Editors' Choice

May/June 2021

A newly discovered Early Jurassic theropod trackway near Storm Shelter in the Eastern Cape in South Africa contains not only the smallest tracks in the Clarens Formation, but also the most elongated dinosaur footprints in southern Africa to date. The tracks show that the small bipedal trackmaker dashed across the wet sediment surface at an estimated running speed of ~12.5 km per hour. During the dash, either as a predator or as a prey, the trackmaker’s small feet sunk hallux-deep into the sediment. Bordy documents this newly discovered Early Jurassic trackway of very small, functionally tridactyl tracks and presents the footprint dimensions, locomotor parameters (step length, stride, speed), and body size estimates of the trackmaker. Based on the track morphometrics and the regional dinosaur skeletal record, the trackmaker is attributed to Megapnosaurus rhodesiensis – a small-to-medium-sized, early theropod common in southern Africa in the Jurassic.

 

Rak and colleagues argue that the skeletons of two individuals from the Malapa Cave site in South Africa that were attributed to a new hominin species, Australopithecus sediba, actually represent two separate genera: Australopithecus and Homo. These genera are known to have jointly occupied sites, as seen in several early South African caves, so it is possible that Malapa also contains remains of both taxa. Rak et al.'s analysis of the specimens’ mandibles indicates that Australopithecus sediba is not a ‘Homo-like australopith’ – a transitional species between Australopithecus africanus and Homo. Their results also indicate that all the Australopithecus species on which the relevant mandibular anatomy is preserved are too specialised to constitute an evolutionary ancestor of Homo sapiens.

 

Thermal and electrical burn injuries affect millions of people globally each year and South Africa is a developing country in which fatal fires are common. Keyes and Liphoko reviewed 185 case files of fatal burns received at the Johannesburg Forensic Pathology Services Medico-Legal Laboratory from 2010 to 2014. Those most at risk of fatal burns are black individuals, male individuals, and individuals 30–39 years old. Thermal burns, as a result of flames, are the most common type of burn and are prevalent in the winter months, most notably in August. Electrical burns are relatively rare. Burn wounds are most common to the head, chest, back, and abdomen. Johannesburg has a lower burn mortality rate than Cape Town, Pretoria and Mpumalanga.

 

About 90% of all medical devices in South Africa are imported. As medical devices have a key role to play in addressing South Africa’s burden of disease, innovation in this area is vital. Salie and colleagues assessed knowledge development and exchange among actors who patent orthopaedic devices in South Africa over the period 2000–2015 as an indication of innovation activity. Their results show that university, healthcare and industry organisations have primarily been responsible for increased patenting over time. National universities were found to make a small contribution, and science councils were found to be absent, despite the efforts in the changing innovation landscape to encourage publicly financed research organisations to protect their intellectual property. The collaboration networks were found to be sparse and disjointed, with many actors – mostly clinicians from the private healthcare sector – patenting in isolation.

 

Compliance with the Protection of Personal Information Act No. 4 of 2013 (POPIA) will be mandatory for all sectors in South Africa from 1 July 2021. To promote understanding and compliance with POPIA within the research community in South Africa, a Code of Conduct for Research is being developed through a transparent and consultative process led by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). The Commentary by Adams and colleagues describes the purpose and process of the Code of Conduct for Research which, it is envisaged, will be submitted by ASSAf to the Information Regulator by early June 2021. The proposed Code will pertain to all research conducted in South Africa which uses personal information as defined under POPIA as part of the research process. The full scope of the Code of Conduct is set out in the Discussion Document by Adams et al.

 

March/April 2021

Poor communities have borne more of the burden of the lockdown than have suburban communities in South Africa, according to original evidence presented by Turok and colleagues. Blanket national measures have not been sensitive to these variations, with the unintended consequence of amplifying inequalities. National programmes need complementary efforts to boost jobs and livelihoods in and around vulnerable communities. This means targeting particular kinds of places as well as specific groups of people in tackling poverty. Treating unequal places in the same way will not narrow the gap between them. Turok et al.’s evidence comes from Waves 1 and 2 of the ongoing National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM). The NIDS-CRAM was designed as a ‘barometer’ to assess the socio-economic impact of COVID-19. Suburbs started out in February 2020 in a much stronger position, with 58% of adults in paid employment, compared with 51% in the townships, 45% in peri-urban areas and 59% among shack dwellers. After Level 5 lockdown was imposed, suburbs lost one in seven jobs (14%) by April 2020, compared with one in four in the townships (24%) and peri-urban areas (23%) and more than a third of jobs (36%) in shack areas. More than half of peri-urban respondents (54%) lived in households that received social grants in June 2020, compared with less than half of township residents (45%), two in five shack dwellers (40%) and one in four suburban residents (26%). In terms of special relief from the crisis, less than one in three peri-urban residents (29%) said that someone in their household had received the COVID-19 grant, compared with 27% in townships, 18% of shack dwellers and 16% in suburban areas. These differences are smaller than for other grants, suggesting that the COVID-19 grant has benefitted people who did not qualify for government support before, such as unemployed men. The proportion of respondents who said their household had run out of money to buy food in April 2020 was 31% in the suburbs, 48% in the townships and 61% in the shack areas. By June 2020, these proportions had come down to 24% in the suburbs, 40% in the townships and 50% in the shack areas. The proportion of respondents who said that someone in their household had gone hungry in the last seven days (in May/June 2020) was 11% in the suburbs, 22% in the townships and 32% in the shack areas. By July/August 2020, these proportions had come down to 7% in the suburbs, 16% in the townships and 22% in the shack areas. Government grants have clearly helped to protect livelihoods in poor communities and compensate for high unemployment rates. However, there is a corresponding risk to living standards if the temporary relief is withdrawn before the labour market has recovered. Such a scenario would aggravate human suffering and misery.

 

The global challenges posed by COVID-19 are immense and undeniable. Yet the concurrent acceleration of 4IR technologies has not only afforded an important tool for diagnosis and prevention of illness – not to mention providing ways to stay connected – it has also created opportunities for further applications. Ntombi Mathe reports on a webinar titled ‘Unlocking COVID-19 current realities, future opportunities: Artificial intelligence in the time of COVID-19’ which addressed the impacts of AI on our lives and society as a whole, the regulation thereof, and how we can use AI to create a better normal and address societal needs in a more equitable manner.

 

With a population of over 59 million, South Africa will need a suitably sized workforce to meet the demand of the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out. Currently in South Africa, those healthcare professionals allowed to vaccinate are doctors and nurses. According to Velisha Perumal-Pillay, South Africa should expand this workforce to include pharmacists, to be able to meet the immediate demand for vaccinators. Pharmacists in countries such as the USA, UK and Australia, have been providing vaccination services for years. The International Pharmaceutical Federation strongly promotes pharmacists as vaccinators and is advocating for countries to update their regulations. The benefit of pharmacists as vaccinators in South Africa would not only be immediate to meet demand for COVID-19 vaccination and lessen the burden on other healthcare professionals, but also long term through continuation of current immunisation services to sustain and maybe even improve vaccination coverage, which currently is poor. 

 

The impacts experienced during recent severe weather events in southern Africa show that more needs to be done to increase weather awareness, and build disaster risk management systems, including disaster preparedness and risk reduction. Weather affects our daily lives from what we wear and our electricity consumption to the traffic we experience. Severe weather can cause damage to property, injuries and even death. Detailed and accurate weather forecasts that are issued and communicated timeously, and actioned upon, can reduce the impact of severe weather events. The South African Weather Service (SAWS) is responsible for providing forecasts nationally as well as regionally within the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Bopape and colleagues evaluated SAWS weather information using near real-time observations and models on the nowcasting to short-range forecasting timescales during two severe weather events: Idai tropical cyclone in March 2019 which impacted Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi resulting in over 1000 deaths, and the floods over the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province in April 2019 that caused over 70 deaths. Their results show that weather models gave an indication of these systems in advance, with warnings issued at least 2 days in advance in the case of Idai and 1 day in advance for the KZN floods. Nowcasting systems were also in place for detailed warnings to be provided as events progressed. They also found shortcomings in model simulations, in particular on locating the KZN flood event properly and over/underestimation of the event. Despite advanced warnings, the impacts experienced during the two events indicate that more needs to be done to increase weather awareness, and build disaster risk management systems, including disaster preparedness and risk reduction. 

