Nompumelelo Malatji is currently pursuing PhD in chemistry at the University of Johannesburg through the DSI-NRF South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI). Malatji’s current area of focus is on re-using waste products to make adsorbent materials for pre-concentrating toxic chemicals such as poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in water. PFAS are toxic and do not break easily in the environment, they can move through soils and contaminate drinking water sources including build-up in fish and wildlife.
Overhauling water systems
She focuses on a very crucial area particularly for South Africa as it currently experienced a serious and fairly widespread challenge of water provision and sanitation. This has manifested in the recent cholera outbreaks in Gauteng and some parts of the Free State. Her study highlights the need for the country to overhaul its water systems to ensure it consistently provides quality and reliable water to its people.
Biological waste products
According to Malatji, PFAS have been detected in the South African water systems. Unfortunately, the country does not yet regulate them due to lack of enough proof of their existence in the water systems. Her research aims to increase the availability of data on their presence and concentrations. “More knowledge will be shed on possible sources and their pathways, enabling the government to make informed decisions on these toxic chemicals,” she says. My work, she says, encourages the use of biological waste products for making adsorbent materials, such as fruit peels, seeds, tree bark, corn cob, etc. for the promotion of sustainable, environmentally friendly, and cost-effective processes.
Malatji says her choice of chemistry was largely influenced by what she was used to do almost daily in her household. These included, among others, dissolving salt or sugar in water as well as enquiring where clean water came from because the river from which they come was always dirty. She passed her matric with flying colours, obtaining nearly six distinctions which meant she qualified to enrol for many degrees. She finally decided to enrol for BSc life sciences majoring in chemistry and bio-chemistry until her Master’s degree at the University of Limpopo.
Grateful to the NRF
Malatji says she is grateful to the NRF for funding her Honours and Master’s degrees. The NRF’s financial support enabled her to buy chemicals and instruments for her research and other laboratory activities. She says the fund also sponsored her summer school trip to Italy last winter. “I currently use an NRF-funded HPLC-DAD instrument for my analysis. So, to say the impact [of the NRF funding] was positive would be an understatement. NRF has had a great effect on my journey,” Malatji adds.
She says she is happy about her achievements so far. They include:
- publishing three manuscripts during her MSc degree
- being in the top 10 scholarship recipients for a summer school in Italy last year
- winning the 2022 UJ 3MT viewers’ choice awards and
- being featured in the ISET 2023 Gauteng edition
Overcoming the odds
But it was not all plain sailing for Malatji as she had to overcome adversities. These were chiefly her poor background and lack of financial resources particularly when she was studying her undergraduate degree. Malatji was born in KwaZulu-Natal but spent her childhood in Welgeval, a village in Rustenburg, in the North-West province. They were eight children who were all raised singlehandedly by her mother. She says her mother used to sell a variety of goods at the local taxi rank. But the income was so meagre she could not meet all her family’s financial needs.
Another difficulty that she has had to wrestle with relates to finance during her undergraduate degree studies. The only way she could overcome this was by studying very hard to ensure she obtains good results. This was so that she can qualify for a merit award to at least pay for her studies. In addition, my research has always involved synthesis and characterisations, so there was a lack of instrumentation at my previous university, adds Malatji.