Research Brag Book

Message of condolences: Dr Daniel Adams

It is with great sadness that we bid farewell to a colleague, friend, and a mentor to the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources (SADiLaR), Dr Daniel Adams, who recently passed away.

Dr Adams played a significant role in the establishment of SADiLaR while he was still Chief Director of Emerging Research Areas and Infrastructure at the Department of Science and Innovation. His duties and responsibilities included monitoring and evaluation of new and emerging research areas as well as the establishment of national research and cyberinfrastructure which is about facilities, resources and services used by the research community to conduct research. 

He also played a crucial role in the development of the South African Infrastructure Roadmap which focusses on building networks and partnerships nationally and internationally. Since this roadmap was developed in 2016, the department has implemented nine research infrastructures with SADiLaR being one of those.


He viewed research infrastructure as facilities, resources and services used by the research community to conduct research, not only about scientific equipment, but also about knowledge-based resources, collections, archives, and scientific data. He strongly believed that the research infrastructure has an integral role in the so-called knowledge triangle of education, research, and innovation. He fully supported the notion of exploiting emerging technologies such as natural language processing, artificial intelligence and machine learning to develop multilingualism. 

Dr Adams was also responsible for the National Research Equipment Programmes, providing financial support for the acquisition of research equipment at traditional universities as well as universities of technology and national research facilities; and the National Nanotechnology Equipment programme, providing financial support for the acquisition of research equipment to implement the National Nanotechnology Strategy. He also managed the roll-out of the national research broadband network, and development of the national high-performance computing centre. 

For the period of 1987 to 2007, Adams was a full-time academic at the University of the Western Cape’s (UWC) Department of Physics, where he held the positions of professor and research scientist. During his tenure at the university, he supervised a number of postgraduate students and established a successful research programme in Bioceramics with emphasis on the development and engineering of artificial bone material. Apart from being an active academic, Adams also served as Head of the Department of Physics at UWC for two terms. 

SADiLaR staff and management convey their deepest condolences to his family and all his loved ones. May God grant them comfort and strength during this difficult time, and may his soul rest in eternal peace.

Prof Langa Khumalo

Executive Director: SADiLaR 

(Sources consulted: &


DH-IGNITE: Celebrating the power of digital humanities in the Western Cape

“Empowering. Productive. Inspiring.” These are just some of the words uttered by participants in their overwhelmingly positive feedback, following the success of the South African Centre for Digital Language Resources’s (SADiLaR) second DH-IGNITE regional event which took place at the Lord Charles Hotel in Somerset West, from 8-10 March 2023.

Hosted by ESCALATOR, a programme funded by SADiLaR (which in itself is a research infrastructure supported by the Department of Science and Innovation’s South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap), DH-IGNITE’s goal is to build an inclusive and active community of practice in digital humanities (DH) and computational social sciences (CSS) in South Africa. The key focus is on upskilling researchers to apply computational and digital technologies to their own research and teaching.

The Western Cape event was open exclusively to staff and postgraduate students from the University of Cape Town (UCT), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Stellenbosch University (SU), and consisted of two days of presentations, discussions, lightning talks and interactive sessions in hybrid format (with recording and broadcasting via Zoom), and a third day of in-person workshops.

“After a long lockdown, it is wonderful to bring people together to share and learn about digital humanities,” says Menno van Zaanen, Professor of Digital Humanities at SADiLaR. “Digital humanities is inherently interdisciplinary as it lies within the fields of humanities, social sciences, and computing. Collaboration is very important – in-person events, like DH-IGNITE, are valuable sources of such collaborations. It is wonderful to experience the energy of people communicating in person again.”

Using technologies to enhance research

During the three days, DH-IGNITE Western Cape participants learned more about the available resources, training, and infrastructures to support digital and computationally enhanced research in humanities and social sciences.

“As we become increasingly reliant on digital technologies for nearly all aspects of life, it is vital that humanities researchers have the necessary skills and tools to critique and contribute to these technologies so they work to the benefit of society, but also to use the technologies to enhance their own research and offer greater understanding of the world we live in," says Anelda van der Walt, ESCALATOR programme manager.