 

During the early evening of 27 July 2018, residents in various towns and farming settlements in southwestern Madagascar observed a rapidly moving bright light in the sky for a few seconds before it exploded into multiple smaller glowing fragments with smoke trails that descended more steeply before extinguishing. Using eyewitness reports, infrasound records, seismograph records and cosmogenic radionuclide analysis, Gibson and colleagues confirm that this event was a meteorite fall. Despite multiple stones falling in and around the town of Benenitra, no damage or injuries were reported. Petrographic and geochemical analyses of recovered stones confirm that the meteorite is an L6 ordinary chondrite. Recovery of meteorite falls is rare; this is Madagascar’s second known meteorite fall and the first that can be linked to a bolide – a bright fireball caused by the penetration of Earth’s upper atmosphere by a meteoroid travelling at hypersonic speed (>11 km/s). The bolide released an estimated 2.038 kt equivalent of energy on its transit through the upper atmosphere and final terminal burst, sufficient to be recorded by the infrasound station 542 km north-northeast of Benenitra, and by the seismograph station 77 km to the north-northwest. The reported recovered mass of stones of ~22 kg is likely to represent a small fraction of the total mass of the fall.

 

Moringa (Moringa oleifera) – a perennial, drought-tolerant and resilient crop that can survive a wide range of environmental and climatic conditions – may well be the key to malnutrition and poverty alleviation as well as climate change mitigation for marginal communities in South Africa. Considering the predicted climatic changes which are likely to have adverse consequences for farming, moringa could serve as a feasible alternative crop for rural inhabitants. Moringa is well known globally for its multitude of uses, including nutrition, medicine, livestock feed, plant growth enhancer, cosmetics, water purification and biofuel production. Almost all its parts contain nutrients such as proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Mashamaite and colleagues reviewed work done on moringa within a South African context. Since moringa, which is native to northern India, was introduced to rural communities in the Limpopo Province as a cultivated crop in 2006, national interest in the tree has grown, with the South African government, farmers and higher education institutions initiating moringa-oriented projects. A variety of foodstuffs is currently available: moringa spice, mahewu, tea leaves, ice tea, peanut butter, energy drinks and yoghurts. Moringa is now grown in six of South Africa’s nine provinces, although studies show that it could be grown in all nine provinces. 

 

Caries (or dental decay) has been present throughout human evolution, with fossil hominins from South Africa affected by this disease. Once considered rare in fossil hominins, caries has recently been reported in several hominin species. Towle and colleagues analysed fossil tooth specimens of HomoHomo nalediAustralopithecus sedibaAustralopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus for caries prevalence and location. They found caries rates of 1–5% of teeth affected – similar to rates of pre-agricultural human groups. The South African fossil hominins display lesions on their posterior teeth, suggesting sugary foods were consumed. Caries tends also to be more common in the posterior teeth in modern humans. Differences in prevalence and position of caries can provide insight into dietary aspects of past populations. 

 

January/February 2021

There has never been a more urgent need to restore damaged ecosystems than now.
UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration
 
The aim of the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration (2021–2031) is “to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems on every continent and in every ocean…to end poverty, combat climate change and prevent a mass extinction”. Ecosystem restoration refers not only to the recovery of degraded ecosystems, but also to the conservation of intact ecosystems.

The loss of natural habitat resulting from human activities is the principal driver of biodiversity loss in terrestrial ecosystems in South Africa. Monitoring trends and patterns of habitat loss at a national scale provides a basis for informed environmental decision-making and planning, thus equipping civil society and government to address habitat loss and protect biodiversity while also meeting key development and socio-economic needs. Skowno and colleagues present, for the first time, key metrics of habitat loss across South Africa at national and biome levels. Approximately 22% of the natural habitat of South Africa has been lost since the arrival of European settlers. The relatively mesic Grassland, Fynbos, and Indian Ocean Coastal Belt biomes have lost the most habitat, while the arid Nama-Karoo, Succulent Karoo, and Desert have lost the least. Rates of loss have increased across all biomes in recent years (2014–2018), indicating that the historical drivers of change (i.e. expansion of croplands, human settlements, plantation forestry and mining) are intensifying overall.

Hoffman et alexamine the research that occurred in the Nama-Karoo and Succulent Karoo biomes over three decades ago and identify gaps that still exist in regard to land-use changes and their intersecting social and ecological impacts, as well as the environmental effects of the mining and fracking industries in the Karoo.

Large-scale monitoring programmes are critical for understanding spatio-temporal trends and changes. Pardo and colleagues report on the Snapshot Safari Network – a large-scale international camera-trap network established to study and monitor the diversity and ecological dynamics of southern and eastern African mammals. It was initiated in 2010 and is now one of the largest camera-trap networks in the world with sites in six African countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Africa is a highly diverse continent with many mammalian species that are threatened by human activities such as poaching and overhunting, as well as climate and land-use change. The combination of citizen science and cutting-edge technologies has improved monitoring programmes and Snapshot Safari’s integration of scientists, citizens and machine-learning technology can provide meaningful assessments of Africa’s mammals at fine or broad scales.

Fisher urges long-term monitoring of white sharks on the South African coastline after reporting a substantial decrease in white shark sightings from 2011 to 2018. This decrease in sightings indicates a potentially serious decline in the white shark population and correlates with the overfishing of prey species, bycatch, the use of lethal gill nets, and ecological changes such as the novel presence of orca. If sightings of white sharks continue to decrease, then there is likely to be a negative effect on the distribution of other coastal species, and a reduction in the biodiversity of South Africa’s marine ecosystem. Despite uncertainties, there is strong evidence highlighting the negative impacts of a poorly managed demersal longline fishery. Given the ecological and economic importance of the white shark to South Africa, better fisheries management and population monitoring are imperative.

 

South Africa has one of the highest incidences of lightning-related injuries and deaths. People residing in South Africa’s rural areas are often outdoors due to work activities such as subsistence farming and livestock herding and, as such, are the most prone to facing lightning-related risks. Despite South Africa having one of only three ground-based lightning detection networks in the southern hemisphere, there is no dissemination of alerts at a local level and rural communities remain vulnerable to lightning – the occurrence of which is predicted to increase with climate change. Rural areas also lack lightning-safe shelters and have fewer fully enclosed metal-topped vehicles. Mahomed et al. recommend investigation of the most effective way to utilise existing monitoring networks to alert rural communities in a timeous and comprehensible manner in languages that are understood within the communities and of design guidelines for lightning-safe rural dwellings.

 

What is the optimal offer that a bank could make to a home loan client to ensure that the bank meets the maximum profitability threshold while still taking risk into account? Verster et al. present a case study – using real data from a South African bank – to predict take-up rate of home loans using various modelling techniques. Banks could use these models to positively influence their market share and profitability as take-up rate is one of the first factors that needs to be understood to answer the question posed. Unsurprisingly, Verster et al. found that the higher the interest rate offered, the lower the take-up rate, and that the higher the loan-to-value ratio offered, the higher the take-up rate, with bank customers being less sensitive to the loan-to-value ratio than to interest rate. Image: Nick Youngson (CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

Ron Clarke, the discoverer of ‘Little Foot’ – a hominin skeleton from Sterkfontein Caves in South Africa – classified the skeleton on the basis of its unique skull morphology as Australopithecus prometheus, a species distinct from the better-known and co-occurring Australopithecus africanusClarke and colleagues now describe late Pliocene and early Pleistocene hominin lower limb fossils from Sterkfontein Caves, including two femoral specimens, a partial tibia and a partial fibula. The fossils are likely assignable to A. africanus and/or A. prometheus and the morphology of each corroborates previous interpretations of Sterkfontein hominins as at least facultative bipeds. When considered in a comparative context, they support the hypothesis that there was significant (probably interspecific) variation in South African hominin postcranial morphology during the late Pliocene and early Pleistocene. Caption: StW 598, a hominin left proximal femur from Sterkfontein Caves, shown in (left to right) superior, anterior, medial, posterior and lateral views (bar scale = 1 cm) (image: Pickering et al.).

 

Despite significant progress made towards improving HIV testing rates in South Africa using the conventional, facility-based approach, it has been insufficient to reach the UNAIDS and World Health Organization’s (WHO) 90–90–90 goal of testing by 2020. HIV self-tests are a user-friendly and accurate testing approach to reach populations that may not have access or seek access to traditional clinic-based testing. The National Department of Health in South Africa requires HIV self-tests to be approved by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority or be prequalified by the WHO. Majam et al. assessed four HIV self-testing devices that were not prequalified at the time. The average usability index (97.1%), sensitivity (98.2%) and specificity (99.8%) were all very high, suggesting that these HIV self-tests are appropriate for WHO prequalification, and subsequently, the South African market.

 

November/December 2020

When plants get sick
Most everyone is now accustomed to wearing a face mask, sanitising their hands, and quarantining when travelling to help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. But few of us are aware of the International Phytosanitary Measures of the International Plant Protection Convention that are in place to protect the world’s plant resources from pests and diseases. Because plants get sick too. And, like diseases that affect humans, the incidence of plants affected by pests and diseases is increasing with the expansion of global trade and travel and climate change.

And when plants get sick, it affects our health, and the health of other animals and the ecosystem in general. Plants are the source of the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat, and various other products such as medicines, shelter and wood for fuel. Pests and diseases of plants are responsible for losses of 20–40% of global food production, and trade losses of more than USD220 billion every year.

Yet despite their importance, plant health is often overlooked by the public and policymakers. By protecting plant health, we can enhance productivity and feed a growing global population to end hunger and reduce poverty, protect the environment, and boost economic development.

The United Nations declared 2020 the International Year of Plant Health to bring attention to increasing threats to plant health and the consequences thereof for food security, among others.

To commemorate the International Year of Plant Health, the South African Journal of Science invited leading plant pathologists and entomologists in South Africa to contribute to this special issue which includes the history of plant pathology in South Africa, the benefit of natural science collections, tree health, sustainable crop health, and the epidemiology and management of diseases caused by viruses, fungi and insect pests that affect some of the major crops in South Africa, namely maize, wheat, rice, potatoes, tomatoes, citrus and bananas. This wealth of the latest research and reviews will help inform not only plant pathologists and food growers, but also policymakers and the public of the importance of plant health.

Our own health depends on plants while the health of plants depends on us.
Mirko Montuori, UN Food and Agriculture Organization

 

September/October 2020

The theme for Peer Review Week this year (21–25 September 2020) was “Trust in Peer Review”. Peer Review Week is celebrated globally each year to recognise the vital role that peer review plays in ensuring scientific quality. To honour this goal, this issue of the South African Journal of Science includes a series of articles – published during Peer Review Week – on the role of peer review in journals, of journals and of researchers.

Despite the Pandora’s box associated with peer review, including bias, gatekeeping and the lack of recognition, it is still overwhelmingly considered to be the best approach in assessing and upholding quality. Perhaps the most visible recent demonstration of the importance of the role of peer review has been the negative outcomes that have resulted from circumvention or disruption of the peer review process during the COVID-19 pandemic.

So can we trust in peer review? Yes! As Tomaselli summarises in his Commentary: ‘For science, peer review is the fuel that drives the system. For authors, peer review is quality control, and for readers, the practice is an assurance of reasonable validity. For the public, peer review, especially in the medical sciences, could be the difference between life and death.’

 

There is a general perception that ruminants produce large quantities of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that contribute to global warming. Scholtz and colleagues debunk this perception, estimating that livestock are responsible for only 4% of the world’s GHG through methane production during enteric fermentation. In the developing world, millions of children experience impaired cognitive development as a result of poor nutrition due to the insufficient consumption of livestock-source foods. Only ruminants can utilise areas of non-arable land where vegetation is rich in fibre and convert this fibre into high-quality nutrients for human consumption. Without ruminants to eat this vegetation, what would happen to it? It might be consumed by wild animals that would also produce methane. It could be burned in wildfires, resulting in the emission of carbon dioxide (also a GHG) which has an atmospheric lifetime of 100–200 years, compared with 12 years for methane. Or it could rot, producing nitrous oxide (another GHG) which has a global warming potential almost 300 times more than that of carbon dioxide, compared with methane’s 20-fold higher global warming potential. 

 

Human germline editing holds much promise for improving people’s lives, but at the same time this highly contentious novel biotechnology raises ethical and legal questions and carries as yet unknown possible genetic risks and consequences for future generations. Germline editing is the modification of the genome of germline cells (such as eggs and sperm) and is more controversial than is the editing of somatic cells because the modification is heritable. Thaldar and colleagues explore South Africa’s current position in terms of legal and ethical regulation of human germline editing and consider what the country’s position should be in light of our Constitution. They propose five principles that are aligned with the values of the Constitution to guide much needed ethical and legal policy reform regarding human germline editing in South Africa.

 

Statistical learning techniques could be used to identify electricity fraud in South Africa. South Africa’s power supply is under pressure. A steady supply of power is further compromised by revenue loss as a result of electricity theft through bypassing or tampering with meters. Eskom – which generates 95% of South Africa’s energy – lost about R5 billion (USD300 million) in 2016 as a consequence of electricity theft. Pazi and colleagues compared the performance of three algorithms in terms of accuracy, precision, detection rate and true negative rate using Nelson Mandela Bay municipality as a case study, to provide data analysts with a procedure for detecting abnormal electricity consumption. Using fraud detection systems that have been used in the finance, banking and insurance sectors, can allow municipalities to target potentially fraudulent users more expeditiously than through on-site inspections.

 

The City of Cape Town pumps 40 million litres of untreated sewage into the Atlantic Ocean from the Green Point outfall pipeline every day. Despite a long history of opposition from citizens and scientists, repeated instances of pollution and ill-health, and expensive maintenance, the City of Cape Town has remained committed to the Green Point outfall. Overy explores how the decision to build this marine outfall was reached in 1895. The story of the Green Point outfall is one in which short-term monetary thinking has thwarted the search for an ecologically and hydrologically sustainable alternative means of sewage disposal – a legacy the City’s residents and the oceans that surround it live with today.

 

Newly identified hominin tracksites are evidence that hominin tracks are more common in southern Africa than was previously supposed. Helm and colleagues have identified three new Pleistocene hominin tracksites on the Cape south coast of South Africa – one in the Garden Route National Park and two in the Goukamma Nature Reserve. Southern Africa now boasts six hominin tracksites, which are collectively the oldest sites in the world that are attributed to Homo sapiens. Tracks of varying size were present, indicating the presence of more than one trackmaker and raising the possibility of family groups. The tracks were made by early humans on dune surfaces, and have been preserved in aeolianites (cemented dune deposits), thus providing a record of their occurrence.

 

July/August 2020

In an article published in the South African Journal of Science in 1990 (vol 86(4):182–186), renowned UCT virologist Edward Rybicki described viruses as ‘organisms at the edge of life’. There, he explained how much humanity still needed to learn about these, often lethal, organisms that spread and mutate in many different environments.

Our globalised world has seen saturated media coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. The medical community has not yet been able to understand fully the origins or trajectory of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and an enormous amount of biological research into a vaccination and potential cure lies ahead. However, the pandemic has already bared the fragile and unequal social and economic structures underlying South Africa, and in this issue of the Journal we foreground what contributions the humanities and social sciences can make to charting a path into an improved future. This series of invited contributions – entitled ‘More eyes on COVID-19’ – from experts in diverse disciplines in the humanities and social sciences will have lasting value for our country in the difficult period that lies ahead. The need for ‘more eyes on the problem’ from a wide range of disciplines is echoed in ASSAf’s Public Statement calling for government to draw on a broad range of expertise for its advisory structures.

That the pandemic is not simply a medical problem but a social problem is further evidenced by contributions in this issue by Hedding and colleagues on the effects on higher education and research and by Walwyn who reports on ASSAf’s recent Presidential Roundtable on the future of universities in a post-COVID-19 world.  

Besides the direct health effects, there will be indirect health effects from the pandemic. Chetty and co-authors report on the potential public health risk of extended electronic device use during the pandemic, including impairments to vision, the musculoskeletal system and sleep, while ASSAf’s Standing Committee on Health recently released a Statement on the unanticipated costs of COVID-19 to South Africa’s quadruple disease burden. The Statement advocates for careful priority setting that takes into consideration basic health interventions and services, while simultaneously addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.  

ASSAf’s Public Statement on COVID-19 also recognises the connection between science and credibility and public trust. Joubert analyses the role of Professor Salim Abdool Karim, prominent South African epidemiologist, as the visible and trusted public scientific voice during this pandemic. Joubert dissects the traits that distinguish Abdool Karim’s effective policy interventions, linking them to his willingness to engage with government, the media and the public.  

‘Preventing the next pandemic’ is on everyone’s minds and is the title of the scientific assessment on zoonotic diseases released this month by the United Nations Environment Programme and International Livestock Research Institute. Wernecke and co-authors reflect on the findings of this report as they might apply in South Africa.

 

Information obtained from the tree rings of 1000-year-old baobabs in Pafuri provided the first identification of prominent solar cycles in southern Africa using carbon isotope data. The sun is a variable star that exhibits changes on multiple spatial and temporal scales, and is the most important source of energy for the earth’s climate system. Thus, weather and climate are influenced by solar activity. Solar activity is characterised by periodicities and cycles that vary on a variety of timescales. The most important periodicities are the ~11-year sunspot cycle (also known as the Schwabe cycle), the ~22-year magnetic cycle (also known as the Hale cycle), the 80–110-year Gleissberg cycle and the ~205–year De Vries cycle. Kotzé used annual carbon isotope (δ13C) data obtained from baobab trees (Adansonia digitata L.) for the period 1600 AD – 2000 AD. The data show clear evidence of the presence of characteristic solar periodicities including the ~11-year Schwabe cycle, the ~22-year Hale cycle and the 80–110-year Gleissberg cycle.

