#06 2021

Peer (re)views: International and local bodies and networks

By Manuel Maass, Michael Mirtl, Gilbert Siko, Leluma Matooane and Clifford Nxomani

Delegates at the first ILTER Open Science Meeting hosted by SAEON at the Skukuza rest camp in Kruger National Park. The picture was captured by an unmanned aerial vehicle operated by SAEON technician Rion Lerm.

Mi amigo Johan

I met Johan Pauw back in the late 1990s at the beginning of the ILTER initiative. We had an immediate connection! Not only because of our long-term research commitment, sharing similar challenges in terms of building a national endeavour under economic limitations, but also because of his easy and friendly personality.

Also, his frank conversation, transparent ideas and pragmatic perspective made him an excellent Chair of the “Public Policy Sub-Committee” at the ILTER Coordination Committee (CC) from when it was formally stablished, a couple of decades ago. In fact, he has been one of the most experienced and assiduous members of the ILTER CC.

He is the perfect national representative! Not only does he clearly understand ILTER’s science, vision and mission, but he also masters the political and administrative challenges to combine and coordinate country-level interests within the regional and international needs.

He had the guts and determination to host ILTER’s first Open Science Meeting. His convention at Skukuza Camp in Kruger National Park was a milestone in ILTER history.

More than a colleague, I consider him a good friend. He has a special sense of humour (in a good way). He is always looking on the bright side of things and ready to deliver a joke or funny expression.

My wife Martha immediately became friends with Johan’s wife Lita, who was great company during the many meetings they attended. We were hosted at their home during a visit to Pretoria. He convinced us to visit Botswana for a true wildlife experience (“no fences,” he said). He assured us that there was no risk, but just before getting into a taxi heading to the airport, he asked me for my family’s phone numbers, “just in case” he whispered!

Now that I learn he is retiring, I express my deepest appreciation for his tremendous contribution to ILTER. Also, I personally thank him for his generous friendship, wishing him a happy and exciting, well-deserved retirement.  

~ Professor Manuel Maass, Mexican LTER Network and former Chair of ILTER

Prof Manuel Maass and his wife Martha (right) with Johan and Lita Pauw

Manuel and Johan with delegates at an ILTER meeting

Impressions from the distance of another continent 

When I met Johan for the first time in London in 2001, I immediately had the feeling that I had met a mentor, even though we did not speak a word to each other at this global ILTER meeting.

But he recognised me the following year and asked questions that I had not expected. And this was to happen many times again. He asked questions and made remarks. Often very short ones. With his quiet voice, which carried weight without being raised, even if this weight was sometimes not asked for. Even if it was sometimes not flattering or charming. And yet it moved… individuals, groups, whole processes.

I have often asked myself, why? Perhaps the simplest answer is because his observing has a distance, less entanglement in the situation. Because it is less driven by obvious self-interest. Because it passes through the human filter of a value system grounded by a treasure trove of experience in dealing with people of diverse cultures and of broad expertise.

A second, less analytical reason I learned over the years: a moved heart that was first completely open when we heard Sixto Rodriguez on an excursion bus and, looking at the tears in his eyes, I realised that the generation of Johan and his wife Lita had helped build the country they wanted to live in. And how close to that heart is the struggle for a vision. The vision of a “better world”. What it means to struggle for vision in the real world with tangible results (SAEON…), what it means to lead in it and make decisions that primarily serve the cause and not one’s own vanity – in this I have come to endlessly appreciate Johan’s artistry and foresight over the years of collaboration in scientific networking and research infrastructure development.

All this: impressions of what I was able to experience from the distance of another continent, meeting once or a couple of times per year and yet as a colleague and friend of Johan’s, even if others should know another Johan from close by.

Thank you, Johan!

~ From Dr Michael Mirtl, former Chair of ILTER

Dr Michael Mirtl is leading the implementation of the “Integrated European Long-Term Ecosystem, critical zone and socio-ecological Research Infrastructure” (eLTER RI) on behalf of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research – UFZ in Germany and in the context of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures.

Dr Mirtl says: “When I finished my second term as Chairperson of ILTER in 2019, Johan gave the dinner speech. It was built around the metaphor of his perception of the nature of a giraffe being close to me. He presented me with a small sculpture of a giraffe. Ever since the giraffe is standing next to my screen and observing/listening.”

Bonding over Rodriguez songs. Johan has always been a fan of American singer-songwriter Rodriguez. When his songs were played on a tour bus during an ILTER meeting, Johan’s reaction provided a rare insight into his character and personality, says Michael.

The secret ingredient to SAEON’s success 

Wow, where to start Johan? You practically, literally and stealthily built SAEON into a very formidable National Research Facility with international repute.

Over the years we have been bombarding you, and SAEON, with instant to long-term projects, but I cannot remember a day when you said it was not possible. You always said, “If my team say it’s doable then it will be done.” You were always a step ahead in your decisions, as you recognised that this would enable SAEON to grow under challenging economic conditions.

