Let SA hit high notes and emulate the example set by Prof Sathekge with the launch of NuMeRI

Professor Michael Sathekge, the head of the Nuclear Medicine Department at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. Picture: Sharon Seretlo

Professor Michael Sathekge, the head of the Nuclear Medicine Department at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. Picture: Sharon Seretlo

Published Jun 3, 2024


High-level, cutting-edge science in South Africa is finding its place in nuclear medicine. Probably had this technology been available in 1964, my mother’s life together with many others whose lives we lost could have been saved. This science is poised to open pathways that can change the course of the country and the continent of Africa.

States that have advanced rapidly and are developmental did so successfully by being brutally and unapologetically determined to march and hold hands in pursuit of resolving the science-policy interface.

While institutions that boasted this advancement have become a sorry shadow of their erstwhile selves in most cases, however, here at home there are those who have had the luck of responsible leadership.

They fought hard to stay the course against dwindling budgets and poverty of thought in this wicked space of science-policy interface.

I have had the benefit of serving on the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) and my close-range association has revealed that the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) enjoyed the rare luck of a beneficial maturity model in the science-politics interface. That has created the space for cutting-edge innovation in the institutions associated with the DSI.

Professor Michael Sathekge, the head of nuclear medicine at the University of Pretoria and the president and CEO of the Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure (NuMeRI), carries the hopes of humanity and of many people.

On May 21, while we were preparing to weave our hopes into politics, Sathekge and his team of experts were launching bigger hopes for South Africa as a destination for nuclear medicine, not only for South Africa, but for the whole world.

While there is a lot to cry about – including uncertainty and speculation about what the future of South Africa will look like with a coalition government at its helm – our scientists can bring certainty to human lives. There is evidence that nuclear medicine as a technology can help combat cancer.

What Sathekge and his team achieved against stingy budgets by the bureaucrats is a marvel and it goes to show that we as a country can actually scale heights higher than we imagined. The staff of Steve Biko Academic Hospital carries the hope of the South African Constitution.

I was so happy to see so many black and female competent professors of medicine. When you see that, one feels confident that the country can and should be in good hands and Madiba can sleep peacefully.

There was Madiba magic in Sathekge as he led a chant that reverberated in the lecture theatre as he launched NuMeRI.

You would not expect that from scientists, but Sathekge shows his larger-than-life side of intergenerational value. His two sons followed in his footsteps and are medical doctors, and his wife was there, for Sathekge cannot be whole without family.

Sathekge’s scientific indulgence is laced with a message of peace and hope, of building alliances and the deployment of science to liberate humanity from the burdens of bondage.

Sathekge brings people together. The higher education institutions collaborated with the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, North-West University, Stellenbosch University, Wits University, the government of Gauteng, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, distinguished South African scholars in Dr Lehlohonolo Majake and Dr Kgomotso Mathabe, vendors and many others who had the foresight to support their colleague, Sathekge, through this important six-year journey.

Sathekge’s dream of an Africa that is scientific has borne fruit and global leaders are attracted to it. Knowledge acts successfully in humility and respect for others.

As South Africa enters these uncharted waters that are laced with a history of terminal disease of corruption, may we take a leaf from him that if a complex physiological medical condition of cancer can be cured, it is possible that the cancer of corruption that affects South Africa can be too.

We need to shine a light on corruption and get the right experts and the willpower of leadership to treat it. When we do so, we can join Sathekge not only in deep meditative chant, but in a chorus.

Sathekge ended his lecture with a song, “Love is feeling”.

Let’s share that sentiment. Let the rapturous chorus at the NuMeRI Centre spread throughout South Africa and Africa so we can follow its example and hit the high notes.

(For the proceedings of the launch of NuMeRI go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-NoTn6bQsSw)


Dr Pali Lehohla is a Professor of Practice at the University of Johannesburg, a Research Associate at Oxford University, a board member of Institute for Economic Justice at Wits and a distinguished Alumni of the University of Ghana. He is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former President of the African Symposium for Statistical Development.