Highlights of DH-IGNITE Western Cape include Prof Justus Roux, who championed the establishment of SADiLaR, sharing insights about the value of digital tools for humanities and social sciences scholars; SU's Dr Jonathan Schoots presenting an exciting computational research project on tracing innovation and identity in early African Nationalism with computational social science; a panel and audience discussion about resources and opportunities for learning and teaching digital and computational skills, led by Prof Kevin Durrheim from UJ Methods Lab; an interactive session on ChatGPT with Dr Errol Francke from CPUT; and a discussion on current and future developments in Digital Humanities in the Arts and Humanities, moderated by SADiLaR's Prof Menno van Zaanen.

The lightning talks were centered around the opportunities and challenges around SA data sources, and lessons learned from doing interdisciplinary research. Of special interest was the talk by Ria Olivier, principal investigator of the Antarctic Legacy of South Africa project, about the human involvement of South Africa in the Antarctica Region and the importance of preserving data.

"There was a wonderful diversity of speakers over the two days, some of whom presented for the first time in front of an audience and contributed greatly to the value and overall success of the event," van der Walt remarks.

Changing research perspectives

On Day 3, participants had the opportunity to get down to business with two workshops presented by Prof Heather Brookes (Chair of SU’s Department of General Linguistics) and Prof van Zaanen, respectively. In the first workshop, Brookes introduced participants to video and audio annotation with ELAN (European Distributed Corpora Project Linguistic Annotator), a tool that allows users to create, edit, visualise and search annotations for video and audio data, whereas, in the second workshop titled ‘First steps to text mining’, Van Zaanen shared some fundamental skills to get users started on their journey with text mining.

“My participation in DH-IGNITE has proven to be an enriching experience that I enthusiastically recommend to my humanities and social sciences colleagues,” Nokuthula Ndlovu, a faculty librarian at CPUT, writes in a recent blog post. "The insights gained from DH-IGNITE have provided me with enriching knowledge and skills that will help advance research in my discipline and contribute to the broader digital humanities community.”

Babongile Bidla, a Masters student in Political Studies at UWC, reports in another blog post that her experience at DH-IGNITE changed her research perspective. “Attending the event has left me with a renewed appreciation for the power of data visualisation and storytelling in communicating complex research findings. I hope to incorporate various multimedia elements into my research to help explain complex research findings and explore more digital humanities possibilities in my research.”

Visit ESCALATOR’s YouTube channel for highlights of DH-IGNITE WC.

Interested to know when DH-IGNITE is coming to you?

The next DH-IGNITE events will take place in Gauteng, Eastern Cape, the Northern and North-western regions over the next 12 months. While registration is not open yet, you are invited to register your interest to participate and receive more information when it becomes available. 

(Written by Birgit Ottermann)

SADiLaR ambassadors for Nguni languages at international conference

Two digital humanities researchers from the South African Centre for Digital Languages Resources (SADiLaR) attended the 2022 Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing (EMNLP 2022) in Abu Dhabi from 7-11 December 2022.

It was the first time that Andiswa Bukula and Rooweither Mabuya, SADiLaR language researchers for IsiXhosa and IsiZulu respectively, had the opportunity to attend a Natural Language Processing (NLP) conference. They attended many interesting sessions and presented a poster on MasakhaneNER 2.0: Africa-centric Transfer Learning for Named Entity Recognition, the largest human-annotated NER dataset for 20 African languages.

The conference was hosted at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), in partnership with Mohamed bin Zayed University of Artificial Intelligence (MBZUAI), and featured keynote speeches by leading voices in artificial intelligence, including Mona Diab, lead AI research scientist with Meta, and Professor of Computer Science at the George Washington University; Neil Cohn, an American cognitive scientist best known for his research on the overlap in structure and cognition between language and graphic communication including comics and emojis; Gary Marcus, a scientist, best-selling author, and serial entrepreneur; and Nazneen Rajan, research lead at Hugging Face, a startup with a mission to democratise machine learning. The conference also comprised 24 workshops and six tutorials. About 2500 participants attended the five-day conference both virtually and in person.

Shining on the global stage

“It was very intriguing to be part of such an experience,” says Andiswa Bukula. “Natural Language Processing (NLP) is a field we are slowly being introduced to as budding South African researchers.”

The immediate thing that stood out to Bukula was the beauty of Abu Dhabi and how beautiful their culture and cultural practices are. The conference itself gave her the opportunity to learn more about the research being done on a global scale pertaining NLP. “And, to be able to share what we are doing within the South African context on a global stage was the highlight of the entire conference for me, especially speaking about some of our indigenous languages in South Africa and the larger contribution we did in the creation of the largest human-annotated Named Entity Recognition (NER) dataset for African languages,” she comments.

