Review: History of Science in South Africa

Every now and then you come across a book which consolidates a range of material, books, and thoughts you’ve encountered along the way. William Beinart and Saul Dubow’s The Scientific Imagination in South Africa: 1700 to the Present is just such a book.

This is a book on the history of scientific development in South Africa. It is not a complete history as the authors well acknowledge, but a start, and hopefully an inspiration to others to pick up the baton and continue.

The book follows the political trajectory of South Africa through to 2020 culminating with a comment on the impact of Covid in relation to other pandemics South Africa has experienced.

By all accounts, South African scientists weren’t very active on the World War 1 front – many undertaking their studies at that time but there are links to topics which feature, such as Rinderpest which is covered by Dan Gilfoyle, an editor of the Great War in Africa’s There Came a Time, colonial specialist at The National Archives in London, and involved with SCOLMA, which concerns African studies material in UK libraries and archives. Rinderpest was a huge problem for farmers across Africa as noted by Dan’s articles, Philip (PJ) Pretorius in Jungleman (2013) and more recently in The Rinderpest Campaigns: A Virus, Its Vaccines, and Global Development in the Twentieth Century (2018) by Amanda Kay McVety which I am still to read. Pretorius and Alex Mouton in his biography on FS Malan (Prophet without Honour, 2011) refers to farmers having to eradicate infected herds – a huge financial loss.

Keeping with the animal theme, is Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends You Choose (2020). While Marthe’s book is not directly mentioned by William and Saul, her time in South Africa coincided with the launch and development of the animal studies unit at the University of Pretoria in the 1960s. While Saul and William cover this as a scientific development, Marthe shares a personal insight to the department as an outsider encountering South Africa’s internal political struggles.

Both Marthe, a trained scientist, and Philip Pretorius, a hunter and explorer, take animal studies into the rest of Africa, and beyond in the case of Marthe. Their books align with William and Saul’s in bringing natural and indigenous knowledge into awareness alongside the science. Pretorius’ experiences are a repeated theme in White Hunters.

Hunters of animal and plant, for the pot and the museum, by gun and camera were prevalent during the 1914-1918 war in Africa as numerous accounts set out – Dr Carpenter in the Congo, Richard Meinertzhagen, Arthur Loveridge, Cherry Kearton to name but a few. A few others used their war-time experiences to develop their interest in the lay of the land, geography and geology – all amateur interest. Professionally, Alex du Toit was completing his studies at the time, but after went on to formulate and prove the theory of continental drift as Suryakanthie Chetty explains, also referred to by William and Saul.

Medical developments feature with a mention of the first heart transplant, the ethics of which are touched on in Marthe’s book. This is the one area I was most surprised to see no mention of World War 1 as many of South Africa’s leading doctors, as per the SA Medical Journal, were involved in the war. But then concerning the war in East Africa, little has been published on this topic generally. Discussion of William Soga and Thabo Mbkei’s approach to science and indigenous knowledge raises the question of what labour and carriers in the field did where they, like the Boer women, did not trust British or scientific medicine. Can we draw links from presenters at the 2016 Scolma conference on Medical Matters? Does anything feature in diaries and memoirs hidden, so far undetected, in archives across Africa and Europe?

William Beinart and Saul Dubow have succeeded in presenting a timeline of scientific development in South Africa providing a context for much else, whilst leaving room for questions to be asked and hopefully answered by others in due course.

It’s all connected

Jan Smuts wrote a book called Holism and Evolution (published 1925) explaining how we’re all connected. In February 1919 during the Paris peace talks he was writing to friends clarifying his thoughts and seeking their views:

“Life is one and universal; it is not parcelled out, divided and dissected. The individual is an organ of life universal and is as such an embodiment of the All, the Highest, the Divine. Only, in some mysterious way, an alienation may arise between the individual and the universal, which it must be the great effort in conduct to eliminate or prevent. That alienation is error, sin, or whatever else we call it.” (p59 in Hancock and vd Poel, Smuts papers vol 4)

While reading this I was reminded of two books I recently read both claiming the same end but coming at it from different directions: Marthe Kiley-Worthington’s Family are the Friends you Choose and Sue Hampton’s Rebelling for Life. And the issues (climate, -isms), despite what we think today, are not new. It’s almost as one of “my men” said about another “he’s like a lighthouse, his light only shines on one thing at a time.” Over time we get to cover the various topics while expending inordinate amounts of energy on each. Given the interconnectedness of all, it makes sense to take a holistic approach – which effectively means working together pooling our various strengths. When I think of how the diverse troops worked together in East Africa during World War 1, I take heart that it can be done. We just need the right unifying trigger.

And then, if you’re still not convinced about the connections, there’s the geological evidence supplied by Alex du Toit on continental drift.

