IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at ten7.com
We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it to here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells the life stories from around the world. Let's listen.
Our story today is about Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, a physicist and Vice Chancellor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He’s an old friend and someone who is committed to using science and education to create a better future for our world.
IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION, would you please introduce yourself.
ZEBLON VILAKAZI: Hello Ivan. It’s been so great to get to talk to you and engage in this conversation. I am Zebulon Vilakazi, people know me as Zeb. I'm currently the President, Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, also known as Wits.
So, I'll be using the short form for both my name and also where I work.
IVAN: Zeb, I'm just so excited to be talking to you. And thank you for joining us on the show here. For our listeners, Zeb and I were at Wits in the late 90s together in the physics department there. And that's how I know Zeb, and Zeb as you said, is the Vice Chancellor at the University now, which is amazing. And I want to ask you Zeb, where were you born? Where did you grow up? What did your family look like when you were first brought into this world?
ZEB: I suppose when I was first brought to this world, I didn't recognize them. because I was still trying to find my place in this crazy world. And at the time when I was born, I'm slightly older than you because I think at the time when you were finishing your undergraduate degree, I already had a PhD, I was already starting up my academic career. I just finished my postdoc at CERN.
Just a bit about myself. I grew up on the east side of Johannesburg, the rust belt part. If you think of New York, and you think of Jersey, I'm from the Jersey part of Johannesburg, the East Rand. It's a huge industrial area.
There's a township there where I was born in a town called Germiston, the township is called Katlehong and that was in late 1969. A totally different country, than the one that I met you in 1999. For those that know a bit about history, I will get there. So, one of a rather large family, they were like eight kids, not so rich, but relatively comfortable with teachers. So there was a high premium on education, because my father and mother instilled in us that without education, there's no inheritance we have except for basically using the best that we have of the little education that would give us and I think those are the values that I carried from since I was born.
IVAN: I love how you describe the East Rand as the Jersey of New York. I'd never actually thought about that, but it’s absolutely a great analogy to those who are trying to understand the geography of the city of Johannesburg, and then Katlehong and Germiston in the eastern part of that metropolis.
ZEB: The more refined people in Johannesburg live in the suburbs, north of Johannesburg, right. And to the south side of Joburg, which is quite rough, I know. And the eastern side is largely working class, all the people who work in the steel mills, heavy industry that used to support the mining industry of South Africa. That’s how Johannesburg was, established as a city 120 years ago as a mining town, so therefore there are peripheral industrial towns that were established along the outskirts of Johannesburg, and mine was one of them. So, my parents left the rural parts of South Africa and grandparents to work in the mines and in local industries. So, it's a rough neighborhood. Yeah.
IVAN: And so, you went to school in Katlehong? What did your primary school education look like?
ZEB: At the time all schools in the period of segregation, apartheid. And there were very few mixed schools. I mean, I grew up in the 60s and early 70s, to even the mid 1980s when I finished my high school, I was in an all black school, because very few schools, except for the missionary ones, were integrated. You had all these missionary Anglican schools or Catholic schools that were built by the nuns, so they were able to bypass the system and build semi-integrated schools. Most of my friends, who actually got the opportunity to study in the schools go to these nuns, mostly from either Germany or Italy, or Ireland, and fathers who in a way, tried to bypass the system and send talented kids to these mission schools, largely monastic schools, mission schools for boys and girls, and so on and so forth.
IVAN: It's interesting, that they tried to bypass the system by using religion. And by using this excuse. Did you ever have friends that went to those schools? Or was the educational experience very different than what you were experiencing?
ZEB: Yes, one of my sisters actually went to those schools somewhere in the Natal Midlands – one of the provinces to our American friends – in South Africa with a very beautiful, mountainous area where they've got some of these prestigious schools. So my sister actually went to one of these Catholic seminaries, mission schools. And the experience was different. She complained about these very strict nuns that were just so horrible, the nuns could be quite strict. And she was a teenager at the time so clearly, she wanted to enjoy teenage life, but the strict Austrian nuns can be quite strict. Yeah. So they never took any nonsense from teenagers. So she was very unhappy. But she got a good education.
