#06 2021

A fully fledged SAEON stretches its wings and soars… tributes from the SAEON nodes

Arid Lands Node: We salute the pioneer of LTER à-la-Africa

When I joined the SAEON Arid Lands Node in Kimberley in 2013, I directly experienced Johan’s collegial leadership style, enabling this node to develop by testing various possibilities, overcoming hurdles and gaining traction where fruitful.

An important opportunity was the Tierberg-LTER property acquisition, achieved through Johan’s decisive action in accepting this important gift from the previous property owner to the National Research Foundation (NRF). Johan’s guiding hand also came into play in SAEON’s partnership with the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) concerning establishing an environmental research programme in the core area of the Square Kilometre Array telescope (SKA).

When node matters needed deliberation, Johan did not hesitate to lend an ear, to share his perspective and advice. He did so in his hallmark respectful manner, peppered with light humour, and quickly homed in towards the matter at hand without becoming meddlesome.

His eye was on outcomes achieved through teamwork at node level as well as across SAEON. Where possible, he enabled nodes to develop and operate in manners best suited for local context in the common interest of institutional partners, while keeping an eye on the core business of LTER.

The result is telling. Thanks to Johan’s pioneering efforts, SAEON has grown into the first of its kind: LTER à-la-Africa.

Finally, I wish to convey my appreciation, no doubt shared by the Arid Lands Node team. It is time to say goodbye to Johan, meant in the true sense of the word: Farewell! ~ Dr Joh Henschel, SAEON research associate and former manager of the Arid Lands Node  

Arid Lands Node staff members during a planning meeting

Dr Joh Henschel, former manager of the Arid Lands Node

Dr Helga van der Merwe, acting manager of the Arid Lands Node

Wynand Calitz,  field technician at the Arid Lands Node

Fond memories and take-home messages  

I remember vividly Johan’s first visit to the Arid Lands Node to meet up with staff members. He told us more about SAEON and how it differs from other research institutions. He encouraged us not to try to reinvent the wheel, hijack other organisations’ mandates and, most importantly, not to be biased. He made us aware that we were leaders in science advancement in the Arid Zone. Johan, your guidance and advice have been invaluable to me since I joined SAEON’s Arid Lands Node. ~ Tshililo Ramaswiela 

The past seven years at the Arid Lands Node have been a wonderful learning experience. This was significantly enriched by Johan’s observations, actions and words of wisdom. He has a gift that allows him to assess the situation and then act accordingly, always in the best interests of SAEON, SAEON staff and long-term ecological research. SAEON will continue to climb to the great heights it is destined to reach because of the solid foundation Johan built. ~ Helga van der Merwe 

Cheers to your well-earned retirement! The foundations that you have laid for SAEON are invaluable. God bless you! ~ Kuda Musengi 

Although I have not had the privilege to work alongside Johan for long, his presence and impact in SAEON were noticed. His passion for long-term environmental work is evident in the tons of hours he has put in for this organisation, his brainchild. I have nothing but respect for Johan and I am greatly appreciative of what he has accomplished for SAEON. I wish Johan all the best on this next part of his life journey and hope that we may continue to learn from him. ~ Wynand Calitz 

We must all follow a different path to let our light shine, and that is what makes us so unpredictable and unique. Johan, you have been an inspiration to many, and you are leaving a legacy which you have built for years, but indeed you have taught us all the greatness of teamwork and striving for the best. A legend remains victorious in the spirit of history. ~ Joanne Riet

Field technician Tshililo Ramaswiela installing a network of temperature i-buttons on the Compassberg

Office administrator Joanne Riet

Kuda Musengi,  postdoctoral research fellow at the Arid Lands Node

Egagasini Node: We say thank you for enabling world-class long-term observation and research programmes in South Africa’s offshore marine environment  

After more than 14 years of mentorship, friendship, agreements and disagreements and incredible support it is impossible to know where to begin a tribute to JP. To highlight how he contributed to the establishment and development of the Egagasini Node is akin to what he has done for my own development. To have a leader who allows such autonomy but remains totally available for advice and guidance, oftentimes guiding when we didn’t even realise it, is a special skill and one of the many I hope I have learned from him.

