Mzansi s “underground” science technology scene

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If you are a music aficionado, especially if you are a serious follower of select genres, then you’ll probably have come across the term “underground” – used in phrases like “underground hip-hop” or “underground house” music scene. Basically, these music scenes are sub-cultures within their respective genres but are typically not as mainstream as the other sounds and elements within the same genre. Now there is no such thing as an “underground science & technology” scene in South Africa, or any country for that matter. What exists is a lack of knowledge and awareness around developments in South Africa’s science & technology sector. The knowledge chasm is so wide that you find senior aeronautical engineering students not knowing what their industry offers besides joining the SA Air Force or CSIR, for example. Another example is the fact that most South Africans drive/commute past some of the most cutting edge institutions in the world, everyday, on their way to school/work/home and are oblivious to it. I just think this phrase adequately captures how wide… this… knowledge… gap… actually… is.

Almost everybody who listens to commercial radio has a good idea of who Jay-Z is, but only the real hiphop fundis know about the likes of KRS-1. Similarly, most people think that the Kreepy Kraully and Mark Shuttleworth are the biggest technological wonders to come out of South Africa and that there’s not much beyond that; like my hip-hop fundi counterparts, I am going to tell you that “the game” is bigger than that, player.

The cool thing is that many of the places I mention below are not in some far off, remote, government sponsored research lab, unlike the notorious Area 51 in the USA. Pay attention on your daily commute and you will notice some of them. Here is a list of some of the places where globally relevant, cutting edge work takes place, that you probably didn’t know off:

  1. Anglo American/De Beers research labs: a 5 minute drive from the world famous Soccer City (FNB) stadium in the south of Jo’burg, are the research facilities belonging to mining giant Anglo American. You are correct if you guessed that R&D in mining matters happens there. However, you probably were not aware that the facilities were responsible for the development of man-made diamonds. Not fakes, authentic man-made diamonds utilized for industrial purposes. These gems are just as strong – sometimes stronger – as naturally occurring diamonds. A company called Element Six (a fitting name, look at element #6 on the periodic table) was the product of this work. Its based in the east rand and is one of the biggest producers of man-made diamonds in the world. Other spin-offs from the research conducted there include X-ray machines (yes, the one advanced one in Grey’s Anatomy), and also leaving a strong legacy and capability in materials science in SA.
  2. NECSA, Pelindaba: west of Pretoria lies the facility where, during Apartheid, nuclear weapons were developed for the SA military. The facility is operated by a parastatal called NECSA (SA Nuclear Energy Corporation), and is now the site of world class research in all things nuclear (for peaceful purposes, of course). NECSA has transformed itself from the maker of the most destructive device known to man, to a preserver of life by developing nuclear isotopes for medical purposes used in the treatment of diseases such as cancer. They are the biggest nuclear medicine producer in the world. Through the SAFARI-1 research reactor, the institution has also pioneered the development of new types of nuclear fuel sources, low-enriched nuclear materials (which cannot be weaponised) and developed unique capabilities in working with fluorine/flour-spar – which is quite a feat considering that fluorine is the most reactive element; so reactive it reacts with glass!
  3. Denel Dynamics: in Irene, Centurion, is Denel Dynamics, home to rocket scientists, literally. Denel Dynamics is a world leader in the development of advanced missiles and precision guided weapons, and unmanned aircraft. All that stuff you see in Hollywood films about drones and guided missiles…Denel Dynamics is in that game, and put SA on the map as one of the pioneers in developing unmanned aircraft – way back in the 1980s/late 1970s. Today the company is also applying its resources to the development of satellites for the South African Space Agency. Yes, SA has a space agency – it too is not in some distant place, its offices are close to Menlyn mall on the campuses of the Innovation Hub and CSIR. Very few nations in the world, both developed and developing, possess the capabilities you find at Denel Dynamics – they add up to less than the fingers on both your hands.
  4. Ithemba Labs (Jo’burg/Cape Town): on Empire Road at the northern tip of Wits University’s East Campus, is a facility called Ithemba Labs. Its a particle physics facility operated by Wits (well the Jo’burg based campus) and the NRF [National Research Foundation]. A lot of cool research into the building blocks of matter and the universe takes place here. You have probably heard of CERN in Europe, Ithemba Labs is in the same line of work as CERN (although nothing compares to the Large Hadron Collider so far). Ithemba Labs also has a facility in the Mother City. So next time you are stuck in traffic on Empire, take note – some of the work in particle physics involves simulating conditions that existed during the Big Bang. Boom! You have been driving past there for so long and yet you were not aware. Well now you know.
  5. CSIR: this is Africa’s answer to NASA. It deserves a whole post dedicated to the activities that go on there.


These are just a few examples of some of the places where everyday South Africans, like you and me, are doing world class work and command the attention of the world’s scientific community. Its such a pity that the spotlight is not focused on such places and the individuals that make big things happen there. Some foreigners have a firmer grasp of this country’s capabilities (we’ve moved beyond potential in some areas) than the locals. In a country where there is a dearth of positive role models – more so in the sciences, where SA has a huge demand for scientists and engineers – to simply ignore these institutions borders on extreme negligence.

Beyond pushing the boundaries of scientific knowledge and producing novel applications, the biggest return on investment these places have given this nation is a cohort of highly skilled scientists and engineers who are on the bleeding edge of research in their respective domains. Its the ability to develop our people and their talents, and shape them into world class professionals that really matters. This talent then goes on to do incredible work.

Raising awareness about such institutions and the individuals working there has the potential to raise the profile of science and engineering in South Africa – and gain the attention of youngsters coming out of school, showing them an alternative career path to what SA youth usually follow. History has shown that raising the profile of a country’s scientific missions is a positive thing: a bigger pipeline of talent is created, and a country’s technical reputation amongst the world’s nations is enhanced and attracts new opportunities – in addition to investment/trade in the areas SAis known for such as mining and tourism, we can also do with attracting opportunities to work with some of the brightest and innovative minds and organisations from across the world. That is another major the benefit of an enhanced scientific/engineering profile. Game recognize game, to borrow from hip-hop.

But that will not happen if we remain oblivious. So… take note!

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