Share Their Story

Stephanie Baker, 33

Palaeo-anthropologist researcher and principal investigator
Drimolen Hominin Site

Considering her success as a palaeo-anthropologist researcher, Stephanie Baker says, “Sometimes you don’t know what your passion is until you’ve been pushed into it. Give everything a chance, and give it your all — you never know when your future is starting.”

As principal investigator at the Drimolen Hominin Site, 40km north of Johannesburg, Baker was part of the team that discovered the country’s first Homo Erectus fossil fragments, the oldest ones in the world. There’s a hope that this event can kickstart an exciting future for the South African palaeo community.

“It was a momentous announcement that has long-reaching effects for the significance of South Africa,” says Baker. “I know that this announcement will increase participation for our annual field schools at the site, which means I will be able to offer more scholarships for local students to attend, all costs covered.”

Until April’s announcement, it had previously been believed that Homo Erectus — our direct human ancestors — first appeared in East Africa, before migrating north and into the rest of the globe. The find at Drimolen further cements South Africa’s importance in the palaeo-anthropological world.

Baker’s reaction is as joyful as one might expect: “That’s a once in a lifetime chance, to be the first person to look at this two-million-year-old baby skull, with the added bonus of being part of the team that gets to share it with the world.”

Author - Max Dylan Lazarus
Sulaiman Saleem Patel, 26

Sulaiman Saleem Patel, 26

Senior analyst in emerging technology
KPMG South Africa

Sulaiman Patel says that being announced as one the youngest ever doctoral graduates in electronic engineering from University of KwaZulu-Natal counts as a proud but humbling moment. What made the moment more special was seeing how his achievements were inspiring and motivating his community.

Thinking of himself as representing more than himself but also his family, community and religion is something that gives Patel the motivation to excel.

Getting to where he is wasn’t an easy journey but Patel had support and encouragement from the people around him. At the end of his master’s, he experienced personal problems but, with support from his supervisor, he was able to produce work that was presented at a conference in Europe. His paper was also awarded at the conference.

“Knowing the personal challenges that I had to overcome, receiving this award was both the biggest surprise of my career and one of my proudest moments,” he says.

One of the things Patel has learned is to never be afraid of making mistakes. He believes mistakes should be used as opportunities to grow and improve.

Patel doesn’t just want to use what he knows to get ahead for himself. He wants to use what he knows to make a difference in the world.

“I believe that technology is the greatest tool for uplifting our country, which has really been highlighted during the lockdown,” he says.

Fatima Moosa |
Cebisa Mdekazi, 25

Cebisa Mdekazi, 25

Assistant director: integrated environment and conservation management
Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site

Everybody loves dinosaurs, but not everyone loves them enough to make a career out of palaeontology. Especially not young black girls — not yet, anyway.

Cebisa Mdekazi is an assistant director at the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, responsible for ensuring that the site operates in line with strict global regulations, and keeping an eye on the subcontractors working there.

It doesn’t sound as exciting as her days spent digging up dinosaur bones, including being part of an international team working on Jurassic era fossils in the Eastern Cape. Yet understanding the regulatory side is crucial for becoming an all-round professional, she says. “I’ve amassed the skills you need to be in the field, and now I’m going into the laws behind palaeontology. I love it because ultimately we are preserving a World Heritage site, which is a very good window into the evolution of humans.”

Palaeontology has always been dominated by older white men, and Mdekazi hopes the presence of a young black woman on fossil fields in rural areas will inspire local communities to see this as something they can also study and enjoy.

“I would love to see the youth from these areas pursuing palaeontology or related sciences,” she says.

She’s passionate about driving transformation in areas where young black women were traditionally unwelcome. This inspired her become an interim chairperson for transformation at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at Wits University and a Faculty of Science transformation forum member, dealing with cases of discrimination based on race, gender and age.

She’s also a mentor for young women through a group called Girls Lunch With Dr Lulu Gwagwa, and is among the leading women in various fields who equip youngsters with the necessary skills to better navigate their life and careers.

