#06 2020

A year of extraordinary challenges and achievements

By Johan Pauw, Managing Director, SAEON

From a SAEON perspective we’ve had a successful year despite the pandemic. Our international connections remained intact and we were able to contribute to ongoing global science initiatives.

Our science engagement and communications team went virtual and viral – who would have thought that a science camp could be a virtual event? Who would have thought that we could design and publish a Covid-19 Atlas?

The number of papers we published overshot the annual target with more than three months to go. We had our electronic newsletter revamped and continued to publicise our work.

We passed two audit processes. We maintained our administrative processes satisfactorily while refining some to adjust to the working-from-home mode. Such improvements will benefit us for years to come.

We were able to maintain our core fieldwork and data collection on sea and on land. And we have achieved a major milestone by completing the selection process for the six designated EFTEON landscapes, all done virtually: https://www.nrf.ac.za/media-room/news/crucial-milestone-ecosystems-research-south-africa.

We presented at conferences, organised conferences, participated in meetings, signed agreements, developed data systems, improved our IT network, procured expensive equipment, wrote collaborative research proposals and won international acclaim despite literally being stuck at home.

Extraordinary times called for extraordinary measures.

Who would have thought that SAEON could design and publish a Covid-19 Atlas?

Rallying to the challenges

Probably the greatest achievement was our direct response to the impact of the pandemic on our normal operations. We should never forget the massive uncertainty that followed the first announcement of a hard lockdown. The world still did not know the nature of the virus, what to expect or how to treat it. Our slogan was “Flatten the Curve” as we knew that our national health system would not hold up against a full-blown disaster.

Visions of mass graves loomed. Stories of the 1918 pandemic were circulated. We knew that the nation was also facing a financial disaster with dire socioeconomic consequences for families and communities.

We were asked to stay at home and work remotely. Most of us had never done this before and certainly not while having the kids at home and other family members who might have had to move in with us. Many questions remained unanswered and normal routines went haywire.

Individuals had different experiences while we were silently watching the spiralling and depressing Covid-19 statistics and trying to work out how to make sense of  the harsh and often contestable lockdown regulations. Nonetheless, as I am writing here, we may be proud that, rank and file all together, SAEON survived and is still flourishing as an institutionalised network organisation.

Management have had to sharpen their skills due to the pressure on us to work virtually and collectively. Never before have we considered having weekly meetings, but this became imperative in order to be responsive to the vagaries of the virus and the evolving management requirements.

The format of our higher-level management work also changed because when we started the development of our strategic plan in November 2019, for example, the plan was to have a series of physical meetings but, despite that possibility becoming non-existent, we surprised ourselves by completing the SAEON Strategy 2030 by August this year through joint editing and virtual focus group discussions among ourselves.

The above mentions are not exhaustive but clearly show that we have adjusted our way of working and living and have remained a productive organisation.

The formal SAEON careers of Tim O’Connor (left) and Joh Henschel came to an end this year. Jointly they were pillars of strength that helped SAEON to grow and become a robust research network.

SAEON stalwarts

Sadly, a handful of the SAEON staff members got infected and some have lost relatives to Covid-19.

We’ve also had to celebrate the end of the formal SAEON careers of Tim O’Connor and Joh Henschel. Jointly they were pillars of strength that helped SAEON to grow and become a robust research network. I was honoured to attend the ‘farewell’ parties of both and can attest to the deep emotion and warmth which pervaded those events.

We will continue to build proudly on their foundational work.