JP has managed to get to know every individual in the Egagasini team, including many of the students who I know he has had a big impact on. He rarely said no to a suggestion or idea but if he had doubts, he would help to shape and develop the ideas so that they became world-class long-term observing and research programmes. Through this I know he has caught some of our passion for the marine offshore.

Needless to say, it has been no smooth sailing, but Johan’s advice and patience kept us on a steady course. ~ Juliet Hermes 

I will remember Johan for holding dear, with love and passion, Long Term Ecological Research (LTER). After his most recent participation on the international platform, he made sure the printed LTER T-shirts and logo were going to be part of all exhibitions and marketing instruments.

Johan was clearly dedicated to SAEON’s Science Engagement Pillar. Over the years his dedication has proven to be far more than just a research grant requirement, but an actual life-changing strategy. Today SAEON can boast many products from this unique programme. Those involved in the implementation of the programme at the nodes – from staff to the external advisors, were met with challenging questions by Johan that informed many deliverables. Thank you, Sir! ~ Thomas Mtontsi 

Over more than a decade of knowing Johan, I cannot recall ever seeing him angry. Perhaps others have, but I have never seen Johan really show any anger towards anyone. I am sure he has felt angry, but his way of not allowing that emotion to override, is surely a characteristic of a good leader! Johan has always been approachable, and I have always felt I could write him an email at any time about any matter weighing on me… another quality of a good leader, I believe.

There are three fundamental moments during the past decade that stand out for me and when I truly knew that Johan supported our offshore biodiversity research: 1. Support in acquiring the SkiMonkey towed deep water camera, 2. the go-ahead on funding to publish the Offshore Marine Invertebrate Field Guide and 3. Sign-off on a technical support position for the Egagasini Node. These are three cornerstones that underpin all my achievements over the past decade and for these, I am truly grateful for Johan’s support and belief in offshore biodiversity research and belief in me. Thank you, Johan, go well and rest easy~ Lara Atkinson 

One of my fondest memories of Johan has got to be our first meeting which, believe it or not, took place on the dance floor in a nightclub in Gqeberha on the final evening of the 2017 South African Marine Science Symposium! I think this set the tone for the type of relationship we have fostered over the four years of knowing each other, one that involved engaging discussions and endless dry humour!

It would be remiss of me if I did not acknowledge the important role Johan has played in enabling world-class long-term observation and research programmes in South Africa’s offshore marine environment. I am forever grateful for this.

I wish Johan nothing but happiness and peace over this next phase of his life. I hope that he takes time out to travel and enjoy the outdoors and I would just like to remind him that there will always be a berth saved for him on our research cruises! ~ Grant van der Heever 

I haven’t been at SAEON for as long as some of my colleagues, but it’s been long enough for me to really appreciate Johan and sincerely miss him and his dry sense of humour when he retires. I’m so grateful for Johan’s understanding of the usefulness of numerical ocean modelling and his constant support for the kind of work that I do here. Throughout my journey at SAEON so far, from postdoc, to a contract position and finally as permanent staff, Johan has always ‘had my back’ and offered invaluable insights that will help guide me as I walk my career path. So long Johan, don’t be a stranger. ~ Jenny Veitch 

While being in a “non-traditional” role within SAEON it has sometimes been difficult to consider my role in the organisation. However, the support from Johan in recognising the value of having a position focused on policy support, stakeholder engagement and networking as part of SAEON and continuing to grow and develop this has been a wonderful opportunity. Keep well Johan and thank you. ~ Nicole du Plessis

Johan with his farewell gift. The Egagasini team would like quarterly reports on that Retirement Build Project please!

