Potential conservation nightmare unfolding in South Africa

31 10 2016

fees-must-fallLike most local tragedies, it seems to take some time before the news really grabs the overseas audience by the proverbial goolies. That said, I’m gobsmacked that the education tragedy unfolding in South Africa since late 2015 is only now starting to be appreciated by the rest of the academic world.

You might have seen the recent Nature post on the issue, and I do invite you to read that if all this comes as news to you. I suppose I had the ‘advantage’ of getting to know a little bit more about what is happening after talking to many South African academics in the Kruger in September. In a word, the situation is dire.

We’re probably witnessing a second Zimbabwe in action, with the near-complete meltdown of science capacity in South Africa as a now very real possibility. Whatever your take on the causes, justification, politics, racism, or other motivation underlying it all, the world’s conservation biologists should be very, very worried indeed.

There’s little question that South Africa has been the rock of African science, for no other country in the continent has had the financial or educational capacity for quality research like South Africa. Yes, many non-African scientists do work in the continent, but as for intrinsic capability, no African nation can touch South Africa with a barge pole in terms of quality science.

That scientific capacity, as well as the practicality of South Africans in general, means that many species in southern Africa probably owe their continued existence to this country’s knowledge, dedication and policies. Elsewhere in Africa, many species are in free-fall from the mounting pressures of a rapidly growing human population, and this only stands to get worse over the coming century. While South Africa is far from immune to these pressures (including incredible rates of poaching), it has so far managed to resist much of the biodiversity tragedy the rest of the continent is experiencing.

My hypothesis is therefore that if South Africa’s education and science continue to plummet, one of the main corollaries will be a weakened capacity to safeguard their wonderfully rich and unique biodiversity. Without that intrinsic capacity to examine the processes underlying species loss, make sound policy changes in response, and alert the rest of the world about what is happening, biodiversity will come off the biggest loser.

It should be a profound concern for anyone interested in maintaining African biodiversity that this education crisis is still happening (and possibility getting worse) in South Africa. Anything we can do to support South African scientists to do their work should therefore be a priority, especially for any foreign institutions with research interests there. I implore all of you to do anything that is within your power to help.

CJA Bradshaw


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3 responses

1 11 2016
Nico de Bruyn

Some might say this post is sensationalist, alarmist and not-helpful. Indeed, we are not currently finding ourselves in a Zimbabwe-like situation, but then there were many 20 years ago in Zimbabwe that also might have found your post sensational for Zimbabwe then – and look now!
I think this post indeed does help to get people thinking. The very real potential for collapse of research momentum and capacity exists, or worse the crumbling of the entire higher education sector in South Africa. Yes, there are dynamic processes playing out politically and the potential for positive change exists. There is the oft-missed reality in the minds of many South African academics at present that is rather different. Research is done by people, passionate, hard-working people who are driven by a creative energy to solve problems and a make a change. The problem here is that the energy and passion is slowly being sucked out of many academics as the situation inexorably rolls on.
Some senior academics in South Africa have the benefit of many years of academic toil and hindsight that may entice them to pass the current #feesmustfall revolution off as just another speed bump. I agree that one should not be alarmist, but at the same time we must guard against being too passive with an “it will all work out in the end” view. Senior academics are by definition established, many have other options and several are near or at retirement age.
Of course, the chaos is also not equally distributed between university campuses. Some small or remote campuses are not necessarily directly affected by protest action, property damage and threats to student and staff security. However, almost all these campuses are appendages of larger universities. Almost all the larger universities (proportionately large chunk of the South African research engine) are in serious trouble financially and otherwise. If that persists, even the secluded, currently less-affected branches of such institutions will become affected. However, these are all issues on the ground but none speak of the morale of academics, especially ones not near retirement or still trying to establish those international connections and reputation. Every single academic colleague that I have spoken to over the past month from about 10 different universities in South Africa are dusting off their CVs.
The morale is low and while your blog might be perceived as sensationalist or unnecessarily alarmist by some, we sit on a precipice and if young and mid-career scientists start leaving (as many postdocs have already done) then the trajectory into demise is assured.
I think your blog is alarming enough to make people open their eyes, and I think it is useful to start the process of looking for approaches to preserving South Africa’s research future. While those that drive research have energy, the situation can be rescued, but the question is for how long can that energy be sustained … the situation IS dire!

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31 10 2016
Jaco Barendse

Corey, great that you are highlighting this although it has been coming along for some time (so not a surprise) and should not be viewed in isolation. Essentially we are looking at unprecedented political influence on the science and conservation sectors, coupled with the recent “brain drain” of young conservation professionals and established academics whose careers have been blocked by a system that does not reward productivity, and so have been forced to move abroad – thus compounding the university education situation. Couple this with the phenomenon of “State Capture” whereby good legislation, policies, and expertise are shoved aside for corrupt reasons with no consequences I agree that we are heading for disaster. On the point of what other countries can do to help: for one, they should lobby against supporting corrupt or dubious transactions (e.g. https://ejatlas.org/conflict/pondoland-wild-coast-xolobeni-mining-threat-south-africa). Furthermore, in a recent consideration of stewardship related mechanisms (http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/sajs.2016/20150359) that are often viewed as a “silver bullet” in developed countries, we concluded that in the absence of good governance (patently absent in South Africa today) voluntary mechanisms alone will not prevent a further degradation of the country’s globally important biodiversity and will undo decades of leadership in conservation planning and practise.

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31 10 2016
CJAB

Thanks, Jaco. Of course in my short post I most likely oversimplified things. Thank you for giving the broader overview.

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