2015 Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards – Professor Xolela Mangcu and Professor Brenda Wingfield

The Trustees of the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust are pleased to announce the recipients of the prestigious Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards for 2015: Professor Xolela Mangcu of the University of Cape Town and Professor Brenda Wingfield of the University of Pretoria

The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Awards were initiated in 2001 to commemorate the Trust’s founder and all he stood for, especially his efforts to support human and intellectual development, advance scholarship and encourage innovative ideas. The Trust has a long tradition of investing in education and many beneficiaries have gone on to make important contributions to South African public life. The Fellowships build on this tradition and, with a monetary value of R1,5 million, rank as the Trust’s premier annual awards. These are special investments to encourage excellence in scholarship in all disciplines and in all its forms and serve to acknowledge cutting-edge, internationally significant work that has particular application to the advancement of knowledge, teaching, research and development in South Africa.

Dr Xolela Mangcu is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cape Town and has held fellowships at the prestigious Brookings Institution, the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and the Hutchins Center for African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is a leading columnist and political commentator and has published nine books, including Biko: A Biography, which won a UCT book award.

Xolela Mangcu was born to a family of educators in Ginsberg Township in King William’s Town (also the hometown of Steve Biko, his childhood political inspiration) and studied at local schools before enrolling at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1984 under a quota system for then designated white universities. He soon became a prominent member of the Black Consciousness student movement. After completing a degree in law and sociology, Mangcu went on to obtain a Master’s in Development Planning from Wits in 1988 and soon after, was admitted as a fellow in the Special Program in Urban and Regional Studies at MIT and completed his Ph.D in City and Regional Planning at Cornell University in 1997. Other fellowships followed – at the Rockefeller Foundation and at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government – and he returned to South Africa in 1999, launching the Steve Biko Foundation in 2000 in partnership with the Biko family and local youth. From 2006 to 2011 he divided his time between Wits and the University of Johannesburg and joined UCT in 2012.

Prof Mangcu will use the Harry Oppenheimer Award to write a new and highly contextualised biography of Nelson Mandela. One of the qualities Mangcu greatly admired in Mandela was that he was embraced by the great man even though he was essentially his critic. The idea of someone being Mandela’s critic was jarring in a world where he has been treated as a god-like figure and Mangcu believes that as a result of this hero-worship, many of Mandela’s biographers have abstracted him from the political debates and controversies that have animated the Black world since the earliest encounters with colonialism. The result is an abstracted morality tale instead of an engagement with Mandela as a contested figure both within the ANC and by various political movements outside it – from the All Africa Convention to the New Unity Movement, the Pan Africanist Congress and the Black Consciousness movement.

Mangcu thus intends to address broader questions of history and to dwell on the activities of organisations such as the South African Native Association (Imbumba) in Tembuland, the political and electoral campaigns for African representation in the Cape parliament, the rise of the African Christian church, the political and intellectual writings of African intellectuals such as Tiyo Soga, Walter Rubusana, D.D.T. Jabavu, John Tengo Jabavu, David Malasi, Richard Kawa, Meshack and James Pelem and many others.

Writing the new book will involve conducting empirical research in South Africa and spending time at Harvard to write-up the findings and to engage with leading scholars. Mangcu has deliberately titled the work Paradoxical Mandela: Romantic Hero, Tragic Hero, to highlight the difference between the predominantly Romantic representation of Nelson Mandela as the individual hero of the liberation struggle and the Classic idea of tragedy as communal action. While liberal, Romantic tragedy focuses on what happens to the hero, Classic Tragedy focuses on what happens through the hero, to borrow a formulation from Raymond Williams. Thus, in Classic Greek Tragedy, tragic action continues even after the hero has died or stepped off the state. The action continues through the chorus, the audience’s response to the tragedy and the energies that are released in the action. The hero, the chorus and the audience keep returning to the scene despite its dangers, driven by the desire to give to the world what Steve Biko called “a more human face”.  This is another way to describe tragic hope as the spur for human action. This is a profound insight for present-day South Africa and we can all look forward to the completion of this important task.


Dr Brenda Wingfield is a Professor in Genetics at the University of Pretoria, holds the SARChI Chair in Fungal Genomics and is internationally recognised as a world leader in her field. She serves in leadership roles in both national and international structures as Vice-President of the Academy of Science of South Africa, convener of the NRF’s rating specialist committee for Microbiology and Plant Pathology, Secretary General of the International Society of Plant Pathology, past Chair of the National Science and Technology Forum and as a project leader in the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Tree Health Biotechnology.

Brenda Wingfield was born in Zambia, completed her schooling in Zimbabwe and calls South Africa her home. She obtained her B.Sc and B.Sc Hons degrees at the Universities of Natal and Cape Town, a Master’s in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and the Ph.D at the University of Stellenbosch. Wingfield and her husband Mike moved to the University of Pretoria in the late 1990s and, along with other academics, established the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute (FABI).

Wingfield’s contributions to science have been recognised by others over the years: the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry (2007), the DST ‘Distinguished Women in Science Award’ (2008), the African Union ‘Women in Science (Southern Region) Award’ (2009) and the NSTF BHP Billiton ‘Outstanding Contribution to SET Research Capacity Building’ (2014). She received an A-rating from the NRF in 2013 and was awarded the Southern African Society for Plant Pathology’s Christiaan Hendrik Persoon Medal for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Plant Pathology’ in 2015.

Professor Wingfield’s research over the past twenty years has focused on the global movement and evolution of fungal pathogens, particularly those which cause tree disease. She was instrumental in developing the first DNA based phylogenes for a number of important tree pathogens, and molecular tools to study the population diversity, origins and movements of many tree pathogens around the world. She also sequenced the first fungal genome in Africa.

Her project aims at achieving a better understanding and characterization of the Mating type locus in a group of fungi known as Ascomycetes (the vast majority of tree pathogens are fungal and belong to this group) as this is important for the management of plant and tree pathogens. Genes are central to sexual reproduction in fungi as elsewhere, and recombination between mating genomes is one of the driving forces in their evolution and genetic change. There is an ‘arms race’ between pathogens and their hosts and the capacity of a pathogen to adapt and change in response to the defences of its host defines the ability of the pathogen to survive. The international community of mycologists has embarked on ‘the 1000 fungal genomes project’ and Professor Wingfield with her collaborators and graduate and post-doctoral students at the University of Pretoria are enthusiastic members of this initiative. The Harry Oppenheimer Fellowship Award will make this project possible on an ambitious scale.