Lara Atkinson (left) and Kerry Sink at the launch of South Africa’s first offshore marine invertebrate field guide

With Prof Juliet Hermes, manager of SAEON’s Egagasini Node

Grant van der Heever with the SkiMonkey camera

Elwandle Node: We pay tribute to our most valued member 

Johan has been the SAEON Elwandle Node’s most valued member since its inception in 2007. I say member, and not boss, because he always took the time to listen to each and every staff member, student and intern – a true people’s person as is evident from the well wishes below.

Your guidance, based on years of experience, was invaluable in shaping the Node and numerous careers over the past 14 years. Your greatest gift was giving us the freedom to function in our job and to trust us to get that job done. Through your leadership you are leaving a powerful legacy of enduring quality behind for SAEON and its people. I will miss your humour and our sounding board discussions, but I look forward to visiting you somewhere along the coast to catch up.

I wish you a long, healthy and happy retirement! ~ Tommy Bornman

I first met Johan at the Elwandle Node offices in Grahamstown way back in 2007. I distinctly recall him looking me up and down sternly before commenting on my shoes and proclaiming that I earn too much money at SAEON. Cheekily, I somehow managed to respond with some clever remark which fortunately must have appealed to his dry sense of humour and so the years passed with much respectful banter.

What struck me most about Johan was his willingness to listen to and consider new ideas and proposals that were flatly turned down by others. Despite seemingly insurmountable challenges, Johan always encouraged us to “gooi die dolosse” (throw the dolosse) and follow through with them. I also appreciated his criticism, which was usually pragmatic and accompanied with plenty of encouragement and support.

Thanks for everything Johan. Go well and I hope our paths cross again! Best wishes. ~ Sean Bailey

A leader with great character, at times strict, but fair, and with the most fantastic and unique sense of dry humour. I will miss that the most. I wish you all the best on your retirement journey and thank you for the lessons taught, it was well received and will always be remembered. Enjoy your well-deserved rest! ~ Arlene Cobb 

At sea it is said to look upon the captain’s face to gauge the severity of the storm and whether you should prepare to start swimming or not. The comfort one feels to see a calm captain issuing orders when all around you, chaos reigns, makes a massive difference in how you play your part in these situations. I’ve been privileged to see Johan for the past fourteen years steer SAEON through both good and challenging times, always calm, collected and deliberate in his actions. I’ve personally learned a lot from his leadership.

Further to this, I’ve always respected and benefited from his unwavering belief in the mission of SAEON. It has been a source of motivation easily relayed to our teams and has had a significant impact on our performance.

I would lastly like to acknowledge Johan’s passion for creating opportunities for young employees and for always encouraging career advancement. Many among us are deeply indebted to his encouragement. Johan’s leadership will be dearly missed, but his legacy will live on. Thank you, Johan, and fare thee well. ~ Shaun Deyzel 

SAEON Science Meeting at the Elwandle Node in 2017

Johan with ZU-NRF

You will be remembered for your humour – as dry as the Arid Lands and as multi-layered as the shores of Woody Cape

It is almost a decade since I joined the SAEON team, going from being an intern and student to an employee. Throughout these years I have never felt that I have a boss looking over my shoulder, but mentors and friends who wish everyone well! I want to say thank you to Johan for keeping the vibrant and happy culture within the SAEON family. It has truly been an honour! ~ Mfundo Bizani 

Tata Johan (JP), I don’t remember the first time we met, but I remember every encounter we had after that. I’ll always cherish the thought-provoking conversations, dry humour and at times, unreadable facial expressions. Your support throughout my journey at SAEON has been invaluable, from being a mere PhD student to a plankton ecologist at the Elwandle Node. I can never thank you enough. Your leadership style and vision for SAEON to maintain world-class status has been the driving force for the success we’ve achieved over the years. THANK YOU. May you have a wonderful retirement and be ready to start collecting long-term data wherever you settle (as promised in our last conversation). Enkosi. ~ Phumlile Cotiyane