And I've got many friends, who obviously, it’s very interesting actually, I've got some of my mates, we actually went to mixed schools as well, the famous ones would be Hilton, Michaelhouse, to my American friends, Michaelhouse and Hilton would be the Winchester and Eton of South Africa. They were modeled along the old British system of schools for young men who will be leaders. Most of the guys went there, obviously, to do what is expected. Be a captain of a rugby team, chess team, rowing team, and then go to Oxford and do an interesting degree, and find yourself as a top executive in the mining companies.
IVAN: It says on your Wikipedia page that you speak numerous languages. Tell me about the languages that you grew up speaking first in Katlehong, and then how that evolved through your education. And why did you pick up so many languages?
ZEB: I don't know who the editors of Wikipedia are, it does tend to exaggerate. I, obviously, where I grew up, Ivan, was a cosmopolitan environment. Cosmopolitan not in terms of race and everything but cosmopolitan in terms of all the various African ethnic groups, right. I'm a native Zulu speaker and I had neighbors who spoke other kinds of vernaculars, Sotho, Venda, and so on, and so forth. So, at a very young age, I was exposed to a multiplicity of native languages spoken in South Africa. And obviously, we had to learn English as a first language and Afrikaans as well, which I'm sure you did as well.
IVAN: Yes, that was required for me as well.
ZEB: I was basically dropped in Darmstadt and I worked in Heidelberg, with my co-supervisor was there. And there'd be a group of Germans talking, and you by osmosis, you start connecting the dots and with friends like Phil Ferrer, who's a good friend, who's an Austrian, and him and I after drinking one or two beers, we’d say let’s speak German. So, I was very good at German after a beer, I don't know why that happened. And I developed a kind of a fondness for languages.
And obviously, what is correct, is that I went to Geneva, Switzerland, as a PhD student and subsequently as a post-doc. And here’s an interesting story. I remember when the experiment was about to start, I was in charge of one of the detectors called the Electromagnetic Calorimeter. And it was December and all the senior researchers that either were going skiing or doing other things. And I was left as a young senior PhD or postdoc student, junior students, masters from Sweden and Holland, and a technician. And they said, “You are the most senior person here, we need to put this data together, and you've got a few technicians.”
And the technicians in France can’t speak English, that was in the late 1990s. And I had to get this experiment to go, this guy Fabrice stood between my success or survival, rather. And so what I did then is I realized that the guy just gave me the shrug, when I say “Parlais Anglais?”, he just basically gave me the typical French shrug and said “Je ne parle pas Anglais,” Houston we’ve got a problem, but I can solve the problem. I gotta do a deep immersion, I started listening to only French radio, watch French TV for two, three weeks of deep immersion just to get your neural auditory pathways sorted out, read French newspapers, spoke to French people. They thought I was an idiot. And slowly, we started working together and talking to him, helping me basically having a dictionary.
There was no Wikipedia then you had to get a manual dictionary and page through and say what does this word mean and write it down. And then the only way to learn the language, I always tell people who are learning, is to immerse yourself. Soon after that, then you can start learning proper syntax, because you can hear how you articulate yourself and then subsequently, you develop the vocabulary. And I think, to an extent, that by the time I came back to South Africa, I was reasonably competent in French.
IVAN: I love hearing how you help people learn languages. And I think you're right. You have to immerse yourself and do something completely 100% of the time, very deeply, to be able to understand something and then be able to do the thing and maybe even explain it and teach it.
When I was registering for my courses at Wits, I picked physics by mistake. Not because I had this grand idea, I was going to be a physicist in life, but because physics was really interesting to me. And I'd heard someone say that physics was the study of the universe and everything in it. And that really appealed to me. I remember being in Senate House, and I don't know if it's still called Senate House or not, but I was registering at Senate House, and I saw physics major on the list, and I just checked it. And then the lady said, “Oh, you're doing major in physics, you also need to select a major in mathematics, because that's required.” And I thought, Oh, cool. I like math. I'll do that as well. And I'm wondering what the process was for you. How did you end up studying physics? Why did you choose it? Did it choose you? What did that whole process look like?