 

Allergic respiratory diseases affect 20 million South Africans, with pollen and fungal spores (aerospora) amongst the leading triggers. Asthma triggered by aerospora can be life threatening, and allergic rhinitis causes considerable morbidity and carries financial implications for individuals and health systems. Cases of allergic rhinitis are globally increasing due to climate change. Effective diagnosis and treatment of allergies requires knowledge of geographical variation, seasonal timing and annual aerospora fluctuations in South Africa, where climate and vegetation are exceptionally diverse. Ajikah and colleagues introduce SAPNET – the South African Pollen Network – which was launched in August 2019. Spore traps in seven major South African cities (Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria) monitor weekly variations in aerospora. Such data provide insight into the high–low risk periods for sensitised individuals through weekly online updates (on www.pollencount.co.za), and provide for the development of updated pollen calendars for major cities and provinces spanning different biomes. Information on allergenic aerospora assists health-care providers to make clinical diagnoses and decisions and pollen allergy sufferers to identify plants which have the tendency to produce allergenic pollen in their environment and adopt prophylactic measures

 

Sufficient local log resource options exist to realise a sustainable all-wood residential construction market in South Africa. Timber is not only renewable but is also the best performer across most environmental impact factors when compared to building materials such as steel and concrete, with particularly good performance in terms of greenhouse gas emissions. But only 1% of new residential housing structures in South Africa are wood based. Crafford and Wessels investigated the South African log resource availability and the potential global warming impact of an increasing wood-based residential building market. They show that, with the use of wood resources currently exported as chips and by planting trees in areas that have been earmarked for afforestation, a sustainable wood-based residential building market is possible. Their basic modelling analyses show that if the market share of wood-based buildings increases to 20% of new constructions, the embodied energy and global warming potential of the residential building sector could decrease by 4.9%. If all new constructions were wood based, the total embodied energy and global warming potential of the residential building sector could decrease by up to 30%.

 

May/June 2020

Marine plastic debris in South Africa: From sources to solutions

Major data gaps have led to miscalculations and uncertainties about South Africa’s contribution to marine plastic debris. An important series of reviews on marine plastic debris in South Africa in this issue provides the latest information on the sources, pathways and impacts of marine plastic debris, as well as monitoring of mitigation measures.

Despite global concern and decades of research on marine plastics, there is still a significant lack of research regarding the impacts of marine plastic debris on ecosystem services and on the economy in South Africa, according to the review by Arabi and Nahman. More insight into the economic impacts would help to inform an appropriate policy response.

Better infrastructure is needed to improve monitoring and research on the effects of marine debris in South Africa. Naidoo and colleagues review the effects on marine biota and human health. Marine biota are affected through entanglement with macroplastics (>5 mm) and ingestion of microplastics (≤5 mm). Effects on human health are largely unknown, but shellfish ingestion is a potential source of microplastics for humans, and plastic additives can pose a threat.

Ryan and colleagues report that the monitoring of plastic from land-based sources is best addressed on land (e.g. in storm drains and river run-off) before the plastic reaches the sea. High densities of waste plastic around urban centres indicate that most plastic comes from local, land-based sources and does not disperse far at sea. Beach clean-ups remove up to 90% of the mass of stranded plastic, which is largely found in macroplastic items (>25 mm).

The global model prediction of plastic leakage from South Africa into the sea is probably a gross overestimate. Verster and Bouwman report that more accurate and recent data yield a contribution of between 15 000 to 40 000 tonnes of plastic per year carried to the oceans from South Africa – six-fold less than the widely used previous estimate. The seabed is a long-term sink for marine plastics, but densities of plastic on the seabed around South Africa are still modest.

Microplastics can also enter the marine environment through inadequately treated waste-water effluent discharged into the ocean. Although waste-water treatment plants are reported to remove most plastic from waste water, the state of waste-water treatment plants in South Africa is a key concern: up to 40% of the country’s waste water is untreated. Microplastics can also enter the drinking water value chain through this route. Ubomba-Jaswa and Kalebaila report on a study commissioned by the Water Research Commission in which microplastics were found in drinking water in South Africa.

 

Marine plastic debris in South Africa: What is being done?

Marlin and Ribbink report on the African Marine Waste Network (AMWN) and its aim to achieve ‘Zero Plastics to the Seas of Africa’. The AMWN was launched in 2016 as the main programme of the Sustainable Seas Trust and works with all 54 African countries to reduce the amount of plastic entering the sea. Africa faces many waste-management challenges, together with high population growth, rapid urbanisation, high poverty and increasing consumption, which are collectively contributing to Africa becoming the most plastic polluted continent. Hanekom describes the ‘South African Initiative to End Plastic Pollution in the Environment’. This Initiative was formed in 2019 in recognition of the need to develop a workable local plan that fits the South African context and addresses our unique environmental, social, economic and political issues. Six working groups address different aspects of the Initiative: (1) technology, innovation and design, (2) infrastructure, (3) bioplastics and alternatives, (4) education and awareness, (5) standards and compliance and (6) integrating waste pickers into the circular economy. The circular economy concept provides a solution to the plastic pollution quandary by providing a way forward to decouple material consumption from economic growth and increase the value of secondary material, thus ultimately decreasing waste and pollution. The circular economy response to plastic pollution is detailed by De Kock and colleagues.

 


 

Marama (Tylosema esculentum) is a climate smart crop with potential for contributing to food security in arid regions. Starch is a major dietary source of energy for humans and accounts for 90% of caloric intake in developing countries. Both the seeds and storage root of marama have a high nutrient value and are consumed as food. The desired functional properties of the marama storage root can be achieved by controlling growth time. Hamunyela and colleagues determined the most suitable time for harvesting marama root, finding that the optimum time for harvesting as a root vegetable is at 4 months and for its starch content at 8 months post-planting; highest crude protein was found at 2 months. Planting should be undertaken at the beginning of summer to allow harvesting before the plants’ reserves are depleted during winter. Marama is a wild-growing and drought-tolerant legume, native to the arid and semi-arid regions of southern Africa. Marama grows naturally in poor soil and thrives in arid conditions in which few conventional crops can survive.

 

Scott and colleagues have demonstrated the considerable potential of lead isotopes for use as a dietary and palaeodietary tracer in near-coastal systems in fields as diverse as archaeology, palaeontology, wildlife ecology and forensics. Scott and colleagues examined strontium and lead isotopes as biogeochemical tracers for studying diet and landscape usage in southwestern South Africa in both contemporary and ancient contexts – the first-ever investigation of lead isotopes for this purpose. Consumer body tissues record the isotopic composition of food and water ingested in life, and because isotopes vary across landscapes, they provide a natural tracer of diet and migration. Geologically recent sediments of marine origin in near-coastal environments could be distinguished from older geologies further inland using strontium isotopes, but Cape granites could only be distinguished using lead isotopes. Unlike strontium, lead isotopic ratios are not influenced by marine input because of the low concentration of lead in seawater. A combination of strontium and lead isotope data can therefore be valuable in coastal terrestrial environments to trace migration and landscape usage.

 

March/April 2020

This single coelacanth was sighted at about 09:00 on 22 November 2019 by a team of divers on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The dive team, together with Mike Bruton, describe the sighting and its significance. Despite the attention of the divers and their strobe lights, the coelacanth remained relatively motionless. At an estimated 180–200 cm and 100 kg, it almost certainly is a female individual as male coelacanths rarely exceed 150 cm in length. This estimated size is comparable to the largest coelacanths on record according to the Coelacanth Conservation Council. The sighting is significant for a number of reasons. The location indicates that coelacanths live further south along our coast than previously believed. The depth of the sighting (69 m) suggests that they may live in shallower waters than thought, at least at the southern end of their range. This in itself is significant because it means that they may be more accessible for study to mixed-gas divers and shallow-water remotely operated vehicles and submersibles. The discovery also reveals how little we know about our marine life. That coelacanths may have been living undiscovered off the heavily fished south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, despite their high profile, suggests that many remarkable discoveries remain to be made in our oceans.

Image: Coelacanth off Pumula on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, South Africa, on 22 November 2019 (photo: Bruce Henderson)

 

Despite an enviable Constitution that protects against discrimination on the basis of gender, South Africa still experiences a gender pay gap of 23–35%. That is, women in South Africa are paid one-quarter to one-third less than their male counterparts. Although South Africa is doing comparatively well – 1st in Africa and 19th globally – the effects of the gender wage gap are even broader when it is considered that almost 40% of South African households are headed by women and half of those support extended family members – and that these households are 40% poorer than those headed by men. Bosch and Barit review and compare global and national mechanisms of pay transparency and propose a way forward for South Africa. The World Economic Forum has estimated that closing the gender economic gap may take another 202 years! The need to prioritise transparency in gender wage equality is clear.

