HSRC bids farewell to two of its most remarkable leaders

In July the HSRC took leave of two of outstanding researchers, leaders and colleagues after 14 years at the organisation: CEO Olive Shisana, a UCT honorary professor, groundbreaking researcher and expert in the social aspects of HIV and AIDS and health system, and until recently chair of the South African BRICS Think Tank; and Professor Linda Richter, distinguished research fellow in the HIV, STIs and TB programme, an A-rated scientist, honorary professor at two universities and a research associate in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Oxford University, and director of the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence in Human Development (CoE-HUMAN) at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).

And on 1 September 2015, the HSRC will welcome Professor Crain Soudien, deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town and joint professor in Education and African Studies, as the new CEO.

Soudien will be the third CEO to take charge of the organisation since 2000, when Dr Mark Orkin forcefully, and with great determination, restructured the organisation to become relevant to the needs of the country.

In reflecting on the achievements of two of his most successful appointments, Orkin said he looked for three qualities in a research leader: top-quality research, the ability to get funding for projects, and the relevance of their research. In all these, Shisana and Richter succeeded beyond all expectations.

‘Of course, this required 14-hour days, six days a week, at which Olive and Linda have been unstinting. Whenever I sent out emails after midnight, I could be sure of an immediate live reply from Olive… and a reminder from Linda in the morning of what I had omitted! Withal, they were always cheerful, optimistic, collaborative, and supportive.’

Orkin and others pointed to Shisana’s global reach, way beyond the HSRC, in setting up the Africa-wide Social Aspects of HIV/AIDS Research Alliance (SAHARA), chairing the South African BRICS Thank Tank, the International Social Science Council, the forthcoming World Social Science Forum and, next year, the International AIDS Conference.

‘Astonishingly, she sustained this active research leadership on taking over reins from me as CEO of the HSRC. That dual role had been quite beyond my capabilities. She developed an even greater international footprint, and locally drove her long-standing dream of a national health insurance system through to its uptake at last by the present minister. At the same time, she expanded the HSRC, increased its publications output, and massively improved the parliamentary grant.

On Richter: ‘Linda, meanwhile, also had imperial ambitions; and in addition to extending her local and international research programmes and networks, set up an experimental surveillance site at Sweetwaters, to rival those of Wits and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Simultaneously, she maintained an astonishing annual slew of scientific publications, which now exceeds 150 papers and 100 chapters. After the renowned Bt20 (Birth to 20) cohort study – started well before she joined the HSRC – connected to four other such studies worldwide, Linda took over the reins of the consortium, and has led it to new heights, including innumerable Lancet articles.’

The HSRC wishes both women all the best in their new undertakings: Dr Shisana in starting a new venture and Prof. Richter with her responsibilities at the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence.