Prof Loyiso G Nongxa is currently Professor Emeritus at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). He retired as ad hominem Professor of Mathematics at WITS in 2018 after 18 years at the university, where he served on the Senior Executive Team from 2000 until 2013 –from 2000 until 2002 as Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, and from 2003 until 2013 as Vice-Chancellor and Principal.
Prior to his duties in university management, Prof Nongxa’s research interests were in Group Theory. Lately his academic interests have been in the mathematical foundations of Data Science and Machine Learning. He currently works on various themes around the history of South African mathematical sciences research with Dr Eder Kikianty from University of Pretoria,. Broadly the main question is how the current research specialties for example in Relativity and Cosmology, Graph Theory, Numerical Analysis, Topology, etc have evolved over time. There are also issues like the intellectual contributions of South African women and first Black PhDs in mathematics and mathematical sciences research in South Africa during the Union Years (1910 to 1961).’
His current interest in the history of mathematical developments in South Africa ‘necessitates talking with and learning from historians about telling that story and conveying one’s findings to a wider audience and how to frame the communication.’ Among others, in a NITheCS presentation earlier this year, Prof Nongxa speculated on how the research landscape in South Africa might look like in 20 years’ time ‘through the lens of the profile of early career mathematical scientists, their research interests as well as areas of research concentration on the current landscape.’
A notable leader
Prof Nongxa attended Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship and obtained his PhD in Mathematics in 1982. Prior to that he studied at the University of Fort Hare where he completed BSc (Honours) degrees in Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, and an MSc in Mathematics. He taught at the National University of Lesotho, the former University of Natal in Durban, UWC and WITS.
He is undoubtedly one of the most highly-regarded academics in his field in South Africa and beyond its borders. He became one of the two vice-presidents of the International Mathematical Union (IMU) in 2018, and from 2019 to 2022 he served as liaison between the IMU and UNESCO, and the International Science Council. He also served as the Chairperson of the Board of the National Research Foundation in South Africa from 2014 to 2018 and Administrator of the University of Fort Hare from April 2019 to April 2020. For the past few years he has been a champion of a National Graduate Academy for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, with a focus on the development of the next generation of mathematicians and statisticians in South Africa.
Looking back, Prof Nongxa says among the influencers who helped to steer him in the direction of becoming a mathematician was ‘my undergraduate mathematics lecturer, Professor Tom Van Dyk. I studied at the University of Fort Hare in the 1970s, and he remarked in passing that no one had ever pursued postgraduate studies in mathematics at the University of Fort Hare. I have since discovered that there were two Black South Africans who taught mathematics at Fort Hare in the 1950s and completed postgraduate studies with UNISA. Both left South Africa and went into exile. One, Dr Joseph Mokoena was the first Black South African to complete a PhD in Mathematics in 1958 and (awarded by WITS).’
Another reason for becoming a mathematician instead of focusing on chemistry – which had been an early preference – has been the fact that Prof Nongxa is colour blind. Among others during a holiday job at an analytical laboratory in Cape Town, he struggled to perform the analytical method that relies heavily on noticing colour changes between fluids. It was one of the factors that made him choose to work on maths problems, which he particularly enjoyed. The result produced an eminent local mathematician!
‘Recognise and embrace the responsibility’
The thoughts of a leader on being a scientist could be inspirational to others. Prof Nongxa says he enjoys ‘the process of “discovery” – which could either be through research or reading about new developments – in diverse fields, and not necessarily in the mathematical sciences.’
Looking towards the future, he considers what could be done in order for young South African mathematicians to be supported and flourish in their work: ‘I think facilitating the creation of academic and research communities that young SA mathematical scientists are part of would help them realise their potential. Our system is unnecessarily ‘competitive’ – competition between universities, competition between disciplines and competition within disciplines. This leads to early career academics experiencing a sense of isolation which hampers their intellectual development. These communities could be local and/or international. International exposure makes a big difference in one’s academic career – when one examines researchers rated either A or B in the mathematical sciences, one notices that either they are foreign-trained or have had extended international experience.’
He adds that he often reminds young scientists that ‘the future of the mathematical sciences in South Africa rests on their shoulders. They are the future mathematical sciences professors, future leading researchers, future supervisors of the next generation of postgraduate students, etc. They need to recognise and embrace that responsibility.’
Prof Nongxa also repeats a wisdom he has stated in the past: ‘These days the buzz word is the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). But we cannot have that if we do not pay attention to the sciences, and in particular the mathematical sciences underpinning 21st century innovations and developments.’