HE BUILT Africa’s first integrated drug discovery centre. He led an international team that discovered a drug with the potential not only to cure but prevent malaria. He’s surfed big challenges as the warden of a very desirable university residence. And he’s just been named one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders by Fortune Magazine. Who is this guy? SHIRLEY FAIRALL caught up with Cape Town’s PROFESSOR KELLY CHIBALE

Prof Chibale (57) grew up in Zambia and now lives in Cape Town with his caterer wife Bertha and three adult sons. His extremely long CV includes a PhD from Cambridge and a Fulbright scholarship

Groundbreaker: Professor Kelly Chibale. ‘You can either be destructive or an instrument of positive change,’ he says  |  Photo: Tonya Hester

Fortune Magazine named you one of the world’s top 50 leaders. What makes a good leader? ‘Remembering that you are there to serve! You can either be destructive or you can be an instrument of positive change. There’s only one ethical and moral choice. I serve the 90+ people in my team and try to make a difference in their lives.’

Given that malaria kills a child in Africa every minute, we’re keen to know how the malaria trials are going ‘Research and development is never a smooth road. It’s a process, not an event. For example our drug discovery was announced in 2012, we started in 2014 with Phase I human trials, then years later entered Phase 2A human trials. There are several more phases to go through and we need to raise money for them all. Phase 2A human clinical trial phases require millions of rands so it’s no joke when people say discovering and developing just one drug can cost R10 billion or more! This is where our partners are so important. They’ve contributed much to our research and to the infrastructure we have today.’

Who are your partners? ‘We have quite a few including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Medicines for Malaria Venture, Novartis, Merck, Celgene and the South African government.’

‘We don’t take life too seriously,’ says Prof Chibale, pictured here with his wife Bertha and three sons (left to right): Kalaba, Suwi and Sechelanji. The family was celebrating Suwi’s graduation from the University of Cape Town with a BSc in chemistry

What made you choose this career? ‘For me this isn’t a career, it’s a calling. I think I’m living proof that science and God do mix! I believe I’m in partnership with God, and that He’s guiding me in my work to alleviate human suffering. It’s not just about trying to find cures but also about alleviating poverty through the jobs we’ve created here at the University of Cape Town [UCT].’

Where were you during South Africa’s protests for free education for the poor? ‘Right here at UCT where I’ve been for nearly 25 years. Six years ago, I became the warden at Smuts Hall, probably UCT’s most famous and prestigious residence, where I live with my family. The nationwide Fees Must Fall student protests started shortly afterwards. The students were angry, they started fires, burnt some historic pictures and defaced the statue of Smuts outside the hall.

When the violence erupted we just handled it. I’m good at putting out fires! When it was over, I watched the breaking news scrolling across the TV screen saying the wardens were traumatised. Some wardens were indeed traumatised but though I was right there with my family, at no time did any of us feel threatened.

Smuts Hall was a privileged residence and the students were predominantly white, but that hasn’t been the case for years now. 235 young men of all races and financial means live here now. They come from dusty deprived schools in tiny towns and plush private schools in big cities, and every one of them is welcome here.’

These people might save your life one day: the prof with team members

And finally, what keeps you going?  ‘I believe that first it’s Almighty God by His grace. Second, Bertha and my sons: if my home weren’t stable, I wouldn’t be able to function at work. Research work is very rewarding but it can be disheartening sometimes when you have to go back and begin again, and my family is where I go to lick my wounds. Sounds quite serious but we don’t take life too seriously! As a family we love to laugh and find a reason for happiness. I’m always drawn to positive people.’

Prof Chibale holds the Humble Giant award, presented to him as a surprise by members of his research team to celebrate Fortune Magazine naming him one of 2018’s top global leaders
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