ZEB: I did engineering, and mechanical engineering was my kind of like, I was doing MechEng for a week or two and I asked the lecturer and asked him whether do they offer special relativity because I was fascinated by Einstein, you know, after Matric modern physics. Matric is our school, grade 12. And the guy said, “No, in engineering, you make things work,” you had to learn about drawings, and I'm clumsy. You know, those engineering drawings. I really started getting very depressed. And when I asked if I could transfer, and yes, I transferred in the second week of my program. It is serendipity, right? And you go to university or college without doing exactly what you want. And I never wanted to be a physicist in any case, but I had to get a job and just enjoy being a physicist and look for a job. I went to see John Carter, who was a lecturer in the school, in the Department of Physics.
IVAN: Oh, yes. John Carter, I forgot about him. He was so great. So inspirational.
ZEB: He is now retired. And to this day, actually, we are still friends. He’s now retired. And, okay, here's a very interesting story. It was 1991 August and when you’re not sure what you're doing or tutoring at a local school just to find myself in this place. And I saw one pretty girl sitting on the stairs of the physics department, the stairs where people used to sit. So my mate asked, “that’s a nice girl there. What’s she doing?” And she said, “Oh, go talk to her.” And I went and asked her “are you doing physics?” She said, “no.” She said she was, “doing pharmacy.” I said, “but what are waiting for?” She said, “I’m waiting for Dr. Carter, the tutor.” And she was collecting some scripts from Dr. Carter. And I said, “who is Dr. Carter?” She said, “no, he’s a lecturer here.” And I said, “oh”. I went and saw John Carter on a Friday. The aim was not to see John Carter, for him to be my supervisor.
And then the rest is history. Sir John Carter became my master supervisor, I had a fantastic time with him. And then subsequently, I joined a different group for my PhD. So, it just shows how the world works. When you say that it's One in a Billion, it's a thermodynamic process that you just become one of these billiard balls, putative small atoms, like diffusion move about bouncing, finding its path. And then you have your local is clearly defined from day one. You just meander about bouncing from one in a random walkway, if you remember that very well, bouncing from one thing to, and then you'll find your path being shifted along that direction. So I think this One in a Billion talks about us just finding our ways in this large world.
IVAN: Thank you for bringing that up. One of the questions I always ask is, how does it make you feel to be one of eight billion and to know that there's this meandering path that we're all just trying to find our local ecosystem, our local community?
ZEB: This was brought to the fore last week. You remember that the James Webb telescope, an incredible miracle of technological wonder.
ZEB: Amazing. Located there, and then it unfurled and gave us a glimpse of the universe almost in real time. Now, that thing showed us information that comes out of the alien universe, right. Now think about it Ivan. What it showed is only a speck of dust in the air, because they are saying Brian Cox was a famous broadcaster or popularizer of science. He said, “If you look at that picture, that slice taken by James Webb, which obviously, to us, is just nothing. And it shows billions and billions of galaxies, but it's nothing but only a grain of sand at a distance of about a yard away, basically, you are at arm's length.” And that's how far we saw of the galaxy. Imagine this galaxy is made of hundreds and billions of stars, and there are billions of galaxies, and just a snapshot, that tiny keyhole into the universe. Now you think of this planet, being one of many in the solar system let alone in this galaxy, and this galaxy is one of billions of others, and you're only one in 8 billion of individuals, doesn't it make you feel small? In the entire cosmos!
IVAN: So small. I love the way you described it as a keyhole. Because you see these pictures from James Webb and you think Oh my gosh, it's so vast, it's so huge. We can see the early universe 12 billion years ago, and that little dot, and now it's even a higher resolution. But you have to remind yourself, Oh, no, this is just a keyhole, there's even more than that, more than what we're looking at.
