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Impressions Of South Africa

by Rudy M. Baum
February 14, 2011 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 89, Issue 7

Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN
Credit: Rudy Baum/C&EN

As anyone who has been reading the Editor’s Blog on CENtral Science knows, I spent eight days in mid-January in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. The main point of the trip was to attend the 40th meeting of the South African Chemical Institute (SACI), Africa’s oldest professional association of chemists, and the third meeting of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry (FASC), a nascent institution founded in 2006 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

However, I also spent some time exploring Cape Town and its environs on a daylong tour and some significant sites and museums in Johannesburg. Denise Creech, director of the ACS Membership & Scientific Advancement Division, traveled with me, and we were joined in Johannesburg by ACS President Nancy B. Jackson.

Africa has never exerted a strong pull on me. Most of my travels have been in North America, including the Caribbean, and Europe, with a few business trips to Asia. I didn’t know what to expect from South Africa, although I had been told by friends and business associates who had spent time there that it is a beautiful country and that South Africans are a warm and welcoming people. The country is a long way from almost anywhere; the direct flight from Dulles International Airport to Johannesburg, which includes a refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal, takes 17 hours.

The SACI meeting, held on the campus of Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand (universally referred to as “Wits”), featured plenary lectures by prominent chemists from around the world and shorter keynote lectures primarily by South African chemists. The plenary lectures were outstanding. Sir David King, of Oxford University and Cambridge University, discussed “Chemical Solutions to Clean Energy Problems”; Herbert Waldmann, a professor at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Physiology, in Dortmund, Germany, spoke on “Biology-Oriented Synthesis”; Vincent M. Rotello, a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, gave a riveting talk on “Gold Nanoparticles in Biology”; and Martyn Poliakoff, a chemistry professor at the University of Nottingham, in England, presented on “Green Chemistry and Supercritical Fluids,” to name only a few.

The keynote lectures, organized each day into five concurrent thematic blocks, demonstrated that chemistry and chemical engineering are alive and well in South Africa. Chemists and chemical engineers from Wits, the University of Johannesburg, Stellenbosch University, the University of Pretoria, and the University of Cape Town gave talks on a broad range of chemical topics. Speakers from Europe and the U.S., including Jackson, also gave keynote talks during the SACI conference.

The FASC meeting on Friday featured talks by chemists from a number of countries that belong to the federation, including Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa. Other African chemists at the SACI/FASC conference came from Botswana, Ghana, and Nigeria. Jackson used funds from her presidential budget to support the attendance 
at the conference of Patricia W. Gitari, of the University of Nairobi, and Olayinka A. 
Oyetunji, of the University of Botswana.

FASC “aims at promoting the advancement of chemical sciences and the practice of chemistry that could be instrumental to the fulfillment of the developing aspirations and objectives of the people in Africa,” according to Temechegn Engida, a professor of chemical education at Addis Ababa University and president of FASC, who spoke during the meeting’s opening ceremonies. “Communication is difficult in Africa,” Engida conceded in his comments, but FASC is dedicated to bridging the common interests of chemical societies across the African continent.

I’m looking forward to visiting South 
Africa and other African nations again. I hope ACS can help SACI and FASC in their missions of advancing chemistry in the 
interests of the African people.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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