The one thing about Johan that I will surely miss is that dry sense of humour. Whenever he visited Elwandle there was plenty of that going around. Johan has been very patient and understanding of the issues that have kept the Observations Database going live. Thankfully they have been resolved and part of his huge legacy will be that SAEON’s LTER data is available for all. Thanks, Johan, for your vision and dedication that has made SAEON the great institution it is today. Enjoy your retirement and feel free to pop in and entertain us with your humour. ~ Tim Parker-Nance

The first time I met Johan was when he visited the node in 2017 to meet the staff and thereafter did a talk on the pension fund. What struck me is that when the time came for the pension fund talk, he made a statement slash question: if you are staff you need to stay for this presentation but if not, you can decide to stay or leave. After all the students had left, he said: “They think that this does not concern them, but they are wrong. Retirement planning is very important.” A very wise man. 

Skip forward to our goodbye meeting in December 2021. When I asked Tommy where Johan was, he said Johan was sitting with the interns. When I said I had a key to another office, he said no, he offered, but Johan is happy there. A very humble man. 

What more could one want in a leader? Thank you, Johan, for being the leader you are! We only hope that SAEON will be “lucky” (Johan’s word) enough to have somebody as hardworking, wise and with a little bit of luck employ an MD that can stand as you stood as the head of SAEON. You can be proud of the legacy you are leaving behind. Enjoy your retirement, we are coming to set up that LTER site when you’ve settled down – citizen science awaits… Best wishes. ~ Lucienne Human 

They say that managers are the real assets of a company. I never realised the true meaning behind that phrase until the day I heard you are retiring. Our team is going to be lost without you because you were the real-life hero who made things happen around here. You brought out the best in every single one of our team members. That’s a talent even the most educated and experienced managers don’t have. How lucky we have been to have learned from the best of the best. Your teachings and advice will be the foundation of our careers.

You made me feel like a part of the family right from the start. You have redefined the way managers are usually perceived in corporate culture. You have replaced the words ‘fear’ and ‘power’ with the words ‘encouragement’ and ‘respect’. Thanks for making my work life a whole lot easier. We will miss having a boss like you. Best wishes! ~ Imti Malick

Johan’s unwavering support for the growth not only of SAEON as an organisation but also the SAEON family will be one of the most difficult challenges for new managing directors. Everything you have achieved within the NRF will truly be a tough act to follow. Johan, thank you very much for everything you have done for the SAEON family and for me. You will be dearly missed. All the best! ~ Jethan d’Hotman

Having known JP since 2012, he has always been that type of leader who treats everyone with respect regardless of their rank within the organisation. I remember when I first met JP. The Elwandle Node was still in Grahamstown (Makhanda). He was with the then NRF CEO Dr Albert van Jaarsveld. SAEON was celebrating its 10th anniversary and the way he welcomed and addressed us one would swear we had always been part of the SAEON team, and not only there for a month or so. In his address he said we all had a role to play in the growth of SAEON. Certainly, SAEON has grown, not only as a national facility but into a world-renowned international organisation. JP has been in the forefront of that growth. In doing so, he has always valued and encouraged the contribution of students, which has always made us feel part of the team.

His passion for long-term ecological research (LTER) monitoring is well-known, but those who know JP can attest that his passion for citizen science and LTER cannot be separated. He has always encouraged us that our science should have a positive impact on society. Our message to you is: “We will try by all means to achieve this”. Thank you for all you have done for us as individuals, for the organisation and for science. Enkosi madala wethu (Thank you, our Old Man). ~ Athi Mfikili

Dear Johan, 20 years ago you started this organisation because of your passion for the environment. 20+ years later it has grown into a platform of absolute wonder. From that decision’s butterfly effect, you afforded me opportunities that I didn’t even know were possible for a female person of colour from a quintile-1 school. You have afforded me the opportunity to do better and mentor school children who have an interest in environmental sciences but do not have the resources to experience it. My younger self thanks you for this.  

You have harboured a workplace where self-development is encouraged and not frowned upon. My future self thanks you for this. You have afforded me the opportunity to work in my dream career that I previously thought did not even exist for young women of colour – my present self thanks you.

