#06 2021

Steering the SAEON ship through the anchoring phase

By William Bond, Albert van Jaarsveld, Joh Henschel and Abeda Dawood

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. ~ Shaun Deyzel   

A brief overview 

I left SAEON nearly four years ago, which is about as long as I was with SAEON (early 2014 to early 2018). Much has happened since I left, notably the conversion of ideas to a complex reality as the Expanded Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) and the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI) come together. They will no doubt make major contributions to meeting the environmental challenges of this century.

South Africa continues to be a scientific leader in the global south, with our own facilities, a long history of data collection, analysed by our own researchers, with a tradition of turning results from our science into policy. That this should be so is not automatic. The success of science in this country depends on people who have the vision and the capability to build the organisations that support the science.

Johan Pauw is one of those rare people who converts ideas into human and physical reality. Back in 1999 the first conversations that led to the creation of SAEON began. It wasn’t quite a garage shed but in 2002 SAEON began with a staff of two: Johan Pauw and Eva Mudau. He must have worked all day and dreamt all night thinking through his plans and how to achieve them.

Starting with very few resources he succeeded in building the large vibrant enterprise we now know as SAEON. Among his diverse talents is the critical one of spotting people with the ability and the passion to build the nodes which were the basis of the SAEON vision. Only by distributing the research and monitoring platforms to diverse parts of South Africa could we do justice to South Africa’s astonishing biological, ecological and social diversity.

As a terrestrial ecologist I had some exposure to our diverse terrestrial biomes. However, I had stopped short at the seashore. Yet among my richest memories of my time at SAEON were those of the intricacies of coastal zone ecology and being awakened to the importance of the Agulhas Current and the technology used to study it.

Now Johan is a strictly terrestrial man. It was easy to see that by his nervousness on the ski boat as we set out to explore Algoa Bay. Yet he had initiated these two marine nodes which had thrived under the inspired node managers and researchers. The breadth and depth of SAEON’s reach might have defeated a lesser man but Johan came through it all still looking (quite) young and almost unlined with worry wrinkles.

An important part of the original vision was the training of a new generation of South Africans through exposure to our remarkable natural environments. From the high school classes taught by node staff to the PhDs and postdocs employed in SAEON research, you can see the great success of the training endeavour. I was very aware as a university professor of how many postgraduate students were keen on working with SAEON because it gave them a feeling of a cooperative and targeted endeavour, larger than themselves and important to society. I have no doubt that SAEON has helped build the foundations of a future generation of scientists and citizens aware of, and capable of, coping with the environmental challenges of the future.

Back in 2002 who would have believed that so much was achievable in the 20 years of SAEON’s existence. We owe a great deal to Johan Pauw for his foresight, astuteness, understanding of organisation and people, and his ability to bring it all together.

I hope he will continue to help SAEON with a steady hand, where needed, far into the future. The need for SAEON in this challenging century has never looked greater.   

~ William Bond, Emeritus Professor, University of Cape Town, Chief Scientist, SAEON, 2014–2018

On a hiking trail during a Graduate Student Network Indibano, Professor William Bond described many of the interesting and complex aspects of fynbos and pointed out a few of the diverse plants and some of the life history differences between them

Professor Bond responds to a question from the audience during the launch of the climate change booklet, Change is in the Air – Ecological Trends and their Drivers in South Africa

Pioneering and entrenching long-term research

Johan originally had a notion, passionately advanced using whatever-it-takes.

The scene was set in Florence, Italy, in July 1998. For the first time, African countries participated at an International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER) event and expressed interest in joining this network to document global change. South Africa was represented by Johan Pauw, who used the opportunity to invite the next ILTER Annual General Meeting (AGM) to Skukuza, South Africa, in 1999.

At the Skukuza workshop organised by Johan, ILTER representatives discussed with scientists from African institutions the idea of developing LTER programmes. Exchange visits between US-LTER sites and African countries followed to facilitate the planning of African country LTER networks. Meticulous planning entailing consultative and information-exchange processes spearheaded by Johan led to the establishment of SAEON in 2002 and the roll-out of the initial six SAEON nodes in the next decade.

In September 2003 Johan was accompanied by Mbangi Nepfumbada (second from left), then research director of the Department of Water Affairs, South Africa, to the Seattle ILTER AGM, here seen with Joh Henschel (Namibia) and Harry Chabwela (Zambia).

The then chair of ILTER, Hen-Biau King, and Johan as chair of ELTOSA (Environmental Long-Term Observation network of Southern Africa) present the Namibian Minister of Environment and Tourism, Willem Konjore, with a book, while Joh Henschel (Namibia), Tim O’Connor (South Africa) and James Chimphamba (Malawi) look on (left corner of the picture).

Johan got it right by being passionate, persuasive, persistent and patient, involving partners every step of the way. The key was getting beyond lip-service support for LTER until the South African government contributed core funding for SAEON through the NRF. This support provided the operational springboard to unfold programmes and obtain additional funding for research projects.