Lesley Stones |
Sasha Hoffmann, 32

Sasha Hoffmann, 32

Postdoctoral fellow

Working towards greater opportunities for a more diverse group of students to experience the joys of science is the dream of Sasha Hoffman, a postdoctoral fellow in the field of zoology who’s eager to share the wonders of science.

Working in the field of zoology research with a focus on conservation and wildlife, Hoffmann also lectures and teaches young aspiring zoology students. She hopes to make a difference in her work, but also through teaching young people about the world of science. She says people should never underestimate their effect on the world. In her work, Hoffmann focuses on conservation and wildlife and explains the interactions of animals and human beings’ effects on ecosystems. She wants people to have a greater understanding of and respect for the animals in the world. Hoffmann says getting her PhD in zoology was one of the proudest moments of her life and career. “It was a long journey and I am incredibly grateful to have completed it.”.

She says although she knew pursuing her dreams through the degree would be difficult, she still was surprised by just how hard it was.

Hoffmann says: “The speed at which we discover new information and improve in scientific techniques is overwhelming, humbling and jaw-dropping.” Being part of this process is something that constantly amazes her.

Working in science is something of a fast process and is constantly changing, but Hoffmann lives by the motto: “Take it slow — life is a journey, not a race. Enjoy where you are and appreciate every step.”

Fatima Moosa |
Moagabo Ragoasha, 28

Moagabo Ragoasha, 28

Postdoctoral research fellow and lecturer
University of Cape Town, South African Environmental Observation Network

“The one thing that drives me to excel every morning is my family. I am the eldest of two sisters and ever since my parents passed on, I had to step up — not just for myself, but for them too. To serve as an inspiration for them to pursue their goals. My success is their success.”

Moagabo Ragoasha’s big heart accompanies some big dreams. She is the first black South African woman to get a PhD in physical oceanography and, through her work as a postdoctoral lecturer, has become passionate about the blue economy — an emerging concept for sustainable economic growth that preserves the health of our oceans, while encouraging public participation in marine and coastal decision-making.

“My research aims to build a good ecosystem-based ocean model that will help to predict fish stocks and how many may be fished without disrupting the ecosystem. A better understanding of the environmental factors that control the pelagic fish resource will assist managers in making sensible fishery policies,” she says.

“Also, having a better understanding of our ocean is necessary to anticipate climate changes and, therefore, to provide a sound knowledge-base from which to develop social and environmental management, mitigation and adaptation strategies.”

Moagabo hopes to become a role model for young women who might doubt that they are deserving of their goals.

“Don’t worry too much about the future. Focus on what needs to be done now, but remember that the choice you make has to be aligned with your future goals. Measure your success with how far you got and what you have already achieved, not your failures — so focus on what you can do and not what you are unable to do.”

Rosie Goddard |
Thulile Khanyile, 32

Thulile Khanyile, 32

Lecturer, scientist and social entrepreneur
University of the Witwatersrand, Nka'Thuto EduPropeller NPO

Thulile Khanyile has three aspects to her professional life: as a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, as a scientist doing research towards developing an HIV vaccine and as the co-founder and co-director at Nka’Thuto EduPropeller. While for most, even one of these would be a daunting responsibility, Khanyile has struck a balance through attentive planning and delegation and a flexible approach to changing dynamics. She also attributes her success to an “incredible support system in my family and friends that makes me believe that I have the potential to do more”.

Nka’Thuto EduPropeller is a nonproft organisation works with primary and high school learners from grades 1 to 11 in townships and rural areas and aims to spark an interest in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. Nka’Thuto EduPropeller employs 12 young people, the majority of whom are STEM graduates.

Khanyile, who has a master’s in molecular medicine and haematology from Wits and a certificate in bio-Innovation and entrepreneurship from Stanford University’s Spark programme, says it is her responsibility to “make science relatable to even the most marginalised in society” and believes that the “thought process of a scientist alongside the principles of the broader STEM industries have the potential to contribute to the development of the African economy”. Of the research she does at Wits, Khanyile hopes to contribute to the body of knowledge for the development of an HIV vaccine — and mould the minds of her students “beyond the content in the textbooks to become leaders in society”.