 

Research productivity is influenced by a combination of factors that include age, gender, rank, experience and qualifications, discipline, and collaboration and co-authorship. Two– race and co-authorship – are examined in this issue. Sooryamoorthy and Mtshali examined the inter-relationship between race and research productivity of scholars in 22 science departments in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and found notable differences. African respondents had lower than average productivity (measured by the number of research publications) in 2008, but higher than average productivity in 2014. Although this increase may indicate a positive change as a measure of transformation in higher education in South Africa, a significant proportion of the African respondents were foreign nationals who had moved to South Africa. De Jager and colleagues examined the relationship between collaboration and citations of health science publications from the University of Cape Town. They found not only that the relative citation rate was higher for publications that were co-authored by international co-authors, but that the publications with the highest relative citation rates were those driven by authors from foreign institutions. They conclude that this apparent influence of, and possible dependence on, foreign drivers for high citation impact holds risk for South African science.

 

Helm and colleagues have discovered fossil tracks, including probable swim traces, on the Cape south coast that were likely made by large reptiles living in the Pleistocene. Theirs is the first report of reptile swim traces in Africa. The tracks appear to have been made by more than one reptile species, but no reptiles of comparable size are found in the region today. The tracksites lie within the Wilderness Embayment of the Garden Route National Park and none of the tracksites found was in situ. There were 14 surfaces with tracksites identified. One of the larger surfaces described has since been buried by a landslide that occurred earlier this year – signifying the importance of early detection and documentation of newly exposed tracksites.

Image: A rock surface showing fossil large reptile tracks. This surface has since been buried. Photo: Helm et al.

 

Reports of the spread of aerosols from the recent and devastating Australian bushfires extending across the South Pacific Ocean as far as Chile and Argentina are well known. What is generally less well known is that aerosols from biomass burning in southern Africa are also transported as far as Australia and South America. Although the transport of aerosols from southern Africa over the Indian Ocean towards Australia has been postulated for over 25 years, McGill and colleagues present the first observations that can support the modelled predictions. Using the Cloud-Aerosol Transport System (CATS) instrument onboard the International Space Station, which has the sensitivity to detect aerosol transport, McGill and colleagues report that transport from Africa to Australia generally took 5 to 7 days.

 

The complex nature of the chemical bond gives rise to the amazing variety of materials that are available in the world today. And the discovery of new materials is sure to drive the technologies of the future. In this endeavour, South Africa – which is rich in mineral resources – is at an advantage. Our country’s natural resources should, however, be used wisely and in a manner that builds strong beneficiation industries as well as human capital, advises Alexander Quandt. Quandt is the recipient of the 2018/2019 NSTF-South 32 Special Annual Theme Award to mark the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements. The discovery of the chemical elements that fill the periodic table was the beginning of the journey into materials science. Quandt shares highlights of his journey in materials science in an Invited Commentary.

 

January/February 2020

Tourism drives prosperity and reduces poverty in South African towns and should be strongly supported. Communities in towns with more tourist and hospitality enterprises are wealthier. Debates on pro-poor tourism have tended to focus on individual poverty, but they should include impacts on community wealth/poverty. Toerien explored the links between tourism and community poverty in 38 rural South African towns using the enterprise dependency index (population/number of enterprises) as a measure of community wealth. Residents of smaller towns were more dependent on tourism than those of larger towns. Leadership provided by individuals in some towns as well as the location of other towns – being on the N1 or Route 62 or close to attractions like an astronomical observatory (Sutherland) or affiliation with well-known figures like Athol Fugard (Nieu-Bethesda) and Deon Meyer (Loxton) – contribute to the success of tourism in those towns.

Image: A windmill in the Karoo, South Africa (image CC-BY 2.0: South African Tourism)

 

Amid the wheat production crisis that South Africa faces, there is a misalignment between current research efforts and farmer priorities. The continual decline in the national yield of wheat has drawn the attention of both policymakers and researchers. Like other developing countries, South Africa has the challenge of an increasing population and food insecurity, and decreasing wheat yields suggests that current policies, research and development projects may not be well aligned to farmer priorities. Dube and colleagues identified the dominant constraint to irrigation wheat yield as the low market price for grain, which makes farmers reluctant to invest in inputs for increasing yield. Farmers attributed water problems during peak demand as the main cause of low yields. The perceptions of researchers regarding the major constraints were different from those of the farmers, indicating that researchers must work more closely with farmers. When breeding cultivars, the focus should not just be yield, but also water and fertiliser efficiency. There is also a need for more government resources and policies to support wheat farmers.

Image: A wheatfield in South Africa (image CC-BY-SA: Lotus Head)

 

It is possible to standardise the indigenous names of South Africa’s amphibians and bridge the gap left by the standardisation of names in only two of South Africa’s official languages. In an Invited Commentary, Phaka describes a study investigating interactions between South Africa’s herpetofaunal and cultural diversity in Zululand – a region steeped in culture and rich in amphibian diversity. Zululand taxonomy’s use of single word names to group species based on their biology is in line with the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature. The similarities between indigenous and scientific taxonomy have enabled supplementation of indigenous taxonomy guidelines with their modern knowledge counterparts. These supplemented guidelines were then used to assign individual Zulu names to Zululand’s amphibian species.

 

Biosphere reserves are ecological and cultural depositories in which research on the human–environment interface should be promoted and supported. Biosphere reserves – an initiative of UNESCO – are landscapes within which people and nature are linked in pursuit of development goals. Biosphere reserves have a responsibility to promote and support interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research that is relevant to society and all are expected to have active research programmes based on sustainability science. In an Invited Commentary, Pool-Stanvliet and Coetzer present a brief overview of South African biosphere reserves, emphasising their value as scientific research arenas. South Africa has 10 biosphere reserves located in six provinces, encompassing an area of 116 000 square kilometres (9.5% of South Africa’s total land area). Although scientific outputs related to biosphere reserves have increased steadily since the mid-2000s, biosphere reserves still are underutilised as global transdisciplinary study sites.

Image: Pool-Stanvliet & Coetzer

 

A new amendment of the Animal Improvement Act which classifies wild animal species as farm animals poses a risk to South Africa’s biodiversity heritage. Government Gazette No. 42464 dated 17 May 2019 amended Table 7 of the Animal Improvement Act (Act no. 62 of 1998), which lists breeds of animals, to include at least 32 new wild animal species, among them threatened and rare species such as cheetah, white and black rhino, and suni. Somers and colleagues argue that the main aim of this law, which is “to provide for the breeding, identification and utilisation of genetically superior animals to improve the production and performance of animals in the interest of the Republic…”, is fundamentally flawed when applied to wild animals. The genetic consequences of breeding wildlife species are negative and considerable. A logical endpoint of this amendment is two populations of each species: one wild and one domesticated. Maintaining this distinction will be expensive, if at all possible. Domesticated varieties of wildlife will represent a novel, genetic pollution threat to South Africa’s indigenous wildlife that will be virtually impossible to prevent or reverse.

 

November/December 2019

On the cover: From predators in the ocean to predators in academia…

A white shark (Carcharodon carcharias). Gennari, Morse and colleagues investigated the antibiotic sensitivity of bacteria isolated from the oral cavities of white sharks. White sharks account for almost half of all shark-related injuries in South Africa, which has the third highest incidence of human–shark encounters worldwide. Their findings will assist in the treatment of shark bites.

In this issue, the focus is on a different kind of predator – an academic predator. These predators take various forms – plagiarism, cheating, sexual favours and unethical publishing practices. Their prevalence seems to be increasing globally, and they are a threat to the survival of academic integrity.

…and Promoting Academic Integrity

The theme of this SAJS issue is ‘Promoting Academic Integrity’. The theme emanates from and emulates that of the Council on Higher Education (CHE)’s Quality Promotion Conference held in February this year: Promoting Academic Integrity in Higher Education. The goal of the 2019 CHE conference was to provide a platform for sharing experiences, lessons and good practices in combating academic dishonesty. The participants – about 200 – were from higher education institutions, quality assurance agencies, professional bodies and government departments from South Africa and other African countries: Botswana, Malawi, Seychelles, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Saidi provides a synopsis of the Conference in a Commentary in this issue in which he attests: ‘Participants spoke with one voice in condemning acts of academic dishonesty in higher education institutions.’