Review: Africa forms the key – Suryakanthie Chetty

I came across Africa forms the key: Alex Du Toit and the History of Continental Drift some time ago and have watched it progress through to its current publication.

This was a book which nearly did not get published for reasons similar to why Alex du Toit has remained an obscure name until now. It’s not my story to tell but I am grateful to the editorial team of Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies for having picked up on it.

Some might call it a biography, but that is rather a misnomer as du Toit (1878-1948) did not leave many clues to his past, but rather the story is the history of a South African geologist and his struggle to be heard and recognised over the political noise of all that was affecting South Africa at the time. It could, perhaps, be called a biography of South African geology. The book brings together geology and history, showing how interconnected everything is – linked as Jan Smuts suggested holistically. It explores the complexities of identity – both personal and national – and the struggle for recognition.

Reading Africa forms the Key brought together a number of strands I’d parked for later thought (that ‘when I’m retired’ project). Having spent time in the Great Rift Valley and read about the First World War in the area, I could visualise what du Toit was talking about and it supported the geopolitical take in Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography. Similarly, Africa forms the key opened new windows through the links it makes with science, politics and society, while the discussion on how South America and South Africa ground it in the international arena, both physically and politically.

As an African historian working on Africa in the early twentieth century, this was a fascinating read, adding another dimension to the story of the continent.

The aftermath of the 1st World War in Southern Africa: UNISA 12-13 November 2018

What better way to commemorate 100 years of the ending of the Great War than to have a conference – this one focusing on southern Africa in southern Africa. What made this conference ultra special was its diversity. As anticipated most of the speakers would be African and white – encouraging others to research into the war is an ongoing challenge – but the audience was one of, if not, the most diverse I’ve ever encountered concerning World War 1 – and the ensuing discussions around each paper showed an engagement and desire to understand this conflict and its impact on southern Africa for what it was. My thanks to all involved and to our Tanzanian and Zimbabwean colleagues who had to withdraw at the last moment, sorry you couldn’t be with us to share your discoveries on invisible histories in Tanzania and the Askari Beni dance in Malawi respectively.

The conference, opened by Russel Viljoen provided a fitting historical context for southern Africa’s involvement followed by an almost double act by the German Ambassador, Dr Martin Schaefer (he has some interesting posts on Huffington Post), and the British High Commissioner, Nigel Casey. The day before they’d stood together at the Pretoria war memorial paying their respects as did a couple of us (German & South African/British) at the Johannesburg cenotaph.

Topics ranged from how World War 1 was a catastrophe (Herbert Behrendt, German Cultural Attache) to local reminscences by the women of Kroondal (Lize Kriel) and white childhood and racial degeneracy in Southern Rhodesia post war (Ivo Mhike). Jacques de Vries explained how the Cape Corps continued to be side-lined and how it was used in World War 2 despite the Corps valuable armed contribution in World War 1. Alex Mouton provided a fascinating insight into the Union Party and how it influenced Louis Botha’s actions, while Evert Kleynhans looked at how South Africa prepared for war in the interwar years and Tilman Dedering considered South Africa’s secret chemical weapons project from 1933 to 1945.  My own contribution considered the impact of the war on various African leaders who took (or tried to take) their countries to independence.

Balancing the social, military and cultural aspects were some intellectual challenges posed by Gerhard Genis who analysed Mqhayi’s Mendi using epi-poetics (The conceptualisation of epi-poetics is based on the field of epigenetics that indicates that humans are psycho-biologically and inter-generationally linked through their historical environments and experiences.’ – Genis) and Ian van der Waag who looked at the writings of South Africa’s First World War involvement – suggesting there’s an prescribed cycle of publications by poets, memoirists, writers of fiction and non-fiction, and official histories. Johan Wassermann‘s overview of the South African school curriculum concerning World War 1 provided some insight into how flexible teaching could be if teachers were open to using the curriculum as intended.

For something a little different, Neil Parsons took us on a whirlwind tour through films of South Africa between 1910 and 1920 n terms of racial representation, and Stefan Manz kept us occupied during breaks with his poster exhibition ‘Behind the Wire: The internment of “enemy aliens” in the British Empire’ and its relevance to all peoples who find themselves interned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Wide ranging in its focus, the conference provided insight into the interest and reach of the war. With more opportunities to share these ‘minor’ interests, we can only enrich our knowledge of the war and its lasting impact. Hopefully, with publication in due course, others will be encouraged to engage with the war and provide an even greater breadth of understanding. And, give a platform for objective discourse which can only bring people together in countries still divided by their past. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the German Embassy Pretoria, these initial steps were possible.

My thanks to fellow organisers, Surya Chetty, Tilman Dedering and Stefan Manz, additional session chair Nick Southey, all the speakers and attendees for making the event what it was.