According to Rooweither Mabuya it was a real privilege to attend one of the best events in the field. “As a result of attending the conference, I was able to expand my network of contacts within the field, having the opportunity to meet and interact with scholars coming from diverse geographical backgrounds, including Africa and beyond. This experience has created possibilities for future collaborations in future research.”

African languages under-represented in NLP research and development

Both Bukula and Mabuya are part of a research team working on MasakhaneNER 2.0: Africa-centric Transfer Learning for Named Entity Recognition. According to the research abstract, African languages are spoken by over a billion people, but they are under-represented in NLP research and development. Multiple challenges exist, including the limited availability of annotated training and evaluation datasets as well as the lack of understanding of which settings, languages, and recently proposed methods like cross-lingual transfer will be effective. In their research paper, the research team explains their move towards solutions for these challenges, focusing on the task of named entity recognition (NER); and the creation of the largest to-date human-annotated NER dataset for 20 African languages.

For their poster presentation, Bukula and Mabuya discussed the research findings, highlighting the behaviour of state-of-the-art cross-lingual transfer methods in an Africa-centric setting, empirically demonstrating that the choice of source transfer language significantly affects performance. “While much previous work defaults to using English as the source language, the research team’s results show that choosing the best transfer language improves zero-shot F1 scores by an average of 14% over 20 languages as compared to using English.”

Both Bukula and Mabuya found it very rewarding to be able to explain the complexities of isiZulu and isiXhosa whenever they were approached with questions by those interested in the Nguni languages.

An absolute highlight for them was when they were invited to be part of the Practical AI podcast – Episode #205 to share about their work at SADiLaR and their individual interests. Listen to the podcast here:

(Written by Birgit Ottermann)


Dr Muzi Matfunjwa - Activist for African languages

Dr Muzi Matfunjwa, Digital Humanities researcher for Siswati at SADiLaR, achieved a huge personal milestone when he graduated with a Doctor of Philosophy in African Languages, Linguistics and Literature from the University of South Africa (Unisa) in October 2022.

Describing himself as a language activist, Matfunjwa believes in the promotion of African languages, especially Siswati, as an official language and an academic discipline.

"I wish to see indigenous languages taken seriously, developed and used in contemporary fields, not merely for communication purposes. The more research conducted in our indigenous languages, the better. Many topics have not been investigated in these languages. It is time for indigenous languages to be included in Human Language Technology to benefit users of the languages."

Matfunjwa is proud of setting a goal to complete a PhD and achieving it timeously. 

"Doing the PhD gave me an opportunity to conduct research on a topic of my interest in the Siswati language, to unearth information and contribute to the body of knowledge."

However, the journey was not an easy one. 

"Studying for a PhD while working full time was very difficult at times," Matfunjwa recalls. "The main challenge I encountered was inadequate time to do my research. I had to sacrifice all my leisure time and study at night and on weekends. It required good time management, dedication and strong commitment."

He admits that he also faced academic burnout during his studies. "I was determined, though, to complete my PhD. I did not want to be a failure or contribute to the statistics of PhD dropouts at my institution. These reasons fuelled my energy, focus and adrenaline to persevere with the study."

Titled ‘A pragmatic exploration of naming practices in Siswati’, Matfunjwa’s doctoral studies investigated how Siswati personal names are given to children at birth, the situations that inform naming, and the ways in which the names are utilised by emaSwati (Swazi people) to express specific messages to intended individuals by utilising speech acts namely commands, requests and interrogatives.

It is the first time this topic was researched in relation to the Siswati language. "From the literature consulted while doing this study, no similar research has been conducted or published that examined personal names as speech acts in the context of the Siswati language,” he comments.

Looking into the future, Matfunjwa says his academic journey has just begun.

“The journey is still long and being conferred the doctorate is only the beginning of it. My future aspiration is to grow in academia and continue to conduct research that is impactful, and to become a National Research Foundation (NRF) rated researcher. I want to establish my name (aka Dr Nkanyiso) in academia, mainly in Siswati linguistics and Digital Humanities as a researcher. The final destination is to become a professor. It is a possible dream, as we know that ‘Mine is to plan and God accomplishes my plans’.

(Written by Birgit Ottermann)


Dr Muzi Matfunjwa, Digital Humanities researcher for Siswati at SADiLaR