[FEATURE] Collaboration, science and Mandela’s legacy

On the eve of Mandela100, one of Madiba’s legacies has reached fruition, on the 'SA Agulhas II'.

The 'SA Agulhas ll' docked in Durban Harbour. Picture: Shimoney Regter/EWN

CAPE TOWN - A year ago, Salmina Mokoele was a trainee aboard the  SA Agulhas ll.

Now the 28-year-old is spending her time sharing her knowledge, training students on board the jewel of South Africa’s scientific crown. She’s also enrolled for her PhD in marine geology at Fort Hare University.

Mokoele tells EWN that she owes her step up the ladder to her former trainer and the team on the SA Agulhas ll.

“This experience has done a lot for me. The person who trained me was a geologist. I didn’t know anything on geology on this department. It was like being a first year. I’m a trainer because my trainer was brilliant.”

Salmina Mokoele chats about her work aboard the SA Agulhas ll. Picture: Shimoney Regter/EWN.

South Africa’s icebreaker research vessel has become a training ground for young scientists from African nations, like Mokoele.

The vessel set out to the Comoro Islands, Mozambique and Tanzania last year, and students from across the region were invited to be part of the voyage, along with South African students. 

The Department of Environmental Affairs got 150 applications from students across the region. Fewer than a third of those candidates were successful.

The voyage formed part of the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE2). The IIOE2 is a multi-national programme of the United Nations, which emphasises the need to research the Indian Ocean and its influence on the climate and its marine ecosystem. Data collection will cover physics, chemistry, plankton, biodiversity, large animals such as whales and seabirds, as well as geology.

For many of the more experienced scientists on this vessel, it was about more than the joy of research and scientific discovery. Chief scientist, Keshnee Pillay, shared some of the success stories of students.

“We had young people from different nations together and I think they’ve made connections that will last them forever.”

There is also a strong sense of owning the scientific work done on the continent, and in its waters.

“We want information on the Indian Ocean and we don’t want that information to be sustained in one place. We want it to be held by African nations,” Pillay said.

Pillay points to the fact that many students don’t have the infrastructure in their home countries, to conduct the type of research done on the  SA Agulhas ll.

“We’re equipping them with the tools to take back home. Some things are not taught at universities,” she explains.

Students like Nancy Iraba of Tanzania want to run workshops back home on science after the voyage, while Ahmed Nadjm, from University of Comoros, aims to build research on marine science. Josephine Njeru from Kenya has been able to gain experience which she can to use to contribute to marine science in her own country.

Iraba, born and raised in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, graduated from University of Dar es Salaam in 2017 as a marine biologist. She is currently doing her masters at the Institute of Marine Sciences. She tells EWN she learnt so much aboard the SA Agulhas ll.

"I learnt new technological ways on collection, sorting, processing, identification, up to data analysis. Apart from that, I learnt how to operate equipment, which I had never used before. This opened up a new level of understanding towards my skills as a marine scientist. In summary, the SA Agulhas gave me an opportunity to work with experts and senior scientists in advancing my capabilities, which were not there. I had moments to interact with different cultures of different countries and make friendships that am certain are crucial in improving our careers later on."

Students pictured together with scientists aboard the SA Agulhas ll. Picture: Department of Environmental Affairs.

Dr Riaan Cedras also trained students aboard the SA Agulhas ll this year. Together with a friend from Tanzania, he formed the Western Indian Ocean Early Career Scientists Network, which he said empowers young scientists in Africa.

“We want to strengthen the collaboration among East African countries. In terms of capacity building within the region, we want everyone on the same level. Someone from South Africa may understand something differently to someone from Kenya. So we can see each other’s countries strengths and collaborate from there.”

The voyage has not only seen training of young scientists, but is also the start of “legacy institutions” for marine science in Africa.

Director of oceans research in the DEA, Ashley Johnson, said that they’ve been collaborating with other African countries to form institutions across Africa for marine science.

“Each country identified their respective national priorities. There was a request that each country identified their respective national priorities.”

In Mauritius, a remote sensing service is already in development. The service will gather information on the planet using satellites. Kenya has been earmarked as the regional data centre while a programme with Zanzibar needs more support for biodiversity services.

The collaborations are particularly topical at the moment, as South Africa prepares to celebrate what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday later this week.

“Last year, South Africa became the chair of IORA (the Indian Ocean Rim Association) which is the brainchild of Nelson Mandela. He is the one who initiated this formation of countries to form this Iora,” explains Johnson.

Johnson adds it was important for African nations to collect data on the Indian Ocean, as research was limited.

“In the 60s, Africa’s contribution to the [first] Indian Ocean expedition was minimal. I think only South Africa was involved back then. That first expedition in the 60s gave rise to some of the biggest institutions in India, so it has a legacy… We asked Cabinet to allow us to take leadership in the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition, not only for ourselves, but for the region and Africa.”

The 'SA Agulhas ll' docked in Durban Harbour. Picture: Shimoney Regter/EWN

The SA Agulhas ll docked in Durban Harbour. Picture: Shimoney Regter/EWN.

The work by the SA Agulhas team is not over yet. Another long-term research trip is possible next year on the Agulhas ll.

Workshops, a publication of scientific research by 2020 and establishment of the science centres in Africa are also on the cards.

The department has also committed to supporting students from Tanzania, the Comoros and other parts of Africa as they build African science from within the SA Agulhas.

As Tata Nelson Mandela once said: “If we are to accomplish anything in this world it will, in equal measure, be due to the work and achievement of others.”