Despite many obstacles in his path, Dr Tongai Maponga of the Division of Medical Virology at Stellenbosch University (SU) has always believed in purposefully looking ahead.

His career will now get a solid boost after he was selected to participate in the national “Future Professors Programme (FPP)”.

The FPP is a national capacity-building programme launched by the Department of Higher Education and Training at the beginning of last year to help researchers/lecturers who show promise early in their careers on the path to deputy and full professorships.

The programme will enable him to have a better structured career growth pathway, says an excited Maponga (37), who has been included in the second FPP group. “The Department and the university will benefit because I can stay in academia and advance in my scholarly career, which will lead to increased outputs. My participation also helps with the transformation efforts to have more advanced scholars of colour and those from previously disadvantaged communities.”

He believes it will help him to develop into an independent, competent and confident academic who will not only do research for the sake of publishing papers but will also provide solutions to some of the infectious disease challenges facing South Africa and Africa as a whole. Maponga also envisages established working collaborations with academics in Africa and elsewhere.

His research interest is mainly in viral hepatitis, although he is also involved in research on mother-to-child transmission of the cytomegalovirus and, more recently, SARS-CoV-2, which is responsible for the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Maponga grew up in a low-income family in Zimbabwe. Like other young people in the same boat, he was able to study at a public university thanks to a comprehensive taxpayer-supported grant. In his third year, however, he was among the first group of Zimbabwean students to lose these benefits. “It made my life quite difficult, but thanks to the support and sacrifice of my parents and siblings, I was able to complete my four-year honours degree in medical laboratory sciences at the University of Zimbabwe,” he says.

He worked for a clinical diagnostic laboratory and later at the African Institute of Biomedical Science and Technology, where he was introduced to research.

However, due to the economic challenges in Zimbabwe, he joined the National Referral Laboratory in Mbabane, Swaziland, a year after completing his studies. He led a project that led to the establishment of in-country capacity for testing of HIV infection in infants – a crucial test that up to that point could only be done in South Africa. “This ranks as one of my proudest achievements.”

South Africa has academic opportunities that one will not find elsewhere in Africa, he says of his decision to continue his postgraduate studies here.

Maponga completed both his master’s and doctoral degrees at the Division of Medical Virology at SU’s Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences and was a postdoctoral fellow and later a research fellow before being appointed as a lecturer.

As for his academic journey so far, he speaks only with the greatest praise and gratitude of Profs Monique Andersson, Wolfgang Preiser, Head of the Division of Medical Virology, and Richard Glashoff.

“Overcoming various hardships to achieve his vision of postgraduate training and subsequently a career in academia, required a determination and resilience which is rarely found,” says Preiser. “His primary PhD supervisor left her position before he was finished, but he also seized this challenge and excelled.”

Preiser describes Maponga as well-versed, academically outstanding yet humble, and as good at teaching as at organisational and administrative matters. “He is diligent, always sees the ‘bigger picture’ yet does not forget relevant detail, collaborates well both locally and globally, and has excellent language and communication skills.”

His selection for the FPP is a great honour, Preiser continues. “The program will undoubtedly be beneficial to his further academic development, put him in contact with other scholars and research fields which will stimulate his interest, and allow him to fully develop his outstanding potential.”


Photo-credit: Damien Schumann
Author: FMHS Marketing & Communications / FGGW Bemarking & Kommunikasie – Jackie Pienaar-Brink