In the United States, after the passage of the 1960 civil rights laws ending legal apartheid in the southern third of the country, affirmative action was introduced as a tool to change society towards justice and fairness. In South Africa, the word was and is “transformation.” With roughly 10 percent of the population living in first world technology and the rest living at fourth world level, transformation is what is needed.
The end of March, my wife Mable, a retired secondary school science teacher, and I traveled to South Africa, where I participated in a proposal review and both of us had an opportunity to visit key government institutions in the sciences and several universities. After my work was done, we traveled with a friend to areas on the western side of the country, where she has been involved in land transformation issues, as well as assisting others working in their communities for transformation.
The struggle continues. But far too little progress has been made and, unless it accelerates, the future of South Africa will be in question.
I recall a conversation with a relatively young black South African scientist with a doctorate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, married to an American, who directs a mathematical modeling laboratory. He talked about how much he wants to work in, and help build, South Africa but, like many, he fears for the future if transformation does not accelerate. He’s also concerned that he may end up making his career in his wife’s country.
We in the U.S. know of the difficulties in diversifying the sciences and it is because of my experience that I have been asked to help again in South Africa. The Science Ministry has been frustrated with the lack of progress in their efforts, which, by necessity, needs the involvement of the South African science establishment, which, because of the country’s history, is essentially white. Despite the real commitment of some whites to transformation, for many there is an attitude of benign neglect, at best, and antagonism, at worse.
Dr. George Philander, a black South African exile who spent his career at Princeton University and is one of the outstanding mathematical ocean-climate scientists in the world. Philander has developed a program called ACCESS, which will focus on the need for mathematically modeling the adaption to climate change for African policy decisions, but doing so in a way that it will transform the face of science in South Africa. He convinced the ministry to adopt it.
In addition, ACCESS will focus on doing work collegially with other African countries, making available to them the infrastructure of South Africa, such as its high performance computing center that is unmatched on the African continent.
For implementation, the ministry has assigned oversight of this program to a Nigerian-American, Dr. Jimmy Adegoke, recently recruited by South Africa to run its major research laboratories in natural resources and the environment. Dr. Adegoke has done research in Africa, as well as the U.S., and has also worked to involve black students in these efforts. With the South African government behind it in a way never achieved in the U.S., it has a chance of really working.
Brad Brown is the first vice president of the Miami-Dade NAACP. He is also a contractor with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, where he works on African coastal and marine projects.