Max Dylan Lazarus |
Keneuoe Maliehe, 34

Keneuoe Maliehe, 34

Chief scientis
KaTZ Smart

For Keneuoe Maliehe, to be awarded an Africa-Ireland Fellowship, and subsequently be recognised as an elite scholar by Maynooth University, have been particular highlights in a career punctuated with significant achievements.

As a director at CAD Mapping and Chief Scientist at KaTZ Smart, Maliehe is in a leading position to introduce technologies that will enact change and accelerate development, describing the opportunity as one, “to close the gap between the first world and the third world with regards to digital technologies, especially with access to space-based datasets, airborne datasets and indigenous geospatial tools”.

To be given a director role in 2018 on her return from studies abroad would have presented a daunting challenge to anyone, but Maliehe took on the role with aplomb, and with no shortage of planning and preparation to assure success.

“To absorb the change, I had to work closely with a professional coach in the first few months to help me adjust to the abrupt change in my career life,” she says. “This was followed by the attention and recognition I received within the science fraternity leading to being awarded the Africa-Ireland Fellowship.”

Moving forward, Maliehe wants to focus on green energy, specifically in generating solar potential and wind potential digital maps, saying “This is an area I am passionate about and it has the potential to contribute towards the development of an efficient and environmentally sustainable integrated energy system in South Africa.”

With Maliehe redrawing the map of South African digital technologies, it will be exciting to keep an eye on further developments in other areas as she addresses them.

Max Dylan Lazarus |
Kimi Chapelle, 29

Kimi Chapelle, 29

Postdoctoral fellow at Evolutionary Studies Institute
University of the Witwatersrand

Postdoctoral fellow at the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, Kimberley Chapelle wants to make palaeontology as accessible as possible to South Africans. In her ideal world, she’d be able to ask a child what their favourite dinosaur is and have them respond with “Massospondylus” or any other species.

“South Africa has one of the most incredible fossil records in the world, and it is something that we should all be proud of,” she says.

Chapelle believes that any contribution to science provides a helpful step towards a better understanding of the world. She adds: “Science is ever-changing, and although findings of today may be disproved or argued in the future, they will never be irrelevant.” That’s what challenges her to constantly evolve.

She counts her first publication as an author in 2018 as one of her proudest moments and even though it took several years to get out, there’s something special about one’s first official contribution to scientific literature. She is also one of the few people who can say she’s had the privilege of naming a new dinosaur species — Ngwevu intloko in the Free State.

Chapelle notes that academia is high pressure and competitive, so it’s easy to get swept up in the hustle. She tries to be deliberate about living a balanced lifestyle. “It’s important to take some time for yourself and the things that make you happy. Mental health should be a priority. Second, things don’t always go according to plan, and that’s alright. You might not get the job you’ve dreamed of since you were seven, but you might end up doing something that you enjoy even more.”

Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha |
Thembisile Patience Mahlangu, 30

Thembisile Patience Mahlangu, 30

Lecturer and researcher
Durban University of Technology

Researcher Thembisile Mahlangu develops materials for water treatment and disinfection. She is also a lecturer at the Durban University of Technology.

“I want to see a solution that will bring socioeconomic benefits to South Africa. I also want to produce graduates that are problem-solvers and innovators,” she says.

By her own admission, Mahlangu finds success addictive. She pushes boundaries to bridge the innovation chasm and create products that can be commercialised. She also wants to be a role model for those she mentors at Nka’Thuto Edu Propeller, a nonprofit organisation that assists learners come up with STEMI [science, technology, engineering, maths and innovation] solutions to problems where they live. And she participates in activities at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research where STEMI projects and nanotechnology are explained to schoolchildren and university students.