Thank you, Johan – your decision from so many years ago has given us diverse, unique opportunities. Please stay passionate about all things environment. With your humour as dry as the Arid Lands and as multi-layered as the shores of Woody Cape. ~ Tarryn Swartbooi

Johan and Dr Molapo Qhobela, former Chief Executive Officer of the National Research Foundation, visit the Elwandle Node

Tribute by Nozi Hambaze, science engagement officer of the Elwandle Node

Fynbos Node: Thank you for building a truly interdisciplinary SAEON

As a boss, Johan had some key characteristics that made him a pleasure to work with. He treated his staff with respect, he was approachable and could listen, and he acknowledged and adopted ideas that he didn’t come up with himself, giving credit where it was due.

One aspect of the respect he showed was that he would consult with me before asking me to follow through with some action such as attending a meeting or before asking my staff to do something for him. That way counterclaims for one’s time or time management of staff became much easier to manage.

He also respected our time as a whole person with families, commitments outside the workplace and interests beyond work. He would not call meetings that required us to travel on weekends and spend unnecessary nights away from home. He understood why some of us needed to surf or disappear into mountains without cell reception from time to time. This tied in with his unflappability and looking at the wider picture: in the longer run everything that required doing would get done, disasters, last minute deadlines, or urgent requests could either be dealt with by someone else in one’s absence or would probably not be so important a few months hence.

If I had a problem, I knew Johan would listen to it, give it due thought and exert himself, if necessary, to resolve this. Probably the most important aspect of this was that he was willing to listen and was slow to provide quickstix advice. If he thought the problem could be resolved by myself, he would provide useful pointers and steer me in the right direction. If the problem needed to be escalated or delegated to someone else, he would take on the required action. This was especially important where his diplomacy and networks could serve to resolve issues. I’ve seen in other work situations how bosses are often unwilling to take on the tasks that make them uncomfortable fair-weather bosses – Johan wasn’t one of those. He would take on the less pleasant tasks if they were necessary, even when these ran counter to his personal preference to avoid confrontation. He would still usually avoid confrontation but at no small price to the effort he’d have to expend.

When Johan was due for a visit to our node, this was always anticipated with some excitement. Staff weren’t scared of a visit by the boss. Rather they saw it as an opportunity to hear about developments and share their thoughts or experiences with him.

As a node manager, I felt that Johan had my back. Very reassuring, providing me the opportunity to develop ideas and plans with confidence. He was open to us having new ideas and implementing them. For example, he took on Juliet’s suggestion for a broader management forum for node managers and head office staff which steered SAEON well over the more recent past, and especially in adapting to the changing workplace brought on by COVID. Having learnt to work in a dispersed network of Nodes, SAEON was actually preadapted to what were challenges for other organisations to take on during COVID.

Some people may question whether a highly specialised and successful scientist would not have been better in Johan’s role as founder of SAEON. I do question if such an individual would have had all the other skills Johan brought to the job, some of which I’ve illustrated above. Apart from that, I would also question whether with the relatively low level of funding they would have built a truly interdisciplinary SAEON as is now emerging. I don’t think it’s a mistake that SAEON is an environmental and not an ecological observation network, such as many of the international predecessors that Johan used to guide SAEON’s development.

Early on in SAEON’s development, Johan took on board criticism that the marine world was left out. This criticism wasn’t always diplomatic in its approach, self-interest was often at the fore. But Johan saw through this hubris and promoted the establishment of two marine nodes as well as the terrestrial nodes.

Internationally, SAEON remains unique in covering environmental observation of both terrestrial (and this includes aquatic terrestrial environments) and the marine environments in one organisation. The interdisciplinarity didn’t begin and end with marine and terrestrial components. Nowadays SAEON covers a wide range of disciplines, trying to understand both the biological and physico-chemical aspects of our diverse environments.

I’d like to end off with saying that to me Johan was an affirming boss. He gave me the confidence to expand and grow in my role. I’m sure that like most of us, Johan was influenced by earlier biases and conditioning. But I think he applied himself to these aspects of privilege more clear-sightedly than many in order to develop a more inclusive, cooperative and future-orientated workplace.