Selected papers presented at the Conference were submitted for publication in this themed issue, and address different aspects of academic dishonesty and the promotion of academic integrity. Singh and Baijnath examine the impact of the global scourge of cheating, as a symptom of ‘a moral decay that is beginning to manifest in society globally’. Whilst acknowledging technology as a significant enabler, they challenge universities to address the issue of cheating in exams openly and proactively. Failure to do so constitutes a fraud on society. Universities are also urged to develop, implement and follow through on policies related to sexual conduct, specifically that between lecturers and students. Ncube explored the prevalence of the ‘sexually transmitted marks’ phenomenon in higher education. Despite the perception that this form of academic misconduct is initiated by lecturers, Ncube reports that students are often also the instigator, and thus ‘efforts to eliminate this threat to academic integrity should not only focus on lecturers, but also be extended to students’. Another aspect of academic dishonesty which manifests in students is that of plagiarism. Mahabeer and Pirtheepal discuss plagiarism and the quality of teaching and assessment within the context of the massification of higher education. Within this context, they advocate for ‘a serious rethink of assessment strategies to deter academic dishonesty’.

Although there are policies in place in universities which address plagiarism, cheating and sexual harassment, the indications from these studies are that there is a lack of enforcement which perpetuates a culture of acceptance – ‘because everyone is doing it’. Upholding academic integrity is the responsibility of all actors.

Garwe explored the role of quality assurance agencies in academic integrity and found that, ‘by assuming an innovative and transformational leadership role in instilling a culture of self-evaluation, as well as maintaining its own integrity, an external quality assurance agency can improve academic integrity’.

According to Pillay, of the South African National Research Foundation (NRF), upholding research integrity is no longer a simple task, but one that requires innovative, collaborative and coordinated approaches.

With this goal in mind, the NRF spearheaded the formulation of the joint Statement on Ethical Research and Scholarly Publishing Practices that sets out a national position on the issue of research ethics and scholarly publishing. The NRF, together with the other signatories to the Statement – CHE, Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Universities South Africa (USAf) – as key national agencies, outline in Commentaries in this issue how they individually and collectively will be ‘putting the Statement into practice’.

 

September/October 2019

Human health and well-being are the focus of a number of articles in this issue. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 – Good Health and Well-being – has 13 targets which address all major health priorities, including communicable, non-communicable and environmental diseases, and universal health coverage. The contribution that the private sector can make to achieving SDG 3 – through financial, technological, research and corporate social investments – is being recognised, yet businesses are not reporting on these contributions in the public domain. Haywood and Wright examined the financial reports of 88 JSE-listed companies for 2016–2018 and found that only eight reports specifically mentioned contributions to SDG 3 in 2016. Although this number increased to 20 in 2018, the overall proportion is still low. Perhaps not surprisingly, the mining sector reported the most contributions to SDG 3. Even if driving SDGs is principally the responsibility of government, it is important that businesses recognise the role they can play in achieving SDG 3. One governmental initiative toward achieving SDG 3 Target 3.8 – universal health coverage – is National Health Insurance. Wright and colleagues explore how the effects of climate change will impact NHI, including its impact on disease prevention – a fundamental principle of NHI. South Africa ranks third worst in sub-Saharan Africa for mortality rate attributed to cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory disease. Despite this statistic and legislation in place to reduce air pollution in South Africa – and thus respiratory diseases – the objectives for reduction have not been met. According to Tshehla and Wright, the introduction of new small industries and failure to effectively reduce pollution from domestic burning, waste burning, biomass burning, vehicle emissions and mining activities within air pollution hotspots, make it impossible to achieve the desired air pollution reduction. Tshehla and Wright also recognise a gap between science and policy in air pollution reduction. In an effort to reduce this gap, a science–policy statement on air pollution and health was presented to senior UN representatives and high-level diplomats in July this year by the science academies of South Africa, Germany and Brazil and the US academies of medicine and science.

 

South African geography as a discipline – with its colonial roots – has the potential to bring to the fore the call for decoloniality. As Long and colleagues argue, geography, being deeply entrenched in the Western imperial canon, needs to engage with post-colonial theory and the efforts being made to decolonise the curriculum. However, the question of who should be allowed to speak on issues of decoloniality remains pertinent. Long et al. posit that the most highly ranked South African universities are too entrenched in their colonial pasts to voice the African experience and African theory. They propose that these universities should partner with other universities that have students and academics who are truly able to be the African voice that can speak back to the colonial curriculum.

 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the periodic table. Skotnes-Brown outlines the history of the periodic table, equating it to chemistry as Darwin’s theory of natural selection is to biology. But the modern periodic table we all recognise and take for granted, is not just an organisational and educational tool – it is also a highly mediated record of the history of chemistry and a means of ‘predicting’ future elements. Dmitri Mendeleev is credited as the ‘discoverer’ of the periodic system, but there were at least six such ‘discoveries’ during the 1860s – some were in tabular form, others three-dimensional, spiral or even in the arrangement of a musical scale organised in a ‘law of octaves’. The ultimate success of Mendeleev’s periodic table was his treatment of time and his capacity to speculate: he left gaps which could be filled with elements yet to be discovered.

Image: Cape Town Science Centre

 

Internationally renowned for centuries for its scientific interest and beauty, South Africa’s Cape Floristic Region – a World Heritage Site and unique biodiversity hotspot – requires ongoing research and management. As one of the planet’s five Mediterranean Type Ecosystems, well-grounded research priorities are critically important to its conservation. To be effective in countering anthropogenic drivers of change, research must be responsive to the concerns of the wider community, not only those of specialists. Allsopp and colleagues surveyed a variety of stakeholders and interested parties and found that the Cape Floristic Region conservation community implicitly recognises that in order to be effective in this landscape, conservation research must move towards multi- and interdisciplinarity (including the human and social sciences) and initiate a broader research agenda.

Image: CC-BY-SA: Rialfver, Wikimedia Commons

 

This month sees the start of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. The captain of the South African team, Siya Kolisi, is the first black player to skipper South Africa at a World Cup event. Yet black players are still underrepresented in elite rugby. Development of underrepresented players needs to begin from grassroots to ensure these players can fulfil their potential and reach the highest level of the sport. According to a study conducted by Robinson and colleagues, education of coaches, especially those at underprivileged schools, is key to implementing strength and conditioning practices that are on par with those of the top 100 rugby playing schools in South Africa. Robinson and colleagues examined the strength and conditioning practices employed by coaches of high school boy rugby teams in South Africa and compared practices between schools of different socio-economic status. Coaches at schools in the top 100 rugby playing schools in the country implement similar strength and conditioning practices to the best-known international practices

 

July/August 2019

The sardine run – the annual migration of sardines along South Africa's east coast – is occurring later each year. In recent years, it has even failed to take place. Any delay has significant implications for fisheries and tourism as the associated dolphin, whale and shark sightings are an important tourist attraction. Fitchett and colleagues explored changes in the timing of the sardine run over the period 1946–2012 and found that the delay –  1.3 days per decade – is related to regional sea surface warming, ENSO conditions, and a reduced frequency of tropical cyclones, all factors of a changing climate. Shifts in the timing of phenological events (annually recurrent biological events) are considered highly sensitive biological indicatorsof climate change and they are  driven by seasonal changes in climate. The delayed timing of the sardine run is of  concern at the ecosystem scale because of the  predator–prey mismatches that may ensue.

Image: flickr CC-BY: Lakshmi Sawitri

On 20 June 2019, Clarivate Analytics released the latest Journal Citation Reports® including impact factors for journals on Web of Science. (The South African Journal of Science impact factor is 1.35.) Despite immense criticism of the misrepresentation of a journal impact factor as an indicator of quality, and initiatives such as DORA (the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment) and the Leiden Manifesto, the impact factor remains supreme in the minds and in the publishing practices of academics. In the current ‘publish or perish’ climate, reliance on citation-based metrics may lead to the manipulation of these metrics, as Crous cautions in a Commentary in this issue. Crous describes four possible scenarios in which authors may actively manage (or mismanage) their metrics. The conclusion is that ‘we should consider eliminating quantitative performance measures altogether’. However, some objective evaluation of impact – whether individually or collectively – is an important measure of the value of the work of an individual, journal, or institution. In a Research Article in this issue, Kerchhoff and colleagues evaluated 20 years (1995–2015) of research output of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) using bibliometrics and altmetrics, and concluded that these analyses ‘can yield a rich picture of output and significance, providing insight into the patterns of scholarly communication’. Also in this issue, Raju and colleagues report on a multiple metrics analysis of discoverability and accessibility of scholarship in the South African Journal of Library and Information Science (2012–2017) and emphasise ‘the need to use multiple metrics for objective evaluation of the discoverability and accessibility of the scholarly content of a journal’. Although the global trend has become a suite of metrics, rather than a single measure, there will never be a metric that is not open to misuse. As proposed in a recent comment in Nature (2019;569:622), it is the responsibility of all to ensure the justification and contextualisation of any indicator and education on the use thereof.