ZEB: Absolutely. And the beauty of it in this one in eight billion story is that, and today apparently the day that we transitioned into a billion, of course still counting is that it’s also what it talks about as well, in this world, with all the conflicts taking place, and all the challenges the world faces, the world over and the climate crisis. It gives me hope, as a natural optimist, and positivist that human beings can do amazing things. Look at the amount of ingenuity that this thing had so many points of failure. You're an engineer, you should know better, that it was delayed and became very expensive. It's not about the physics, I'm not talking about the physics or the astronomy of it, I'm talking about the genuine human effort that it took to actually get this thing at high cost, what $10 billion? That could have failed, you could have had mirrors not adjusting, and you can't fix them, unlike the Large Hadron Collider. And it worked in an extremely faultless way.
It’s a cause for human beings through the global collaboration involved in ESA, in Europe, NASA and other Australian agencies and the world in totality. Of course, NASA was very much involved in it. But it just talks about how or what you can do as a human species in these crazy times, if we work together and solve big problems. You can solve climate issues as well, if you were to focus on one big idea, as we go beyond eight billion people.
IVAN: I love that you talked about that. It reminds me and it reminds our listeners to be optimistic and to be hopeful. Because it's not just a picture that came back from the James Webb telescope. That picture represents the collaboration of many humans, of different backgrounds across the planet, all with the same understanding of the scientific method, and all with the same goal, to be able to come together and create that thing. It's not just a picture. It's a representation of everything that we did as humanity. And I love the idea that yes, it's possible we can do this. Let's focus our efforts on the climate crisis. Let's focus our efforts on being kind to one another as humans. We're all part of the same giant planet and giant experiment. And it's nice to hear you talk about it in such optimistic terms. I think we need more of that in the world.
ZEB: And yet realistic of the problems and challenges the world faces, identity divisions that actually are artificial. But let me give an example. I spoke to one colleague in England. I was in the UK last week.
IVAN: Oh! I’m an Old Edwardian. I went to KEPS. So they are rivals.
ZEB: Oh, the other school, right? Yes.
ZEB: Okay. You’re an old KEPS boy. Yeah. Anyway, he’s 82 now. He's got a two year old granddaughter and he says that because our tipping point is 2050. Really, to the point of this planet and essentially within our line of sight, we will still be alive, your kids will be alive. But he says his projection is his two year old daughter will be about his age at the end of the next century. So, 2102. So his view is, I want to look into my granddaughter's eyes and tell her “you will have a future in this planet.” Can you see how personal it is now? Here’s an 82 year old who's led a full life on planet Earth and thinking about a two year old granddaughter, that by the time his granddaughter is his age what kind of a planet would it be? And I think that it says it's a collective effort, you need to just work as a human being and to just tackle this big issue here. Just seeing this as an example, that these things do get personal, once you have that perspective of this, my granddaughter is not something abstract out there.
IVAN: Yeah, I appreciate that perspective. Will Steger, the famous polar explorer was on our podcast earlier this year. And he, as you may know, he's a huge environmentalist, has been sounding the alarm of climate change for many decades. His perspective was that it's changing. It's changed. Perhaps past the point of no return, already, and that we are going to still survive because as a humanity, we are adaptive. And we will be able to deal with what is coming down the pike. But his optimism was slightly different than yours. But still a great perspective yeah, I know this is changing. But I'm so confident that we're going to be able to adapt, because that's what we do as a humanity.
ZEB: The human race, we've always adapted, a natural fact of our evolution talking to the experts of evolution yeah. It’s a function of the changes in the big climate period. We came out of the late ice age, right? And then as the Ice Age receded, through climate change, we were able to adapt, we left Africa and then we adapted as we moved towards and populated the rest of the world, it was the climate that drove us. We’ll see what kind of adaptation instead of evolution, our technologies would have coped better. It is right. You can't just be depressed about it, then you become paralyzed. But once thinking about that, what kind of brakes can you put? Simple things you can do, electric cars and how can you instead of going to a shopping mall go for a walk or get onto a bicycle?
