In Britain, I am used to hills. That might seem like an odd statement, but you know where you are with British Hills, you climb them, you reach a peak, you can look down on the other side, and if you are on a mountain, you can see other mountains around. That all makes logical sense. Similarly, when you are on a plain, you continue to travel along a plain, and you may see hills rising away in the distance, but they are going up.
So it seems strange that you are driving along on a plain and you fall off. And you do so in such a dramatic way that you begin to think you have gone from one world to another. Nowhere is this more dramatic than in reaching the edge of the Veldt and going over. It is marked by a small restaurant and a set of pine trees. On one side you have open grass lands, gently undulating with these mesas. On the other side, you are dropping steeply through pine forest with rocky mountains all around you.
The road becomes a motorway just below the lip. It descends almost in parallel with the electric railway, and it passes through moorland and pine forests that bears a healthy comparison with the Beattock Pass on the A74 in Scotland. We passed through several places made famous by war or song; Estcourt, Newcastle, Ladysmith. Eventually we came through some beautiful rolling countryside near Hawick. We had been descending for almost four hours but the last thousand feet into Pietermaritzburg was about as dramatic as any. Reaching Hilton the road dropped steeply and the huge swathe of the city lay below. At the centre of town, I realised that I had entered a different world from Gauteng. The joint capital of Kwazulu-Natal, the old capital of Natal province had a more mature feel than anywhere in Gauteng, seemed friendlier (although I had heard that downtown was just as dangerous as anywhere in Jo’burg), and of course, there was a certain Englishness about it.
I enjoyed my few days in Pietermaritzburg, and managed to get around well. First I had some had business I wanted to see to. I had agreed to meet up with Dennis Rugege, a South African remote sensing specialist who I had met at NRI a year or so before. He worked at the INR – the Institute of Natural Resources, which despite the name was a very different set up to my institute. There work was funded by charitable and donor sources, whereas NRI was still government owned. They were much smaller and concentrated just on southern African problems. But their line of work was similar. They were trying to do the linking research between livelihoods, environment and development, and had a high profile especially in KwaZulu Natal. Much of the work involved the St Lucia flatlands in the north east, trying to protect some remarkable ecosystems in the lagoons on the Mozambique border. More work was in trying to design a watershed scheme for Lesotho up in the nearby mountains.
Dennis himself was a strong character but also a charming man with a good sense of humour. About the same age as me he had a young family he was struggling to support in the high inflation of the new rainbow state, but he held many strong principles not only on conserving the environment, but on ensuring that it was Africans who should take charge of their sustainable development. Having been given the privilege to study in Europe and America, including at the famous ITC in the Netherlands, where many developing country scientists got their training, he wanted to ensure that the possibilities for others to get that training were there and for them to be open to get a job wherever in the world. At the time I held the rather pious view that people who were given the opportunity to study abroad should not contribute to the brain drain and return to their country to stay on. But I was ignoring the individual’s circumstances, and thinking that whereas I could travel the world finding the best job for me, that people from developing countries would be happy to miss the opportunity to explore the world for a competitive salary and standard of living, instead put up with poor wages and lack of esteem.
I now go with Dennis, it was patronising to think otherwise. Unfortunately, to have an open market in trained personnel would in the short term be more damaging to the country of origin, it is hoped that in the longer term they may attract back the scientists, as they will value them more. Still pious high in the sky thinking, but hopefully less patronising to the individuals.
I met so many talented individuals from overseas in the time I worked at NRI, and each one had a different viewpoint on life. Many wanted to travel, others wanted to serve their country. Others were trapped in the wrong job. There was no easy answer to people’s career paths or the needs of the individual country; it was all a mess. In some ways it was easy for me to understand it, once Dennis had explained it to me; my own career was by no means perfect, and I was never sure who I was exactly serving; the queen, the UK, the third world, or the institute, and often I felt I was doing myself no justice at all.
In the area of GIS, Dennis was very forceful also, he contended that he should get the best software and hardware. He was quite right for South Africa, as it seemed that he could cope with it, but I still felt much of the technology available to most developed countries was inappropriate in the mid 1990’s to the majority of African nations. My other quibble was that there was an attitude, as there was in developed nations, that by just throwing expensive software and hardware at the problem, it was thought everything would be solved. Much more was needed in terms of human capacity, both the technical to do the work, and the social environment to ensure that both the application of GIS was appropriate and its results were interpreted in the right way, conceptualisation of the problems, and in making best use of what you had. In some cases the use of old software and computers is entirely appropriate; most of the projects I have worked with have succeeded with software which is several jumps behind current versions.
We chatted about GIS for a while and he showed me the satellite receiver outside the office that was installed by NRI. All the other sites in the world where you see these receivers they were completely unprotected, but here it was surrounded by an eight foot fence topped with razor wire and a huge padlock on a reinforced gate. South Africa coming true again.