The National Institute for Theoretical Physics (NITheP) was officially launched in May 2008. World-renowned theoretical physicist Prof Stephen Hawking, Nobel Laureate Prof David Gross and the South African Minister of Science and Technology were among those who attended the launch.

The process of bringing NITheP to fruition follows on four years of behind-the-scenes planning, negotiations and consultation. The wheels were set in motion after an international panel commissioned by the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP), Department of Science and Technology (DST) and National Research Foundation (NRF) tabled a report in 2004 on “Shaping the Future of Physics in South Africa”. It recommended, amongst other things, that a national institute for theoretical physics be established to act as a user facility for South African and African theoretical physicists.

A broad consultative process within the South African physics community followed, resulting in the tabling of a proposal to the DST and NRF in November 2004. The proposal received strong support from the international physics community. Letters of endorsement were received from several winners of the Nobel Prize for physics, as well as from the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy.

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After two more years of negotiations to refine the proposal, the South African government announced the establishment of NITheP in May 2006 and committed funding for an initial five-year period. The necessary infrastructure was put in place in 2007, while the first positions for director, five researchers and five post doctorates were advertised by the end of that year.

Over the years, the institute has stimulated a healthy interest in theoretical physics on both a national and international level. This has been accomplished through several initiatives, such as networking opportunities, mobility grants, encouraging visits from local and international physicists and physics students, bursaries, research opportunities and internships, summer schools and other outreach and community service.


NITheP has regional centres at three locations:

  • Stellenbosch University (SU)
  • University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) and
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).


The governance system is that of a national Centre of Excellence (CoE), which is subject to the notarisation of a binding contract between the granter, the National Research Foundation (NRF), and the grantee, namely Stellenbosch University.

NITheP operates in an independent environment, with Stellenbosch University providing administrative support. This is critical in the South African (and African) context to ensure non-alliance with a particular institution and to develop an independent identity. A consortium agreement between the hosts of the three regional centres governs the interaction between the regional centres.


Prof Francesco Petruccione

Prof Francesco Petruccione


After serving as deputy director, Prof Petruccione was appointed Interim Director of NITheP, effective from 1 April 2020.

Prof Petruccione studied Physics at the University of Freiburg i. Br., completing his PhD in 1988.


He was conferred the “Habilitation” degree (Dr. rer. nat. habil.) in 1994.

In 2004 he was appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). A year later, he was awarded an Innovation Fund grant to set up a Centre for Quantum Technology.

In 2007 Prof Petruccione was granted the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication. He is also currently Pro Vice-Chancellor Big Data and Informatics of UKZN and Adjunct Professor in the School of Electrical Engineering of the Korean Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST).

Prof Petruccione is an elected member of the Academy of Sciences of South Africa, a Fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and a Fellow of the University of KwaZulu- Natal. He has published about 190 papers in refereed scientific journals. He is the co-author of a monograph on “The Theory of Open Quantum Systems”. He also published a monograph (with Maria Schuld) on “Supervised Learning with Quantum Computers”.

Prof Petruccione is the editor of several proceedings volumes and special editions of scientific journals. He also serves on the Editorial Board of the journals “Open Systems and Information Dynamics”, “Scientific Reports”, and “Quantum Machine Intelligence”.

Prof Petruccione continues to contribute to the development of the theory of open quantum systems. Thanks to a generous grant of the Innovation Fund, Prof Petruccione’s Research Group has sought to set up a quantum key distribution system. The flagship project is to realise a quantum network in the optical fibre network of the Ethekwini Municipality, which makes Durban the first Quantum City.

Prof João Rodrigues


Prof Rodrigues’ main research interests have focused on non-perturbative properties of field theories, the 1/N expansion, strings and superstrings. His recent work relates to the identification and possible gravitational description of a closed radial sector of multi-matrix systems and a constructive approach to the O(N) Vector/Higher Spin Correspondence from collective fields.

Prof Kristian Müller-Nedebock


Prof Kristian Müller-Nedebock is a physicist, employed as Professor in the Department of Physics at Stellenbosch University.  He has a PhD from the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. He spent several years as a post-doctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz.

Rene Kotze

René Kotzé


René obtained a BA degree from UNISA with majors in Psychology and Industrial Psychology. She joined NITheP in mid-2010 and is responsible for communication with NITheP stakeholders. These include the Department of Science and Technology, National Research Foundation, Steering Committee, Scientific Advisory Committee, Associates, current and potential students and bursars of NITheP, tertiary institutions, National Facilities (such as iThemba LABS, SAARAO etc) and others pertinent to the interests of NITheP.


Prior to joining NITheP, René worked in a variety of industries and positions. She has experience in the travel industry, making game lodge reservations and serving as a tour guide for international groups. She has also worked as a leasing agent working with international guests, a temporary personnel consultant, in HR management and administration, and in PR and marketing.

René is hugely passionate about the exciting field of Theoretical Physics and motivates young people to pursue STEM careers, hoping that the “next Einstein can come from Africa” as per the famous talk by Prof Neil Turok. She loves a video by the Next Einstein Forum, which underlines the issues concerning young scientists in Africa, as well as important gender issues.  She also dreams that the next Einstein may come from Africa.

Nelisiwe Mncube

Nelisiwe Mncube


Nelisiwe joined NITheP in 2007. She has a B.Com in Marketing and Information Systems & Technology. She has previously worked at the School of Physics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as an administrative assistant. Her duties include financial administration, liaising with bursary holders, organising seminars and workshops, and general office management.

Prof Will Horowitz

Prof Will Horowitz


A microsecond after the Big Bang, all of space existed at a trillion degrees, one hundred thousand times hotter than the centre of the sun. 13.8 billion years later, massive collaborations of thousands of scientists recreate these conditions of the early universe thousands of times a second in one of the most expensive and complicated science experiments ever attempted. My research focuses on the physics explored in these Little Bangs, ephemeral fireballs that–during their lifetimes of less than a billionth of a trillionth of a second–are droplets of the hottest, most perfect fluid in the universe.