Academics are under pressure to contribute towards the post-apartheid transformation of South Africa but state funds are limited and universities and academics have to look elsewhere for extra cash.
One source of support is the Unilever Foundation for Education and Development, better known for its Nelson Mandela scholarship programme, a ten-year initiative for graduates from the disadvantaged communities.
The foundation, launched in 1998 by the then minister of education, Sibusiso Bengu, also endows three university chairs.
At two universities, the endowments form part of broader programmes - the Unilever Centre of Comparative and Applied Ethics at Natal University and the Unilever Institute for Strategic Marketing at the University of Cape Town.
The third, the University of Wi****ersrand, benefits from a minimum five-year endowment of a chair in chemical engineering, which is held by Diane Hildebrandt, an authority on chemical reactor theory.
Professor Hildebrandt was appointed in May 1998 and she is the first woman professor of chemical engineering in South Africa.
The endowment enables her to work full time for the Centre for Optimisation, Modelling and Process Synthesis, which she has set up with David Glasser to promote links between industry and the process synthesis research conducted at the university.
The centre acts as a consultancy to industry. Professor Hildebrandt said:
"The support from Unilever gave us the breathing space to consider the longer term. It was quite a life-saver that funded me at university-related pay levels. It has allowed us to think of other ways of funding new academics."
Martin Prozesky, who holds the Unilever chair of comparative and applied ethics at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, said: "Universities are pressed for money these days - they have to look very carefully at what they can and cannot do... money from outside sources is invaluable."
The foundation also provides the base funding for the Strategic Marketing Institute at the University of Cape Town. Its head, John Simpson, said:
"The intention is to provide both theory and information about the market in a southern African context."
The institute operates in partnership with other companies on projects such as language and humour in South Africa's cross-cultural society.