Mahlangu highlights the importance of sharing information. “When I was in undergrad, I had the perception that chemical engineering was about working in a mine or an industrial plant. I was surprised to learn that I could still be in research and development — the path I fell in love with. I never thought I’d be passionate about my career to the point of studying further.”

And creating a nurturing home has been equally fulfilling. “Giving birth to my son was one of my proudest moments too. I am a young black woman from Mamelodi, and I had a childhood that is considered normal where I am from. It’s not every day that women from there pursue careers in STEMI and follow through to doctoral level. I am thrilled by the thought that I’ll have obtained a doctoral degree by the time I turn 31”.

Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha |
Ruby-Anne Birin, 25

Ruby-Anne Birin, 25

DPhil archaeological science student
University of Oxford

Ruby-Anne Birin hopes to use her work to establish a meaningful dialogue in modern people’s lives. The 25-year-old is an archaeological science student. Her current research focuses on understanding when people invent, adopt and abandon new technologies in Southern Africa. Birin hopes that the public engagement projects she works on will provide South African citizens of varying backgrounds more equitable access to their heritage.

“We can develop a space to appreciate, understand and advocate for our heritage,” she says. Through excavations she has learnt how people in the past lived and how that has affected the present.

Birin is a recent graduate from the University of Oxford where she completed her master’s — and she says that getting accepted into Oxford University was one of the biggest surprises of her life.

She’s a firm believer in being her own best advocate. Birin says she has also recognised that it is up to her to be a responsible member of society. “It is up to us to acknowledge when something is wrong and to respond positively by creating thoughtful and meaningful dialogue in a way that will create change.” It is this ideal which guides her. Birin says she is driven in her research by the desire to better understand South Africa’s complicated and shared past. She is also someone who always believes in grabbing every opportunity presented to her. But more than that, she says it is important to look for opportunities which aren’t obvious and make the most of those. “Each opportunity taken leads to another door, allowing your interests and conscience to guide which door to choose,” she says.

Fatima Moosa |
Kimberleigh Ashley Tommy, 27

Kimberleigh Ashley Tommy, 27

PhD candidate at the Human Variation and Identification Research Unit
School of Anatomical Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand

Kimberleigh Ashley Tommy is a biological anthropology PhD candidate with the Human Variation and Identification Research Unit at Wits University.

Tommy says one of the proudest moments for her life so far was receiving her master’s degree. It meant more because she was a student who didn’t seem to be on a path to “greatness” in her undergraduate degree. But she was able to pass her masters degree with distinction.

She doesn’t just want to achieve greatness for herself: she hopes that other young women who see her and the other incredible women of colour in palaeosciences are encouraged to pursue it as a career field.

Tommy says South Africa is a fossil-rich country with over 40% of fossils having roots in the African content. However, she has found that this area of study has been dominated on a large scale by non-Africans and it is not a very representative or diverse field. Change is necessary.

“I hope that this extends to other research areas where diversity is minimal, not for a lack of interest but because of systemic challenges that affect women of colour disproportionately,” she says.

Tommy hopes to see that the science field becomes more inclusive and a better representation of the talent pool.

She has had fantastic experiences and found many opportunities in the past few years of her academic career. She discovered that she has been able to take evolutionary science outside the walls of academic establishments. “It also showed me that my career in science needn’t stifle my voice and personality, and that a traditional academic path isn’t the only option.”

Fatima Moosa |
Dr Mzamo Shozi, 35

Dr Mzamo Shozi, 35

Senior lecturer
University of KwaZulu-Natal

Not many people even know what catalysis and organometallic chemistry are. But Mzamo Shozi is an expert in the field, and his knowledge will help push us into a green energy future.

His work involves the conversion of sugar alcohols found in plants to valuable chemicals used in the fuel industry.

This wasn’t what Shozi first decided to learn: he applied to study medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. But when he was accepted, he turned it down and decided to study chemistry instead.

“Over the years, I came to realise that my passion was actually chemistry, which saw me progress all the way to a PhD. I had only wanted to do medicine because it is one of the more sought-after degrees.”