That's good for your health. And I find walking to be quite therapeutic. I just walk and think your problems through.
IVAN: Yeah, exactly. I want to talk a little bit about this recently elected Fellow of the Royal Society that happened to you. And you've gone through studying at Wits. You've lectured at UCT, that's the University of Cape Town. You've done postdoc studies at CERN in Geneva on Large Hadron Collider. You've been through various levels of leadership at the University of the Witwatersrand, and now you're elected to the Royal Society. Can you tell our listeners what exactly is the Royal Society? And what does that FRS mean after your name?
ZEB: The Royal Society would be the equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences in America. The Royal Society, being in the UK, was founded long even before America came about as a country. It was founded by a royal charter in 1660. It’s funny, this history, it is the oldest academic learned society in the world that is currently still in existence. And this happened in a particularly interesting time politically for the United Kingdom, because England or it was Great Britain at the time, that it was established on the 28th of November 1660. After the return from exile of King Charles II. Remember King Charles II was why the guy called Oliver Cromwell, General Cromwell, the one who tried the Republican idea in the UK. And Cromwell obviously did not succeed, because the British they're quite conservative, they like to keep things as they are. So, the king came back and then part of the mobilization that scientists like Robert Hooke did, and others, was to say, “Your Highness, why don't you establish a society under the patronage of His Majesty?” So that's how the society existed.
It’s independent of government. But it derives mandate, there are charters from Charles. And when I was being inducted there, I saw the mace, this mace that they have dates back to that period. Can you imagine when the Master of the Mace walks in, carrying a mace that is meant to be a representation of the presence of the King or Queen? You feel a sense of, quite frankly, 350 years of history. And then you sign on the same book, when you see some of the signatures, the signature of Sir Isaac Newton is there. Robert Hooke is there. Rutherford. Basically all your scientific heroes. It's an overwhelming moment.
And I think to me, it's scientifically quite interesting and also in terms of the curation and how the British are able to really master the art of pomp and ceremony. So the Queen's Jubilee is that particular curation of history and culture, which is important in the period where people tried to of course, not all history is perfect, but there are certain elements of history that actually tell us about how institutions can endure over this time, hundreds of years for the advancement of humanity.
Yes, the Royal Society had its own faults and they acknowledge it. That's only in the 1940s that they allowed women in. Of course, the famous winner is Dorothy Hodgkins, who later on, of course, won the Nobel Prize for the discovery after whom Hodgkin's lymphoma has been named. It was said that in the 1800s, the only person who actually could attend was the queen, Queen Victoria. And now obviously, 20% of all fellows are women. And the other part that was interesting that we were told about is that there were some cases where some of the women could write, either for their brothers or for their parents, but the brother or the father would be the one that would take the information.
IVAN: And get the credit.
ZEB: And then get the credit. There's been a lot of interesting things about that. So that wasn’t all of history, but I think it is, indeed, very overwhelming. I felt like an imposter that did not belong here. But they said only 56 out of 800 fellows get elected. And most of them no surprises would be drawn from Oxbridge, Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College. So, to be part of that very rarefied group of individuals is something for me, coming from South Africa, something that I don't take lightly.
IVAN: Congratulations Zeblon, all of the best for that. Such an honor to have that, to be able to sign your name in the same book that Isaac Newton signed his name in. What a privilege and what an achievement and all well deserved! Well done! Well done! I'm so proud to know you.
ZEB: Come on. Thank you.
IVAN: We still need to have a beer at some point.
ZEB: Absolutely, like the good old days. Yeah. But Ivan, thank you so much.
IVAN: What brings you joy these days? You’re an eternal optimist, and a positivist as you've described yourself, but it almost feels like anything makes you smile, anything will give you joy. But what are the things that you look to do that for you when you're maybe having a down time? What are those things?