Recognising and acknowledging their expertise, the SAEON Node managers were empowered with independence, and this I have recognised to be the secret ingredient to SAEON’s success. This type of leadership I consider to be an important template that most leaders should adopt, as you are always as strong as the people you are surrounded by.

I hope your retirement does not signify that the National System of Innovation has lost your expertise. Wishing you all the best and hoping to continue working with you in future with a different hat.

~ Dr Gilbert Siko, Director: Marine and Polar Research, Palaeosciences, at the Department of Science and Innovation

Members of the South African Chapter of the Indian Ocean Rim Academic Group at the first Sustainable Blue Economy Conference, Nairobi, Kenya, November 2018. From left: Prof. Ken Findlay (CPUT), Nicole du Plessis (SAEON), Dr Gilbert Siko (DSI) and Selby Modiba (DSI).

Dr Gilbert Siko and Professor Juliet Hermes, manager of SAEON’s Egagasini Node, represented South Africa at the Commonwealth Blue Charter meeting held in Canada in 2019. Here Dr Siko looks at the Centennial Flame in Ottawa, which commemorates Canada’s 100th anniversary as a Confederation (Photo: Juliet Hermes)

Shrewd operator

I have known Johan Pauw since 2008 when I joined the then Department of Science and Technology. My interaction with SAEON, and Johan in particular, began a few months into my then new role as Director: Climate Change and Biodiversity. With SAEON as a strategic programme in global change and environmental sustainability, it meant I interacted with Johan more often to a point where he became a trusted colleague and “adopted” buddy.

In the period that I have known Johan, he has proven to be a shrewd “operator” in his quest to position SAEON as a key programme with relevance and a significant contribution to scientific knowledge generation and evidence that informs decision-making and planning alike. His passion for observational science, which is SAEON’s core business, may be masked in his personality as a person who talks “less” but strongly comes forth in his decisiveness in dealing with matters pertaining to this area of research, including his willingness to take the DSI and NRF officials to SAEON monitoring sites for them to appreciate the intrinsic and fundamental work that goes into observational science and long-term environmental monitoring.

One of many things he would love to leave behind as his legacy, is for SAEON to be in a healthy state and to be officially declared as a national facility. This is one legacy I am happy to do all in my power to see it realised.

My dear colleague and friend, you have done your part to lead and steer SAEON to what it is today – a reputable organisation with many success stories. Now it is time to pass on the baton to your successor to take it to even greater heights. You deserve your retirement while you are still healthy and fit to spend time with your family! I hope you will consider opening a crèche so we can enrol our grandchildren under your meticulous care and training.

~ Leluma Matooane, Director: Earth Systems Science at the Department of Science and Innovation

Johan and Leluma discuss global change issues after the launch of Change is in the air, SAEON’s study on climate change impacts in South Africa (Picture: Malachite Media)

Leluma Matooane (second from left) and Prof. Yonah Seleti (with cap) of DSI at the Cathedral Peak research area of the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal with Sue Janse van Rensburg, Coordinator of SAEON’s Grasslands-Forests-Wetlands Node (centre) and members of her team (Picture: Johan Pauw)

“Jaaa Boet” 

I got to know Johan after joining the NRF in 1998 as a professional officer (me) in the Historically Black Universities Programme. At the time, he managed the activities that later morphed into the current SAEON.

Greater interaction with him was as a fellow member of the Interim Focus Area Task Team charged with elaborating the content and operationalisation of the Focus Area Programmes as funding instruments of the NRF. We reconnected again in 2007 as fellow managing directors of National Facilities, me of the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and him of SAEON, and have been in touch ever since.

“Jaaa Boet”, we always said to each other. Johan has always been a calming influence, always grounded, not ever in a hurry for anything, and has expert use of humour to crack any situation.

I have known him as someone who cared for every member of his team. He has mentored many people I know that have become leaders in their own right. From my observation he is someone who gives his team the necessary leeway to do what they need to get done and simply provides the necessary broad framework. He has never been one to micro-manage.

He has been a voice of reason within the Managing Directors Forum, someone sceptical at times, but always applying his sharp mind to the attendant matters of the day in the National Facilities Forum and the Directors Forum within the NRF.

I wish him well in his retirement and hope that we will continue to keep contact and to benefit from his deep well of wisdom. We will certainly miss his sharp wit and his wicked humour.

~ Dr Clifford Nxomani, Deputy CEO: Research Infrastructure and Platforms, National Research Infrastructure Platforms

SAEON and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) signed a memorandum of agreement to implement the integrated environmental management plan for the SKA project in South Africa. From left: Dr Clifford Nxomani; SARAO Managing Director Dr Rob Adam and Johan Pauw at the signing in Pretoria.

SAEON team members photographed with Dr Clifford Nxomani (centre) at the Department of Science and Innovation’s budget vote debate held in Cape Town.