While SAEON’s foundations were designed and based on core partnerships, its subsequent programmatic growth developed along trajectories with traction. This process entailed the kind of long-term vision, flexibility, endurance, operational prudence and outcome-based expectations that Johan established with SAEON’s growing management team in consultation with core partners.

As the representative of the budding Namibian and African regional LTER networks that came into being with temporary donor support, I had a ringside seat of the early development of SAEON and Johan’s foundational roles in this.

~ Dr Joh Henschel, Research Associate, SAEON Arid Lands Node

Johan as bowsprit figurehead of the boat (a) that took him and Joh out to the confluence of the Amazon River with the Rio Negro (b) during the ILTER 2004 meeting in Manaus, Brazil.

Sowing the seeds 

I first met Johan when he was a programme manager at the National Research Foundation (NRF). Our working relationship started during the very early days of the LTER/SAEON exploratory discussions, first at a broad workshop of ecologists held in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park in 1999, and then also during a formal proposal presentation to the NRF and exploratory discussions with Rob Adam (then Director-General at the Department of Science and Technology), Mike Muller (then Director-General at Water Affairs) and Gerhard von Gruenewaldt (then vice-president of the NRF).

At the time Johan was the coordinating programme manager, but little did I know then that he would eventually become the first managing director of SAEON. At SAEON, Johan subsequently developed a significant career by first successfully establishing the respective nodes with a diversity of partner organisations around South Africa and then elevating the nodes to prominence in the South African ecosystem monitoring landscape.

Only after I joined the NRF in 2007 did I get the first real opportunity to work more closely with Johan at SAEON. Here I found a meticulous manager that always placed the interests of his staff first and was quietly developing a strong network of ecologists across the respective SAEON nodes.

I will always remember Johan best in the field – a nature lover, a committed hiker, a thoughtful man, a quiet and very private man, not a very talkative man! And not a boisterous person either – even the best joke could at best extract a short “grmmph” or smirk from him. A belly laugh was a rare occurrence.

Johan, may you find the peace and quiet you deserve after a very successful career at SAEON and the NRF. Go well!

~ Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, Director General, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld (left) and members of the NRF Executive Committee witness a research project at the SAEON Ndlovu Node

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld and members of the NRF Executive Committee with Ndlovu Node staff at Mariepskop

Dr Albert van Jaarsveld with Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation, at the launch of the SAEON publication, Observations on Environmental Change in South Africa

SAEON, the Prequel 

I am reminded of Johan whenever I drive through Worcester in the Western Cape, his hometown.

Fresh out of varsity, Johan was my first manager back in 1997 at the Foundation for Research and Development (FRD), which later became the NRF. I am grateful for that as he was a wonderful mentor who allowed me to grow into the position and gave me many opportunities – for travel, for networking and for personal growth. I was fortunate as he really gave me a thorough grounding in research management practices that always ensured that the research community were consulted on our initiatives.

He was always a calm, modest man, with a dry sense of humour, who installed confidence in others. He led our team with fairness and transparency and ensured that we also worked closely with other sections such as the Historically Black Universities (HBU) section.

Soon after starting my job, Johan advised me to buy a place in Rietondale after hearing I was house hunting. I think that was the suburb where he lived. Not really understanding what he was aiming at, I instead bought a little flat close to the NRF, as I don’t like driving. Since that flat, I have lived in many parts of the country from Louis Trichardt in the north to Cape Town in the south. About three years ago, guess where I settled? In the beautiful suburb of Rietondale of course! And the reason I went there was for the good schools and that it is family friendly… clearly Johan was thinking far ahead, more than I was.

Johan and I spent many hours driving to various universities. I still vividly recall a trip to the University of Venda, driving there with Johan in his station wagon, watching out for wildlife along the N1 North. We arrived at Univen to burning tyres at the entrance but that did not phase Johan at all! On the return trip, in line with the theme of the trip, I had six hours of largely listening to Leonard Cohen, one of Johan’s favourite artists – a very depressing drive back.

Our section strategic planning sessions were great – hard work combined with fun team-building exercises. One memorable session was at a local nature reserve, Dikhololo, where we could go mountain biking. This was such fun as most of us had not cycled in years – until we came across a giraffe on the road!

One of the activities that the Sustainable Environment Theme had was the support we provided to various forums such as the Indigenous Plant Use Forum. These forum meetings took place all over the country and were very well attended by stakeholders.

One of the initiatives we undertook was the development of the Long Term Ecological Research Network. This was done in a consultative and sustainable way and led to the formation of SAEON. More recently, at a SAEON book launch at the Science Forum South Africa conference, I met Johan at the SAEON cubicle. He was there, still with his sleeves rolled up, working hard with his staff, on the ground. That is the Johan I came to know and love!

I read the SAEON annual report soon thereafter, and it really embodies JP as a person – it is modest, realistic and gives one confidence!

~ Dr Abeda Dawood, freelance consultant to the Tshwane University of Technology and the African Academy of Sciences