By: LA Torres-Cruz

Senior Lecturer in Geotechnical Engineering

University of the Witwatersrand


I came to South Africa in November 2008 to join the academic staff of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering of Wits University. At the time, my geotechnical academic colleagues were Prof Geoffrey Blight, Dr Irvin Luker and Dr Valentine Katte. The latter was still busy completing his PhD under the supervision of Prof Blight who by then was retired and serving our School in an emeritus role. Shortly after my arrival, Prof Blight would also become my MSc supervisor and encourage me to conduct research on the liquefaction potential of tailings dams.

Fourteen years have now elapsed since first arriving in South Africa and there are several things to reflect upon from a geotechnical perspective. Something to highlight is the warmth with which I have always felt welcome by the geotechnical community, and South Africans in general. Perhaps a decisive moment in this regard was when in 2014 I earned the right to represent South Africa at the Young Geotechnical Engineers Conference that took place in Seoul, South Korea in 2017. At the time I was surprised that the South African Geotechnical Division did not see my Colombian nationality as an impediment to be a South African delegate. I have been fortunate to experience similar welcoming gestures from my South African colleagues time and time again. Being chosen as the South African delegate for the 2017 event solidified in my mind the idea that I could really call South Africa my home.

After producing an MSc dissertation worthy of Prof Blight’s approval, I converted my registration from an MSc to a PhD. Shortly thereafter, in 2013, I went for five-month research stay at McGill University in Montreal, Canada where I was kindly hosted by Prof Mohammed Meguid. While I was there, I received the news of Prof Blight’s passing. The news came at a time when I was yet to figure out how I was going to finish my PhD. I was left wondering whether I was even going to be able to bring it all to an end. Thankfully, I was able after all. And this was in no small measure thanks to the support from Dr Irvin Luker and Prof Peter Day who took on supervisory (and encouragement!) roles. Several other members of the South African geotechnical community assisted me in finalising my PhD thesis in Prof Blight’s absence. It was a good lesson of how we can come together to help each other overcome challenges.

Valentine Katte eventually completed his PhD and left our School. Other colleagues that joined are Dr Charles MacRobert and Dr Thushan Ekneligoda. Charles’s push to modernise our geotechnical laboratory had a most positive impact on my experimental work. Thushan’s appreciation for the rigour of mathematics was heart-warming. They have both moved on from Wits but not before leaving a positive impact on our School. Dr Ganesh Rathod joined the geotechnical staff of our School in November 2021 and we remain positive that he also will make valuable contributions to our community.

During my time at Wits, the work performed by the multiple members of the geotechnical team has been presented at the events and conferences listed below, although there are likely to be others of which I am not aware.

  • 2019 SANCOLD Conference: Sustainable long-term dam infrastructure development and management. Gauteng, SA.
  • 2019: 17th African Regional Conference on Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering. Cape Town, South Africa
  • 2019: 10th African Young Geotechnical Engineers Conference. Cape Town, SA.
  • 2018: 4th International Symposium on Cone Penetration Testing. Delft, Netherlands.
  • 2017: 6th International Young Geotechnical Engineers Conference. Seoul, South Korea.
  • 2017: 19th International Conference on Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering. Seoul, South Korea.
  • 2017: 9th African Young Geotechnical Engineers Conference. Kwa-Zulu Natal, SA.
  • 2016: First Southern African Geotechnical Conference. Sun City, SA.
  • 2015: 15th Pan-American Conference on Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • 2014: 8th African Young Geotechnical Engineers Conference. Stellenbosch, SA.

Currently, geotechnical research at Wits is focused on cone penetration testing, particle shape characterisation, advanced laboratory testing, and the use of remotely sensed data to monitor tailings dams. We aim to make significant contributions to the advancement of geotechnical knowledge by developing fresh perspectives and challenging outdated perspectives where deemed necessary. We welcome and actively seek collaborations with colleagues all over the world working in geotechnical engineering or other areas of knowledge.