Like 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.