between Unisa and Hebei University of Science and
Technology was started in 2016, and launched on 25 September this year.
International Joint Laboratory for New Energy
The ‘International Joint Laboratory for New Energy’ is a joint initiative between Hebei University of
Science and Technology and the University of South Africa (Unisa). It is based in the city of
Shijiazhuang, Hebei province. The lab provides a platform for the researchers from both universities
to research green energy development. The two universities will carry out in-depth research on
biomass utilization, carbon dioxide chemical storage, fuel ethanol, hydrogen utilization, etc. They will
jointly train and supervise doctoral students.
South African expertise – Prof Diane Hildebrandt
Although both parties are contributing to the establishment and success of the endeavour, the
significant expertise comes from South Africa. This is in the person of Prof Diane Hildebrandt who is
the Director of the new laboratory. Diane Hildebrandt is Professor of Chemical Engineering and the
Director of the Institute for the Development of Energy for African Sustainability (IDEAS) at Unisa.
She and the Head of the XTL/FTS research group in the Institute, Prof Liu Xinying, are based at the
Unisa Science Campus in Roodepoort, west of Johannesburg.
Prof Hildebrandt received an NSTF-South32 Award in 2017 for Engineering Research Capacity
Development. She is a member of the Royal Society of South Africa, the Academy of Science of South
Africa (ASSAf) and the South African Academy of Engineering (SAAE).
Vision of a greener economy
China is purposely attracting experts to assist them in their transformation to a greener economy.
The national and provincial governments stimulate international academic collaborations that are
relevant for this purpose. In 2017, Prof Hildebrandt was selected in one of the first programmes to
bring 100 foreign lecturers/trainers to Hebei Province.
Although there is a clear agenda and wider vision on China’s side, there is also common purpose
with South Africa’s stated national objectives as described in the National Development Plan and
other policy documents, as well as the top-quality research being undertaken already by South
Africa’s universities and research institutions.
The launch and NSTF forming connections
The South African delegation consisted of: Vice-Chancellor of Unisa, Prof Mandla Makhanya; Prof
Hildebrandt; Prof Liu; two South African post-doc researchers, and myself (on behalf of NSTF).
The Chinese delegation that received us and launched the laboratory included the Vice-Chancellor of
Hebei University, provincial officials, and Mr Wang Yuding who is the chairman of the Communist
Party Committee of Hebei University.
The NSTF was invited in order to open up possibilities for communication and collaboration between
other South African and Chinese institutions/organisations. Umbrella organisations such as the NSTF
are highly regarded in China. For me it was an opportunity to do what NSTF does – to form
connections and facilitate contact between possible partners in our respective countries.
News of the launch
The following was reported in the online news platforms Chinanews.com and Sciencenet.cn (and
translated into English):
“Mr Wang Yuding the chairman of the Communist Party Committee of Hebei University, said that the
university wanted to achieve a sustainable, healthy and rapid development. It is actively contacting
and cooperating with IDEAS at Unisa, with its leading edge and famous scientists to solve the issues
affecting the economic and social development of Hebei province. Many honourable overseas
scholars and experts are successfully introduced to work in Hebei University.”
“Prof Liu Ruijing of the Chemical Engineering School at Hebei University, said that Prof Hildebrandt
was selected by Hebei in 2016 to build a collaborative academic team at the university. “The team is
going to tackle certain major scientific projects” in the run-up to the 2022 Winter Olympics, and for
the benefit of the economic development of Hebei province, for example the utilization of biomass,
environmental protection, energy saving and emission reduction.”
Although the above pronouncements sound like propaganda, they are not targeted at South
Africans. These appear in Chinese media targeted at their local audience – to show that the
expensive initiatives are for the benefit of the province’s population.
Launch of the ‘International Joint Laboratory for New Energy’ at Hebei University of
Science and Technology, in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province
Dignitaries unveiling the plaque.
From left to right: Individuals photographed included South African post-doc researchers; Prof Liu
Xinying of Unisa, Prof Diane Hildebrandt of Unisa; the Vice-Chancellor of Unisa, Prof Mandla
Makhanya; Ms Jansie Niehaus, and Hebei University professors.
The two translators sitting at the head of the table. The Hebei University senior management and
academic staff on the left and the South African delegation on the right.
(The launch was reported on Chinanews.com and Sciencenet.cn, and in Unisa’s College of Science, Engineering
and Technology news. The above photographs appeared in these news items.)
The opinions expressed above are those of the Executive Director, Jansie Niehaus, and do not
necessarily reflect the views of the Executive Committee or members of the NSTF.