Image: flickr CC-BY: Dunk

Opportunity exists in South Africa to initiate citizen science projects and to encourage increased support for the establishment and sustainability of these projects. There is growing recognition of the power of citizen science as a research approach. ‘Citizen science’ is the term for research that engages non-scientists in the collection and generation of data, be it for research or educational purposes. Hulbert and colleagues, themselves practitioners of citizen science programmes, share their perspectives on challenges and solutions to establishing and sustaining citizen science projects in South Africa, using three citizen science projects as case studies. They provide recommendations for others interested in initiating citizen science projects in South Africa and invite additional dialogue through an online community group.

An estimated R166 billion is spent annually in South Africa to combat or prevent corrosion. About 15–35% of this cost might be saved through effective preventation. Janse van Rensburg and colleagues present a new corrosion map of South Africa’s inland and coastal areas. The map facilitates the identification of South Africa’s least to most corrosive environments, enabling the selection of more appropriate corrosion protection solutions for general, business, mining and industrial installations.

 

Although rooibos has been shown to confer cardioprotection in diabetic cardiomyopathy and myocardial ischaemic injury, as well as to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, it is not yet recognised as a treatment for cardiac disease. This is mainly because the underlying mechanisms for rooibos-induced cardioprotection have not been fully elucidated. Maarman reviews the literature and postulates a potential mechanism of action.

 

 
May/June 2019

Marine sponges are the source of a diverse array of organic chemical compounds. A small number of sponge natural products has shown potential as new pharmaceuticals such as novel anti-cancer drugs. South Africa is a global hotspot of latrunculid sponge biodiversity. Research into the taxonomy, chemistry and microbiology of latrunculid sponges is the most comprehensive and multidisciplinary investigation of any group of African marine sponges. Davies-Coleman and colleagues review the multidisciplinary latrunculid sponge research undertaken unabated for more than a quarter of a century by Rhodes University, the Department of Environmental Affairs and the University of the Western Cape, as part of a collaborative marine biodiscovery programme. Their review highlights the importance of conserving and protecting South Africa’s unique marine invertebrate resources.

Caption: Tsitsikamma pedunculata – a South African latrunculid marine sponge species (image: Patrick L. Colin and
Lori Jane Bell Colin, Coral Reef Research Foundation).

 

The Green Book – a free online climate risk profiling and adaptation tool – provides scientific evidence in an accessible format to local governments in South Africa to aid  long-term planning towards more climate-resilient human settlements. Knowing what climate impacts to expect in future, and how to adapt for them, is of critical importance to decision-makers in this field. More than 50 researchers collaborated in developing the Green Book, which is the first of its kind for Africa. Recently launched by the CSIR, the Green Book provides information to all South African municipalities about their current and future climate change risks, and offers solutions in adapting settlements to the impacts of climate change. Water receives special attention, because it is both a scarce resource and a hazard that threatens settlements. The Green Book is available at www.greenbook.co.za.

 

Who benefits from the Copyright Amendment Bill? Big tech? Students, universities, publishers or the national economy? In the wake of South Africa’s National Council of Provinces approval of the Copyright Amendment Bill (2018), Tomaselli examined the implications of the Bill for academics and universities, in the context of research, plagiarism and publication funding. He argues that the Bill’s extended version of fair use over-balances users’ rights in comparison with authors’ rights: scholarly works and textbooks may be freely copied, digitised, posted online and widely distributed without either the authors’ or publisher’s permission. Moreover, users may also change copied material to create new work of their own. When this happens, it is the author, not the reader, who pays the price. New legislation is often introduced with good intentions, but then becomes waylaid, as was the case with the Protection of State Information Bill. Intended to consolidate existing legislation into a single omnibus compilation, it became a ‘Secrecy Bill’ and was never implemented.

Caption: Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

 

Microplastics are increasingly recognised as a major threat to life and ecological integrity in the world’s oceans, with a focus on understanding plastic input, breakdown effects and distribution pathways. A major spill of nurdles in Durban Harbour in October 2017 provided an unexpected opportunity to track billions of these flat 5-mm discs made of plastic. The event was recognised to be a major pollution incident, but despite extensive efforts made to collect the nurdles, 9 months later less than 20% of them had been recovered. Assisted by the strongly flowing Agulhas Current, within a mere 2 months, the nurdles dispersed along more than 2000 km of coastline where they washed up on beaches and were reported by the public. Schumann and colleagues reconstructed the conditions and factors in this dispersal over such a distance in a relatively short period. They found that the nurdles were entrained in certain coastal areas for long periods but were rapidly transported farther afield when sustained winds blew Theses findings have important implications for the dispersal behaviours and strategies that are adopted by larval stages of marine organisms, and provide important insights into population connectivity.

Caption: Nurdles on South Beach, Durban, South Africa (photo: Omar Parak)

 

Two South African fossil hominin species – Homo naledi and Australopithecus africanus – both show signs of having experienced semi-annual seasonal stress, possibly attributed to disease and malnutrition. Physiological stress experienced in childhood can be evidenced as visible furrows in teeth, which are preserved in fossil teeth, and dated with a precision of about 1 week because of the way that tooth enamel is deposited. Skinner reconstructed the timing of this stress in fossil teeth of H. naledi and A. africanus using high-resolution scanning electron microscopy of the outer enamel surface. Homo naledi, a mid-Pleistocene hominin, and Late Pliocene Australopithecus africanus were discovered in the same geographical area, thus allowing for comparison of the timing of their developmental stress. Surprisingly, as this area shows strong seasonality with a single annual moisture cycle, stress in these individuals recurred on average semi-annually. Skinner tentatively attributes this finding to two independent annual cycles, possibly disease and malnutrition.

Caption: Upper right lateral incisor of Australopithecus africanus showing normal enamel increments and three pronounced furrows (arrows) attributed to developmental stress.

 

March/April 2019

The theme of this issue of the South African Journal of Science is ‘Women in Science’ and emanates from the Second International Women in Science Without Borders (WiSWB) conference held in Johannesburg in March 2018. The aim of this annual conference is to highlight research done by women, and particularly to emphasise the contributions of women within the science, technology, engineering, mathematics, medicine and innovation (STEMMI) ecosystem to effect positive outcomes. The 2018 WiSWB conference – the title of which was ‘Resilience in Diversity – was also an opportunity to focus on transdisciplinary issues with an Africa-wide urgency, among them, institutional capacity development, inclusive sustainable growth, and regional integration. The conference submissions were divided into interdisciplinary categories and were wide-ranging: Clean Energy, Climate Change, Digital Revolution, Disaster Management, Education and Outreach, Food Security, Gender Studies, Health, Industrialisation, Science Diplomacy, Smart Cities, and Water.

In this issue, the submission data analysed by John and Das demonstrate that more than half (53%) of authors who submitted conference abstracts were from Nigeria and, although the conference was gender-inclusive, most of the first authors were women. Their analysis also shows that most of the authors, as well as most of the female authors, had a postgraduate qualification and fell within the age cohort 30–45. Health had the largest number of conference submissions (26%), followed by Food Security (17%). These two issues were addressed by half of the 27 countries represented – an indication of the urgency of these topics for our continent. The trend in South African papers was similar, although Clean Energy was more prevalent with Food Security less so.

One South African submission relating to health – the full paper of which is published in this issue – is that by Grant and colleagues. They studied the combination of immunohistochemistry and microarray gene profiling for subtyping breast cancers in order to optimise individualised treatment. Another submission from South Africa, also published in this issue, deals with the critical topic of water. Nibamureke and colleagues assessed the potential effects on the growth of fish from nevirapine (an HIV antiretroviral) that ends up in surface water in South Africa.

Despite the gains of the conference, the low participation of women in many fields of science remains a subject of global concern. Gledhill and colleagues report on the Gender Gap project, which was initiated in 2016 and will conclude this year. The aim of the project is to provide a global data set on the experiences of both women and men in science, on which, it is hoped, positive interventions can be based. As Prozesky and Mouton’s paper shows, the experiences of women scientists are different from what might be expected. Contrary to expectations, in a web-based survey of 5000 scientists born and living in Africa, Prozesky and Mouton found that women do not report experiencing career challenges to any greater extent than do men. The work shows that the priority should be on addressing the conflict between the roles of work and family, because this is the sole challenge women are more likely to have experienced than men, and the one most frequently experienced by women. Moreover, because this challenge is rooted in systemic social inequities it cannot be addressed through providing material resources alone.

There are other social and cultural gender inequities. Van Staden and colleagues highlight the gender wage gap, the need for encouragement and, importantly, the need to have women in science.

In keeping with the theme, an Invited Commentary is on the history of mathematics, contributed by Tomoko Kitigawa, who, in 2015, was voted ‘one of the most amazing women in Japan’.

Of the authors of all the research papers published in this SAJS issue, 58% are women. They can all be seen on the cover of this issue.