In 2018, Shozi was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to spend time doing research at the University of California in the United States — a long way away from where he grew up in Umlazi, KwaZulu-Natal.

He says: “I grew up in a township. And I guess I see myself as one of the examples of ‘it doesn’t matter where you come from’. You can be what you want to be when you work hard for it.”

Shozi says the future South Africa he wants to see is one in which “young, black candidates in the fields of Stem [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] are not only afforded more career opportunities, but also taking up space in more senior positions”.

To that end, he is now working towards becoming a professor before he turns 40. “I know what is required of me to get there. So every day I’m driven to achieve this and continuously work towards it.”

Sarah Smit |
Tiyani Nghonyama, 27

Tiyani Nghonyama, 27


Technology expert Tiyani Nghonyama (27) is a hugely smart and delightfully modest young leader. He’s the co-founder of Geekulcha, an organisation that teaches technology skills to rural and under-privileged youth, and guides them as they start university or enter the job market. Geekulcha Student Societies are active at 18 universities in six provinces, and its database lists a talent pool of 14 000 youngsters whom companies or the government can dip into when they need to hire an IT specialist.

Lots of youngsters first meet Geekulcha through its VacWork programme, where they spend a week in a simulated working environment, learning how to code and tackling real life problems. Some have won university scholarships with their new-found skills, or launched their own start-ups.

Another of its arms consults to large corporations such as IBM and Microsoft when they want to develop products for young consumers or test consumer reactions. It also runs intense hackathons to help companies or the government design solutions for stronger security or improved services.

Nghonyama is working with several government departments on initiatives to improve service delivery through IT, and he’s been to Parliament three times to discuss those projects.

Not surprisingly, in 2019 he won the IT Personality of the Year Award presented by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa, competing against industry giants.

While Nghonyama is a Computer Systems Engineer by training, he’s a developer of people by nature. “Waking up every day knowing we have an opportunity to create new things is what matters,” he says. “We need greater capacity to solve the energy crisis, we need data engineers and scientists to manage, economise and create impact with data. We need a great army of digital defenders against cyber threats. We need talent that builds tech solutions for the most marginalised.”

Lesley Stones |
Tim Mitchell, 28

Tim Mitchell, 28

Digital and innovation chief of staff
Deloitte Africa

By harnessing the digital landscape, young South Africans have a platform to not only greatly accelerate their own development, but also make significant contributions to society at large.

This firm belief drives the daily routine of Tim Mitchell, the chief of staff for digital and innovation at Deloitte Africa. As he puts it:

“More than ever, the emergence of new business models and democratisation of exponential technologies is enabling our young workforce and entrepreneurs to create new sources of economic value that previously never existed.”

Mitchell has worked with clients from across sub-Saharan Africa to formulate their digital strategies, and led various digital labs and workshops.

His determination to always look at the bigger picture led to the GIBS Business School extending an invitation to him to fill in as a MBA supervisor and digital innovation guest lecturer — despite him not having had the chance to complete his own MBA. He was also elected as the deputy chairperson of Deloitte Africa’s inaugural millennial board – an advisory board mandated to drive internal innovation at the firm.

Indeed, one of his biggest lessons he’s gained in his career is that a lack of experience should not deny you a seat at the leadership table; a curious and youthful mindset can deliver fresh insights that organisational stalwarts may never have even considered. Armed with this mentality, Mitchell hopes that, through his digital transformation projects, he can effect sustainable social upliftment in South Africa. Innovation, he points out, is so often the catalyst for wealth creation and economic development.

“Anyone can harness the power of digital once it is sufficiently distributed,” he advises. “Just think big, start small and scale rapidly.”

Luke Feltham |
Khanya Champion, 33

Khanya Champion, 33

Senior Manager

Nokukhanya Champion says she wants to see more female leaders in the telecommunications field. Now a senior manager at the BCX company, a subsidiary of the Telkom Group, Champion says that throughout her career she has always been the only black women engineer or one of two or three in a team.

