Dr Khotso Mokhele
UFS Chancellor: 2010 – 2020

Khotso David Kenneth Mokhele was born and bred in Bloemfontein, matriculated from the Moroka High School and obtained a BSc degree in Agriculture from the University of Fort Hare, where he won the Massey-Ferguson award for the best student in his field. He continued his postgraduate studies at the University of California Davis on the prestigious Fulbright-Hays Scholarship Programme, completing his MSc (Food Science) and PhD (Microbiology). He was awarded postdoctoral fellowships at the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Pennsylvania in the USA. Mokhele returned to South Africa in 1987, set on becoming a top-class academic and researcher. He held lecturing posts at the Universities of Fort Hare (1987-1989) and Cape Town (1990-1992). 

In 1992, he was approached by Dr Rein Arndt, the then President of the Foundation for Research Development (FRD – the predecessor of the NRF), to join the foundation as one of its vice-presidents. The decision was a difficult one for the young Mokhele. Not only had he just embarked on an academic career, he was uncertain whether it was appropriate for a political activist to join a parastatal organisation under the apartheid government. After much soul searching, he accepted the offer on condition that he was given the freedom to transform the FRD into a funding agency geared to meeting the needs of higher education in South Africa. Shortly after he joined the FRD in June 1992, he made his presence felt as an outstanding organiser and communicator; several new research-funding programmes were initiated, with a strong emphasis on developing people who had previously been excluded. When Dr Arndt retired in 1996, Mokhele was the obvious choice to succeed him as President of the FRD. As President and CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF) (1999-2006), Dr Mokhele played a central role in providing visionary and strategic direction to the South African science system and to the development agenda of the country.

He was part of the team that drafted the Green Paper for science and technology, was the founder President of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAF), Chairperson of the Economic Advisory Council to the Premier of the Free State (2001-2004), and a member of the Advisory Council on Innovation to the Minister of Science and Technology (2003-2007). His role in securing government and international support for the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) Project is evidence of his dedication to science in South Africa. The success of this project laid the basis for South Africa being selected to host more than 70% of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international mega-telescope for radio astronomy. He was appointed as member of the first Council for Higher Education and deputy convenor of its task force on the Reconfiguration of Higher Education, and he served on the councils of a number of universities. More recently, he was appointed by the Minister of Science and Technology as a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation, and by the Minister of Labour as chair of the National Skills Board.

His role in science is recognised internationally. In achieving his vision, he recognised the importance of South Africa’s re-entry into the international science community and has been an ambassador for South African and African science in high-profile international fora. He was elected Vice-President: Scientific Planning and Review of the International Council for Science (ICSU) and as Chairperson of its Committee for Scientific Planning and Review (2005-2008), as well as a member of the Committee on Developing and Transition Economy Countries of the International Social Science Council (2008-2010). He also represented South Africa on the executive board of UNESCO (1997-2001) and served as Chairperson of the Special Committee of this board (1999-2001). Dr Mokhele was part of the UNESCO assignment (2006-2007) to review the science and technology system of the member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and give advice on how to leverage science, technology, and innovation for the development of the Caribbean region. 

Dr Mokhele’s corporate positions included Non-Executive Chairman on the Board of Directors of Impala Platinum Holdings Ltd (Implats), ArcelorMittal South Africa, and Adcock Ingram Holdings Ltd; Non-Executive Director of African Oxygen Ltd (Afrox), Zimbabwe Platinum Holdings Ltd (Zimplats), Mapitso Consortium, Kenosi Investment Holdings, and Tiger Brands Ltd. He is the President of the Hans Merensky Foundation (South Africa) and a trustee of SciDev.Net (a web-based scientific magazine based in London, UK) and Start International Inc (a global-change capacity-building initiative based in the USA). He was Chairman of the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Lesotho, and Swaziland (2007–2011) and has served on the South Africa at Large Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee for more than 10 years. 

Khotso Mokhele’s contribution to science in South Africa has received wide recognition locally and abroad. He has received six honorary doctorates, the most recent from Rutgers University in the USA. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the President of France in recognition of his personal efforts in strengthening scientific ties between France and South Africa, and was appointed a director of the Salzburg Global Seminar – an institution focused on global change, and subsequently as member of its Council of Senior Fellows. He was the recipient of the Technology Top 100 Lifetime Achievers Award in 2009, and the National Science and Technology Forum Award in 2005. He also received the Science Diplomacy Award from the Minister of Science and Technology in South Africa (2015).

After more than 10 years at the helm of first the FRD and then the NRF, Khotso Mokhele had decided that the time had come for new blood to take over and for him to focus his talents on new ventures.

It is appropriate at this point in his career that the university pay tribute to and acknowledge the monumental achievements of a truly great South African.

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