Leading South African Immunologist and public health advocate recognised for championing evidence based science


Cape Town | The South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) is proud to announce that Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba was recently nominated for the coveted John Maddox Prize. Now in its eighth year, the John Maddox Prize is a joint initiative of the charity Sense about Science that promotes the public interest in sound science and evidence. The award went to forest fire expert Bambang Hero Saharjo and pharmacist Olivier Bernard. However, the judges wanted to draw attention to the extraordinary contribution made by Professor Makgoba, acclaimed for his challenge to AIDS denialism in South Africa, who also went on to expose and improve the treatment of mentally ill patients in the country.

Professor Makgoba, the President of the SAMRC at the height of AIDS denialism demonstrated through science that people, particularly young men and women were dying from HIV. Makgoba played a leading role in fighting AIDS denialism when our country’s President publicly questioned the casual link between HIV and AIDS and in so doing confused policy and the nation. Despite having close links to the President of the country, Makgoba took the lead in countering what he called “pseudoscience” and condemned politically motivated interventions in the pandemic.

In an editorial in Science he warned against “another entry in a lengthening list of political driven decisions regarding the South African AIDS crisis”. Makgoba’ s critique of unscientific thinking as a shaper of national policy was unflinching and unequivocal, much like the stance Sir John Maddox took when he penned his editorial in Nature in 1993, protesting Duesberg’s use of “tendentious” arguments to confuse the understanding of AIDS, this being a prequel to the events that played out in South Africa. Makgoba’ s fearlessness in speaking out on behalf of science and scientists at a time when the voice of truth was critically threatened cost him a second term at the helm of the SAMRC and political isolation from the National Department of Health and the government.

Despite this setback, Makgoba went on to successfully lead the transformation and merger of two universities in KwaZulu-Natal, establishing the University of KwaZulu-Natal as the most transformed higher education institution in South Africa. During the merger he was faced with the significant challenge of integrating a previously disadvantaged university with a predominantly white colonial university. This experience led to his appointment as Chair of the Ministerial Oversight Committee on Transformation in South African public universities, and recipient of the Presidential Order of Mapungubwe in recognition of his herculean efforts at institutional transformation in addition to his stance against AIDS denialism and contribution to science and medicine.

Because of his great courage, tenacity and candor, and his ironclad resolve to do the right thing, Makgoba was appointed as the first Health Ombudsman in South Africa in 2016, responsible for addressing lapses and malpractices in the health setting with a view to protecting the rights of patients and users of the health care system. It is in this position, that Makgoba’ s mettle is tested again, as he leads an investigation into the Life Healthcare Esidemeni Scandal, the biggest tragedy since AIDS denialism and in post-apartheid South Africa, involving the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients from causes including starvation and neglect.

“Professor Makgoba has been our moral compass for South Africa for over three decades, he is the embodiment of a prize that commemorates passionate, tireless champions and defenders of science, in this case: health science; and human health; and engaging in difficult debates, inspiring others to take a stance against injustice,” says Professor Glenda Gray, SAMRC President and CEO.

It has been with courage and integrity that he has stood up against both pseudo-science and human rights violations. His clarity and forthrightness has made him the spokesperson for the disadvantaged and the silent. Makgoba’s steadfast integrity in the face of a public health disaster during AIDS denialism, as well as for leading the investigation into the human rights violation of mentally ill patients in South Africa was acknowledged by the judges, adds Gray. For the press release from Sense about Science, click here.


The John Maddox Prize recognises the work of individuals who promote science and evidence, advancing the public discussion around difficult topics despite challenges or hostility. Sir John Maddox, whose name this prize commemorates, was a passionate and tireless champion and defender of science, engaging with difficult debates and inspiring others to do the same. As a writer and editor, he changed attitudes and perceptions, and strove for better understanding and appreciation of science throughout his long working life. The winner of the John Maddox Prize receives £3000, and an announcement of the winner is published in Nature. The award is presented at a reception hosted at Wellcome Collection in November.

Release date: 
Sunday, December 1, 2019 - 09:04
Dr Alfred Thutloa
Contact: Dr Alfred Thutloa

Head of Corporate Communications
Tel: + 27 21 938 0274
E-mail: Alfred.Thutloa@mrc.ac.za