In the heady period following Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island, Makgoba had a chance to meet the nation’s hero in person. “He said to me,” recalls Makgoba, “‘I think you must come back home’. ”When the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) offered him the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor in 1993, he did just that.
For the 22 years that followed his return to South Africa, Makgoba occupied positions of leadership in higher education. First at Wits, then at the Medical Research Council (MRC), and finally at the University of Natal (which later became the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN)). He says the best part of being a Vice-Chancellor (at UKZN) was signing graduation certificates. “This wasn’t in my job description, but it was the most fulfilling and rewarding, because signing a certificate of a student is an enduring thing. It’s an honour.”
Once, while at a New Year’s Eve party at the Livingstone Hotel on the Zambezi, an old English couple bought him a bottle of champagne. When he asked why, they had said, “Because you hang in our house in England. You signed that certificate and graduated our daughter,” he remembers gleefully.
Behind the man who had beaten the odds to rise to greatness, lies courage, passion and a drive to make a difference in the lives of ordinary South Africans, as demonstrated by his tireless efforts against the scourge of HIV and AIDS.
While at the MRC, Makgoba had pioneered the South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI), which continues to fund South African research into an HIV vaccine. “It’s a big project and a necessary project,” says Makgoba.
“As a developing or middle-income country, you want to have the capacity and the flexibility to adapt research to deal with the issue at hand.”
SAAVI has produced several prominent female researchers such as Professor Lynn Morris (National Institute for Communicable Diseases), and Professors Anna-Lise and Carolyn Williamson at the University of Cape Town.
Makgoba was also the founding Chair of the UNAIDS/WHO African Aids Vaccine Programme during his time at the MRC. But perhaps his greatest achievement in this arena was during the era of AIDS denialism, synonymous with President Thabo Mbeki’s leadership during the early 2000s.
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the South African government took the official stance that HIV does not cause AIDS. Makgoba took a very vocal and public stand against this disastrous policy, which, some researchers estimated, cost over 350 000 lives.
“I’ve never felt that I was more needed to save the lives and dignity of people than during that period of AIDS denial,” he says. A comment by Justice Edwin Cameron on Makgoba’s role in fighting AIDS denialism deserves repeating in its entirety. “The clarion voice of truth speaking amidst the siren clamour of unscientific waywardness earned Makgoba few friends in the political establishment. But it enhanced his standing as a medical scientist faithful to his discipline and to canons of scientific enquiry. In taking this stand, Makgoba occupied a unique position in South African public life.
His professional eminence in the field of immunology, his profile as a public intellectual, and his passion for truth combined to an extraordinary degree at a moment in which a nation searched for answers.”
And as if this wasn’t enough to secure his place as champion in the fight against HIV/AIDS, his contributions to South African research in the field surely does. Using relationships formed while abroad, Makgoba was instrumental in securing major international funding to set up the Africa Centre and the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV (K-RITH), funded by the Wellcome Trust and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, respectively.
Combined with the CAPRISA initiative funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), all located in an area of high HIV/AIDS prevalence, these institutions represent possibly the largest coordinated HIV research effort in the world. Makgoba remains humble about the success: “There were challenges in terms of the health of the country that related to what I would call my passion, and of course when you do these things that require big money, people have to trust you. I enjoyed the trust of my colleagues that I had worked with abroad, and I used that to the advantage of the university.”
If there’s one other thing that Makgoba will forever be remembered for, it’s his passion for transformation in higher education in South Africa. “Since my arrival,” he says, “part of my success story has been transformation of research institutes and higher education institutes; it defines who I am.” In 2013, he received the Presidential Order of Mapungubwe in recognition of his herculean efforts at institutional transformation, and, largely thanks to him, UKZN is now the most transformed institution in South Africa.
Despite these successes, Makgoba believes South African research still has a long way to go to reach its potential. “I want to see South African research transformed in a very meaningful and substantial way, such that we give all those with potential the opportunity to succeed. Their success is our success as a nation.”
Though he recently retired as Vice-Chancellor of UKZN, he continues to push the transformation agenda as Chair of the Transformation Oversight Committee of Public Universities. He is also the Deputy Chair of the second National Planning Commission, having served on the first one since 2010 under then-Minister Trevor Manuel. He has also recently been appointed the first Health Ombudsman for South Africa.
And so, while he is taking a step back from the very public role that he has played in the country’s health research and in higher education in general, Professor William Malegapuru Makgoba will be remembered as a leader in thought and in action; a man of courage, integrity and ironclad resolve to do the right thing. Now retired to his childhood home of Sekhukhune, this great South African mind will continue to improve South Africa for years to come through his thoughts, his words, and most importantly, his deeds.