This situation resulted in her resilience and determination: not seeing many other black engineers in her field, Champion says that she endeavoured to be that person — and a future role model to others. “I hope that young women can look at me and believe that they too can do it — they can also make it in a male-dominated industry.” She says she hopes that more women won’t be intimidated, but will instead also believe that they can lead in the telecommunications industry, and be successful at it.

Champion’s role as a senior manager has been earned through hard work and perseverance. Her promotion to the position came as something of a surprise to her, and she quickly went from managing 18 people to being in charge of a team numbering almost 100 members.

“I’ve now been a senior manager for almost 18 months and I am learning valuable lessons in my role that are shaping me to be an authentic leader,” she says.

One of the ways she has succeeded is by setting personal and professional goals to achieve. Having those goals and working towards them drives Champion to excel and to strive to continue being a better version of herself, as she leads by example in the transformation of her industry.

Fatima Moosa |
Dr Lebo Gafane-Matemane, 31

Dr Lebo Gafane-Matemane, 31

Senior lecturer and researcher in physiology
North-West University

Lebo Gafane-Matemane’s proudest moment to date was walking up on stage to receive her PhD at the age of 27. As she comes from a poor background and struggled financially during her undergraduate years, she never thought she would reach a milestone like this in her life. “I completed the degree while I was working full time and raising a young family, but managed to keep my focus and get it done in three years. I was so busy during the process I didn’t think much about what it would mean to me, but the day I graduated all the hours and sacrifices finally had meaning.”

This senior lecturer and researcher in physiology has since dedicated her career to curbing and hopefully curing non-communicable diseases, particularly hypertension, which is one of the major public health concerns worldwide.

“The major aim is to impact policy on the prevention, detection and efficient treatment of hypertension, especially in low-resource settings, given the complex health challenges we are currently facing.”

With a burgeoning career and a track record of seriously hard work, is there anything she would have done differently?

“Something I personally regard as a mistake was to focus solely on my academic career and pay less attention to community development. In high school I was a peer educator at Moletjie Community Radio station, which I was passionate about, but once I got to varsity I dedicated all my time and energy to my studies. I later realised I could have done both — made a difference in someone’s life while I was growing myself. But it is never too late. Since 2015 I’ve been using various platforms to mentor young women and girls pursuing science careers.”

Rosie Goddard |
Cliffton Masedi, 33

Cliffton Masedi, 33

Postdoctoral research fellow
University of Limpopo - Materials Modelling Centre

Research and development are the foundation of innovation, absolute requirements for progress no matter the industry. That’s something that Cliffton Masedi understands better than most, as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Limpopo’s Materials Modelling Centre, where he works to better understand and subsequently improve the technologies of today.

Masedi is using years of academic experience — which culminated in him getting a PhD in Physics focusing on Computational Modelling of Energy Storage Materials — to do the work he is passionate about. In addition, he’s fuelled by the idea that the work he is doing is producing results that matter to people everywhere. While it’s often difficult to trace the source of a technological breakthrough years down the line, he enjoys praise for a job well done and feeling appreciated, even within his own industry.

And appreciated he has been, having recently collaborated with the producers of batteries for clients such as Samsung, working to discover and improve materials utilising the power of computational modelling and experimentation. Masedi was also awarded Best Oral Presentation at the South African Institute of Physics conference, though he maintains his proudest moment was receiving his PhD with his parents in the audience.

When prompted about the future, Masedi says energy storage will be more important than ever. “The issues of load shedding, the discovery of electric vehicles and the latest technological developments require new and powerful batteries in the future,” he explains, as he tries to imagine new applications for energy. Luckily for all of us, the positive impact of his work on so many people is what gets him up every morning, he says.

Scott Dodds |
Lyndsey Duff, 34

Lyndsey Duff, 34

Country manager

A simple but smart technology is helping to save lives by making it easy to find people. The company what3words has divided the world into sections of 3m square, and given each a name of three words. Those words, such as filled.count.soap, enable any location to be pinpointed by the emergency services or others, even in areas with no formal addresses.