ZEB: Family. Last week, just before I left to the UK, rather two weeks ago, I drove with my three girls and my wife. We drove to a place called the Waterberg, north of Johannesburg. At one of the game reserves there, we call it “going to the bush.” We just drove, the five of us in the car. And just being with my family gives me joy. While they're still young, enjoy them. Eight, nine and 17.
Spending time with them was just so beautiful. It was seeing how they view the world and just makes you appreciate life differently. And the responsibility you have of course as a parent, that's my first source of joy with being with my family. And I enjoy cooking. I'm a foodie. This is my new hobby, Sunday roast with a glass of very fine Stellenbosch and listening to Beethoven or Bach in the background, his music wafting through, because cooking just gets you into a zone. That’s just little things in life that make me happy. I like music, all forms, all genres. And just that Sunday when you just have your downtime you make your new Sunday roast, and you listen to beautiful music.
IVAN: Do you have a memorable mentor or supervisor or leader throughout your career that sticks out as someone that really taught you a nugget that you keep with yourself for all times?
ZEB: One was my mentor Dr. Tony Phillips from the UK. Dr. Carter, Professor Sellschop Friedel, and a mentor in Cape Town called John Clemens, who sadly passed on last year. In particular, the last two have been extremely influential in my life. And I think I owe everything to their guidance and mentorship and the opportunities they gave me.
IVAN: Mentors are so important in life. And thank you for listing those wonderful people. I feel like you've been a mentor to me as well in seeing you at UCT and also at Wits and being able to watch you evolve. It's just been so great to learn from your experiences and the way you've handled yourself. It's just so inspiring as well. So, thank you for doing that.
ZEB: Thank you. It was really such a great pleasure. I mean, when I met you guys gave me energy.
But I think that you just had so much energy. And I think as a youngster I was transitioning towards being a junior faculty member. I enjoyed the company, the energy that you brought. To me, we just connected as if we just met yesterday. So just because it was a special universe that you live in that just allowed me to connect with you so quickly Ivan.
IVAN: Thank you. It’s been awesome to talk to you. Oh thank you.
ZEB: I'm quite inspired. A great leader, you are. Because I've been following you now. I'm quite inspired. And of this program. I was expecting, you're a professional leader of a business, not an anchorman.
Absolutely first class. I really enjoyed it. Yeah.
IVAN: I want to thank you for being on the show. I think I have one final question. Is there something you're looking forward to in life that you haven't seen in your own lifetime that you hope you'll see. Whether it's big or small. Maybe something that you've thought about.
ZEB: My grandchildren grow. And the only thing I can do is to ensure that the world I can change the space around me I can change. I can't change the entire universe. I'm not the president of any country. But in a small way what can I do to make this world a better place? And I'm not saying biological grandchildren, but I mean the next generation. What world will they see? It could be your grandchildren? Anyone’s grandchildren, talking about our generation? I’d be satisfied on my last day, that I did my best to make this a better place in one small place when I can. Then I'm ready to sign off.
IVAN: You have already so much impact on your own local community and the university. Thank you for being on the show. Thank you for your time.
ZEB: Thank you my friend. I very much appreciate it. I look forward to seeing you sometime in the future and take care.
IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION… when we hear from Amy Berman, founder of the Mother Bear Project, which provides comfort and hope to children in emerging nations who are affected by HIV/AIDS.
AMY BERMAN: I thought about my two children and what brought them comfort when they went to sleep at night. And the image of the knit bears my mom had made for them came to mind. I was going to send knit bears.
I asked my mom for the pattern and to show me how it's done. I muddled through my first bear and then did something completely out of my character.
I began inviting friends, strangers, and anyone who was willing to come to my house, and I would teach them to knit, if they would knit a bear for me to send.
My hope was to someday send a hundred bears. But to date over 187,000 bears have been sent across Sub-Saharan Africa to children and regions highly affected by HIV and AIDS.
This is how Mother Bear Project, my accidental nonprofit organization, got started.
This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at 1of8b.com. Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!
This is episode 139 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on July 19, 2022 and first published on August 3, 2022. Audio length is 33 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.