College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Summa cum laude graduate, Ms Thembekile Mthimunye.

Summa Cum Laude Honours Graduate Aims to Safeguard Biodiversity

Ms Thembekile Mthimunye achieved a summa cum laude result for her honours studies in Ecological Sciences at UKZN, which involved becoming familiar with ecosystem indicators in timber plantations and which has taken her to master’s studies in her quest to contribute to conserving South Africa’s natural environment.

Originally from Secunda in Mpumalanga, Mthimunye has lived in Pietermaritzburg since her high school days, when she attended Alexandra High School. She chose to study at UKZN because of its research productivity and quality, seeing it as the ideal place to acquire knowledge and skills to further her aim to protect what remains of South Africa’s rich biodiversity while ensuring that social and economic needs are met.

‘I have always been passionate about solving the biodiversity crisis in the face of climate change and intensified anthropogenic activities,’ she said.

Specialising in entomology, Mthimunye dedicated her honours project to examining ants’ response to timber plantation conditions, as these tiny ecosystem engineers can indicate the health of the environment where they operate. In South Africa, the timber industry is a dominant economic activity that impacts biodiversity.

Aiming to use this research to contribute to meeting the demands of a growing global population with limited and irreplaceable natural resources while maximising the protection of those resources, Mthimunye is continuing in this line of research for a master’s degree supervised by Dr Caswell Munyai.

Her academic achievements gained her recognition from the Entomological Society of South Africa as one of the top honours entomology students among the various universities in the country.

The high achiever was motivated to do well from the time she set foot on campus – as an older child in her family, she aimed to set a good example to her younger siblings.

Progressing to honours after completing her undergraduate degree left Mthimunye without many of her university friends after they moved on, but she beat self-isolation by getting involved in campus activities that included participation in the UKZN Residence Garden Project, assisting with fieldwork trips, and engaging with associates in her discipline. These pursuits, she said, helped to develop interpersonal skills and teamwork.

To other students, Mthimunye gave the advice to challenge themselves to achieve one thing they thought they never would and commit to it.

‘Start small to build self-confidence. Nothing is more important than believing in yourself and having self-confidence when trying to achieve a specific goal,’ she said.

Committed to her faith, Mthimunye credited God with her achievements, saying she would not have made it this far without regularly communicating with Him and prioritising a balanced, healthy lifestyle. She encouraged other students to nurture their spirituality no matter the demands of academic life and acknowledged her family, friends and Munyai for their support and encouragement that enabled her success.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Abhi Indrarajan