If callers are struggling to describe their location, the operator can send an SMS to their phone linking to the what3words website, and the caller reads out their three words.

Lyndsey Duff is the South African country manager for what3words.

“My proudest moment came in January when Gauteng Emergency Medical Services successfully deployed what3words’ technology to locate and save a woman who needed emergency assistance,” she says. “She lived in an informal part of Soshanguve, which would normally prove a huge navigation challenge for emergency crews. Paramedics found her in under 30 minutes using her what3words address.” She was rushed to hospital and made a full recovery.

Duff has spent her career promoting the interests of South Africa. She was responsible for inward investment at South Africa’s high commission in London before coming home with what3words.

She had assumed that South Africa was ready to embrace new technology at scale, but found that legacy systems and some reluctance to risk clearing a path for new ideas often impeded progress. She sees that as her challenge to overcome.
“I’m a big believer in applying your talents to help others, and in deploying clever technology to solve big problems with significant impact. Technology has a significant role to play in this country’s development, and I hope my work will contribute to a new wave of inclusive infrastructure that introduces a more level playing field for all South Africans.”

Lesley Stones |
Palesa Nombula, 29

Palesa Nombula, 29

Graduate data scientist and MSc astrophysics candidate

Although the phrase “to reach for the stars” is overused, it is inspirational when it comes to Palesa Nombula, who is completing her master’s in astrophysics with the Centre for Radio Cosmology at the University of the Western Cape.

Having initially been excluded at her first attempt to study at the University of Cape Town, Nombula fought back with tenacity and resilience, charting her own path with five distinctions from Unisa, before returning to UCT to do her honours degree, collecting scholarships and fellowship awards along the way.

She attributes her success to focusing on physical and mental health, the development of a small, supportive community around her and, vitally, enjoying the work she does. “I had sufficient reasons to give up, but my desire to become an astrophysicist outweighed them all,” she says.

Further success soon followed, with an opportunity to be a part of the biggest global project in radio astronomy, the Square Kilometer Array under the South African consortium, the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory. This has afforded her experience alongside the world’s most talented data scientists and astronomers, something she doesn’t take for granted.

She says, “To overcome the obstacles that come with being a black South African woman, who grew up in the townships cared for by a single parent, every day is an opportunity to represent my community in STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] and to uplift my community.”

With ambitions to develop education systems to empower disadvantaged learners and encourage a more exciting attitude towards learning — in science, technology, engineering and maths in particular, one could say that for Nombula, the sky’s the limit.

Max Dylan Lazarus |
Doreen Mokoena, 32

Doreen Mokoena, 32

Internet governance specialist
Domain Name Authority of South Africa

Bridging gender divides by creating an environment in which more women-led start-ups thrive in tech is the force that drives internet governance specialist, Doreen Mokoena. In her work, she administers the .za namespace and arms the end-user with compliance regulations to better navigate emerging technologies in digital forensics, business intelligence, policy and data privacy.

Mokoena formed part of the South African delegation, alongside Deputy Minister Pinky Kekana of the department of digital technologies, at the 2019 Global Internet Governance Forum in Germany, which was organised by the German government, an invitation she considers to be a career-defining moment. Here she highlighted issues surrounding inclusion, cybersecurity and policy and regulations. She said South Africa has the leading number of registered domain names in Africa and being given the opportunity to form part of the ICANN Domain Name Abuse strategy and policy advisory panel was “pleasing beyond my expectations and imagination”.

With qualifications in forensic law, digital forensics and policing science, she’s well equipped for the task.

Mokoena says her success alone is not enough: she would like women to be able to break the glass ceiling and claim more leadership roles in the male-dominated tech industry.

She has judged one of the country’s biggest annual hackathons three times in a row. Cultivating business intelligence talent through innovation and emerging technologies is an unbelievable achievement. But she says that even though being honoured with industry-led accolades feels like good progress, “not enough women are given the space to make waves”.

Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha |
Siwela Jeffrey Baloyi, 31

Siwela Jeffrey Baloyi, 31

Science researcher

Science researcher Jeffrey Baloyi says it’s his moral obligation to find innovative solutions that aid South Africa and the world in reducing poverty, inequality and unemployment. Growing up in a village where there wasn’t much in terms of inspiration, he never imagined that his work could play such an important role in improving the quality of life for the people around him. He wants to help eliminate fuel emissions and make sure that all South Africans have access to safe and clean water through his research.

Baloyi admits he hasn’t always been this determined; the road to obtaining his master’s degree came with some hesitation that led to him dropping out. But that only lasted three months and he returned before anyone noticed.

“One of my proudest moments was dedicating my PhD thesis to my late mother, who never went to school,” he says.

It’s in times like those when he remembers that victory is always nearby. He’s at a place where he is comfortable with his journey now, even bagging an award that brought him international recognition for outstanding achievement in technical research. And the cherry on top was being able to inspire people from his village with his success story in an interview on Munghana Lonene FM.

South Africa is moving towards generating and storing zero-emission fuel such as hydrogen, which can ultimately lead to enormous environmental and social benefits and encourage better international economic competitiveness, as per Baloyi’s vision.

Jabulile Dlamini-Qwesha |
Mondli Magagula, 30

Mondli Magagula, 30

Principal geologist and geotechnical engineer
Exxaro Resources

Part of a new generation of black professionals in the mining industry, Mondli Magagula is the principal geologist and geotechnical engineer for Exxaro Resources, one of South Africa’s largest black-empowered resource companies, and the youngest head of department in its history.

Magagula, who has a Bachelor of Civil Engineering from the University of Pretoria and a master’s in civil engineering from Stellenbosch University, prides himself on ensuring things are done as efficiently as possible, regardless of the challenges. Coming from his earlier career in consulting, where small budgets could make or break a project, he has been working to improve efficiency in the mining industry. His goal is to do things more effectively to “save costs and not be afraid to implement new technologies to streamline processes”.

Magagula emphasises the importance of learning, and how the most complex problems he has faced recently are solved using knowledge built in his first years of employment.

The niche field of geotechnical engineering does not have many black professionals and Magagula believes it’s because people are not aware of this field. He only learned about it in his third year of university. One of his long-term goals is to inform young black people about the industry, and inspire them to take up a career in a sector that has historically been neglectful in offering roles to them.

Scott Dodds |
Thapelo Nthite, 24

Thapelo Nthite, 24

Chief executive and co-founder
Botlhale AI

“Only 18% of the South African population speaks English at home. It is clear that English is the primary language of instruction and trade, not of understanding! The issue is that almost all digital services are offered in English, making them inaccessible to the majority of the country.”

The way Thapelo Nthite describes the differences between spoken and understood language, and structural, transactional vernacular, makes it feel a tad bit churlish to describe Botlhale Artificial Intelligence as filling a gap in the market.

Botlhale is an Artificial Intelligence company that aims to increase the application of AI systems in South Africa, and the motivation driving their young co-founder and chief executive is simple: to eliminate language as a barrier to entry for basic digital services.

Nthite points out, “Although there has been a lot of research done in human language technology systems for South African languages, there is still a lack of practical implementation of these systems. We are still far behind in this space, which means that people who speak South African languages are missing out on new technologies that could aid and simplify their lives.”

“Through my research and work at Botlhale I want to see people interact with service providers through digital platforms in languages they understand and trust using text and speech.”

Combining his Babelian endeavours with his studies is impressive enough, but Nthite has no shortage of motivation, wanting to enhance African representation and considerations into the global Artificial Intelligence space. “You must strive to have the courage to be vulnerable in a world where everyone wants to appear strong, confident and as if they know what they’re doing. That vulnerable feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone is the birthplace of innovation.“

Max Dylan Lazarus |