~ Nicky Allsopp, former manager of the Fynbos Node

Johan, thank you for the many years of steadfast energy and enthusiasm you’ve poured into building SAEON. Your time, patience and faith in every person on the team is greatly appreciated and has helped SAEON be effective and grow with resilience. With the many students SAEON has assisted, your family is huge! You’ve made a great impact on environmental science in SA. We hope you enjoy adventuring across all the biomes in your retirement, and that you can check in on many of their fluxes with some SAEON-apps when you feel so inspired!

~ Julia Glenday, Post-Doctoral Researcher – Ecohydrology

Fynbos Node team

Setting up infrastructure at Jonkershoek

Postdoctoral researcher Julia Glenday at the Kouga Dam research site

Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node: Thank you for your vision and guidance 

Many people think of the Grasslands Node as having started in 2011. This is not true. Work to get the hatching going started much earlier. Johan championed securing the Node a supportive host organisation. Having his eye on long-term stability, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife was selected after a comparative process. The wisdom of this decision is borne out in our continued support, land access and collaboration with Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. As a neutral academic host, this has allowed the Node to attract a diversity of students and collaborators from a range of different academic institutions. We have a beautifully constructed office and a functional, though humble staff structure, which is slowly growing.

Through this exploratory phase, we consolidated around two core research areas and through step-by-step development increased the level of sophistication of both the Cathedral Peak and Maputaland platforms, where we were not afraid to try (“never before funded by Government ”) expensive instrument sets. These provided, to some extent, some proof of concept for the emerging Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) programme and helped to start building the skills and capacity in the country necessary to have the confidence to embark on the EFTEON programme. Johan’s vision in supporting these efforts is now helping to get South African data sets represented in the international global change space.

Johan also supported and encouraged the NRF executive and Board to visit the site, allowing us to showcase the vision for what could be, and action being taken on the ground towards achieving that. This provided our leaders with a better sense of the reality and, I hope, an appreciation of the level of dedication required to champion these “heroic” sites, in the words of the late Professor Bob Scholes.

I would like to thank Johan for the “guided freedom” he gave us to engage with our stakeholders and develop something of relevance to our partners and collaborators in line with the vision of SAEON. ~ Sue Janse van Rensburg, Coordinator, SAEON Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node 


Johan, I have always appreciated your considered and sage advice. You have been a calm and thoughtful leader, guiding the ship with a steady hand in the background. ~ Michele Toucher

The former CEO and members of the executive team of the NRF visit the Node

Johan with members of the executive team at the Node

Inspecting  infrastructure with members of the Grasslands team

Ndlovu Node: Kudos to Johan for ‘keeping calm and carrying on’

About 20 years ago, Johan took on the unenviable task of creating and leading a new research facility. He was tasked to do so with no clear mandate, no significant funding, no infrastructure and no staff. This month, upon his retirement, he leaves behind an established, fully operational organisation with a budget, a staff complement and outputs comparable to the well-established, much older facilities of the National Research Foundation.

Although our working relationship was always a remote one, over the past 15 years I have come to appreciate just how difficult Johan’s task was, and how impressive his achievements are. With patience and immense perseverance Johan has managed to consistently grow SAEON in a social and political context where environmental research sits far down the list of priorities. From wooing host organisations to provide staff contracts and offices for SAEON in the early days, to straddling the disparate worlds of corporate governance and academia as the organisation evolved and balancing the expectations of a very diverse set of stakeholders, he has quietly and consistently grown SAEON. And ‘herding the cats’, i.e. managing independent-minded and stubborn scientists (such as myself) may perhaps have been the most challenging of all.

But kudos to Johan for ‘keeping calm and carrying on’, and for creating the freedom needed for his staff to flourish. He now leaves SAEON in the hands of a motivated and enthusiastic group of staff with formidable skills in research, research management, business administration, information technology and science engagement. ~ Tony Swemmer, Manager, SAEON Ndlovu Node