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C&EN In South Africa

by A. Maureen Rouhi
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

I have not been to South Africa, and my knowledge of the country’s scientific development comes largely from C&EN.

It was in reporting a story in 1999 that I first became acquainted with South Africa’s research efforts to combat tuberculosis. At the time the disease was reemerging as a global public scourge. Not until 2005 did I write again about South Africa. In a commentary, I responded to the false claim of the country’s health minister at the time, the late Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, that eating right protects people from HIV infection and AIDS. She was part of a government that denied that HIV causes AIDS and that blamed AIDS on poverty, malnutrition, and a conspiracy to reduce the populations of Africans. What a grave disservice to the HIV-infected inhabitants of the country with the highest HIV infection rate, I thought. The country then was in serious denial of the saving power of antiretroviral drugs, the fruits of feverish scientific activity worldwide in response to the desperation of AIDS patients.

Much has changed in South Africa since then, according to C&EN reporters who have visited it, including Senior Editor Britt Erickson. Her story on page 12 indicates that South Africa is on an earnest path of scientific development despite modest resources and enormous obstacles, such as economic inequality and high unemployment. Erickson was in the country in November to attend the Berlin 10 Conference on Open Access (see page 14). While there, she interviewed Minister of Science & Technology Derek Hanekom about the country’s R&D program. She also talked to researchers at Stellenbosch University and the Agricultural Research Council about agricultural products processing, specifically wine and tea, as “a promising avenue for creating jobs and boosting the economy” (see page 16). The country, Erickson suggests, aspires “to become a major player in science and ­innovation.”

Senior Editor Lisa Jarvis earlier chronicled South Africa’s scientific aspirations. In 2009, Jarvis saw up close the country’s determination to establish drug discovery capabilities, particularly for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, hypertension, and cancer. Just 15 years since the end of apartheid, the country faced a “daunting task,” Jarvis observed.

Two years later, South Africa made a strong impression on Rudy Baum. Then C&EN’s editor-in-chief, Baum visited the country in January 2011 to attend meetings of the South African Chemical Institute and of the Federation of African Societies of Chemistry. He came away moved by the country’s beauty, the warmth of its people, and the stark contrasts of the conditions of the haves and the have-nots.

Erickson was also enchanted by the country’s beauty—the cape, the lovely mountain ranges, the vineyards, and the diversity of plants in the nature reserves. In Blyde River Canyon, at a spot called God’s Window, she recalls, “one plant smells like the hippies are smoking marijuana or there’s a skunk here. Farther down, something smells like curry.”

The stark contrasts Baum observed persist today. Erickson says she was struck by the sight of rich people, usually whites, driving around, while the poor walk or hitch rides in packed vans to get anywhere. Those who attend the European-style universities at Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Johannesburg have access to the scientific literature and other resources, she observes. Those in other universities are without resources and in a different playing field. The inequality is blatant, Erickson says.

Even so, Erickson believes South Africa will achieve its scientific aspirations, ­because of its focus on quality, as she tasted firsthand, sampling South African wine, cheese, and chocolate. Laborers take their work seriously, she observes. At wineries, for example, the servers and pourers could explain in detail the grapes and aromas associated with a given wine. The country has huge potential, Erickson says. “I’m impressed by the cleanliness, the quality, the positive attitude, and the professionalism.”

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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