 

January/February 2019

East of Still Bay on the Cape south coast of South Africa lies a rugged, remote stretch of sea cliffs that expose Late Pleistocene aeolianites (or cemented dunes). The first South African record of elephant tracks, the first rhinoceros tracks, and the first giant Cape horse tracks were recorded from two rocks in this area: Roberts Rock and Megafauna Rock. Among the fossil tracks on these rocks, Helm and colleagues have recorded track evidence of the long-horned buffalo and smaller species. Two of the species recorded are now extinct (the giant Cape horse and long-horned buffalo). These rocks provide a glimpse into Late Pleistocene dune life, and suggest an area that was teeming with large mammals. Roberts Rock has since slumped into the ocean and disintegrated – the fate of many exposed tracksites. For this reason, and because new sites frequently become exposed, regular surveying of this track-rich coastline is necessary.

 

Interventions aimed at improving science knowledge of learners in South Africa will continue to fail if their reading comprehension skills are under-developed. In an attempt to understand why previous science interventions for township learners had helped only some learners, Stott and Beelders assessed the relationships between learners’ reading comprehension and their Natural Science marks and improvement from intervention programmes. Using an eye tracker to observe the eye movements of learners engaging with science software, Stott and Beelder observed that the majority of learners guessed at least some answers without reading, with some avoiding any, or much, of the required reading. They found moderate to strong correlations between the learners’ inferred ability to read science texts with comprehension and both their Natural Science marks and the benefit they gained from previous interventions. The findings suggest that only top achieving township learners possess the reading comprehension skills to benefit from interventions which rely on text usage.

 

South Africa is intent on promoting its science, technology and innovation (STI) capabilities to achieve improved socio-economic development outcomes. Recent practical work has included the demonstration of innovations in relatively remote rural areas to encourage inclusive development in line with the National Development Plan. These innovations include water, sanitation and energy technologies, often combined with information and communication technologies (ICT). Drawing on the experiences of the multiple actors involved, Hart and colleagues identified key challenges in the demonstration process as limited beneficiary participation; haphazard needs assessments; top-down beneficiary, site and technology selection; and a lack of necessary ICT infrastructure. The process was further complicated by different priorities of national and local stakeholders, and vast distances that personnel and materials had to travel. A well-considered process of demonstration planning and implementation could reduce some of these challenges. Innovation demonstrations are an important means of first-time testing and fine-tuning innovations outside of the laboratory through which the focus is shifted from research to acceptability, usability and value. Usefulness will not simply follow because the technical aspects of the innovation have been met.

 

Traditional medicines should undergo testing before they are administered to patients. Traditional healing is now legally recognised in South Africa and the safety of traditional medicines is thus a priority. Madike and colleagues tested aqueous extracts of wild garlic (Tulbaghia violacea)a common plant used by traditional health practitioners to treat various ailments – and found negative effects on cell division and growth. Information about the healing properties of T. violacea is usually passed on from one generation to the next without any scientific evidence available on this plant and its potential dangers. Madike and colleagues obtained extracts from the leaves, stems and roots of T. violacea and tested the effects of different concentrations on the growth of onion cells. The effect of these extracts on onion cells is similar to what would occur in human cells. They found that high concentrations of plant extracts caused damage to the chromosomes of cells.

November/December 2018

South Africa’s science, technology and innovation policy is being updated at a time when the need to provide economic leadership is a critical imperative. The 2018 White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation sets out the principles for the institutional, regulatory and financial architecture of the future science, technology and innovation system within South Africa. The draft document is clear on its intent: it seeks a system which is bigger, more inclusive and has greater economic impact. None of these objectives is new or controversial; the problem has been the achievement thereof. Walwyn and Cloete argue that South Africa is likely to continue to fail in these objectives unless more emphasis is placed on human capability, institutional reform, sustainability and policy experimentation. Moreover, a more convincing theory of change is needed that will persuade politicians and the public of the urgency for increased spending on research and development as a means of lifting the country out of its economic depression.

 

How can innovative development pathways reduce inequality and greenhouse gas emissions? Reducing inequality is our top priority in national development, while climate change is the foremost global challenge of this century. Winkler proposes that a comprehensive theoretical framework is needed to lead the way to a low-carbon high-equity future. Charting innovative development pathways requires changes in policy, technology and investment. But perhaps more fundamentally, it requires an understanding of the complex determinants and agents of change, followed by adaptive management of complex systems. Such complexity requires radically inter- and trans-disciplinary research, to inform adaptive management. Co-production of knowledge and learning by doing will be important. Young people need key skills in thinking about intervening in systems: complex problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. What is needed is a new social contract, in which the rich live better with less, the poor are lifted out of poverty, and middle-class aspirations shift from having more to living well.

 

Marula vinegar produced from waste by-products was found to be a potential source of health promoting compounds including total phenolics and flavonoids with good antioxidant properties. Marula is a well-known indigenous plant in South Africa, and the fruit is used to make the legendary Amarula cream liquor. Molelekoa and colleagues investigated the feasibility of using marula fruit waste sourced from a processing plant as feedstock for vinegar (acetic acid) production. They used two fermentation techniques (surface and submerged culture methods) using both naturally occurring and inoculated bacteria. The surface culture method combined with inoculation produced a higher-quality vinegar with potential for commercial-scale production. A consumer survey recommended the application of the vinegar in products such as salad dressing and mayonnaise.

 

Unemployment exit rate, job sustainability and unemployment duration collectively affect the persistence of unemployment. Modelling the relationships among these factors is recommended for finding solutions to unemployment issues. Nonyana and Njuho explored the benefits of using econometric models in unpacking features of unemployment in South Africa. Using these models they found that unemployed people in South Africa tend to have lower unemployment exit rates; which relates to job scarcity in the labour market, whilst available jobs are less sustainable and the bulk of those who are employed are likely to lose their jobs within a year. Unemployment duration featured as a structural factor that has a considerable impact on unemployment: the longer the unemployed remain unemployed, their prospect of finding employment deteriorates.

 

Tropical cyclone Dineo made news headlines across southern Africa in early 2016, although it was only a category 1 storm. Tropical cyclones are devastating storm systems, characterised by strong winds, heavy rainfall and storm surge flooding in coastal areas, and are classified according to intensity from category 1 (mild) to category 5 (devastating). Since 1994 – when the first tropical cyclone in the South Indian Ocean intensified to category 5 status – the number of category 5 storms in the South Indian Ocean has increased steadily each decade. Fitchett has found that the incidence of a category 5 tropical cyclone, and subsequent increase in frequency of these highest intensity storms, appears to be linked to ocean warming, as sea surface temperatures of 27–29°C are being experienced progressively further south. Category 5 storms have been recorded for the North Atlantic Ocean since 1924, but were not a feature of the South Indian Ocean for many decades.

 

September/October 2018

Antibiotic resistance is a threat to South Africa’s healthcare system, for which there is an urgent need to enforce legislation on drug distribution and usage, to prioritise the use of alternatives to antibiotics and, finally, to implement a nationwide effective antimicrobial resistance surveillance system. Tatsing Foka and colleagues reviewed the incidence of vancomycin-resistant enterococci in South Africa. The recent and continuous detection of a high level of vancomycin-resistant enterococci in a variety of South African ecological niches is a serious public health concern, especially given the high incidence of immunocompromising complications such as HIV/Aids in the country. Agricultural practices coupled with the misuse of antibiotics in intensive animal rearing and hospital facilities have been identified as the main cause for the development of resistant strains in South Africa, and the world at large. The health implications of vancomycin-resistant enterococci and their resulting economic burden on our healthcare system cannot be underestimated. Although tremendous efforts have already been made in South Africa to tackle antimicrobial resistance issues, and vancomycin resistance problems in particular, results from recent studies need to be incorporated into fully modified operational policies.

 

Nnadih and colleagues report the first ground-based recorded observations of sprites over South Africa. Sprites – named after the characters in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – are electrical discharges in the mesosphere above an active thunderstorm that are powered by large lightning strikes, but are rarely visible from the ground. Sprites have been studied extensively in other continents, but despite Africa being a lightning-rich continent, there is little or no active sprite-related research in Africa. Their study enables us to understand the interconnected processes of atmospheric electricity and terrestrial weather. The phenomenon was reported anecdotally in Johannesburg in 1937, but Nnadih et al.’s report is the first record of sprites in southern Africa. On 2 of 22 nights of observations, they recorded about 100 sprite elements from Sutherland in the Northern Cape, comprising different morphologies (55% were carrot-shaped sprites). The sprites were triggered by positive cloud-to-ground lightning strikes and were observed from distances of between 400 and 800 km. These first ground-based observations, which suggest that the optical intensity of sprites is proportional to the lightning stroke current, will pave the way for a more comprehensive study of sprites in South Africa.

 

The goal to end AIDS as a global pandemic by 2030 is threatened if, as this study suggests, one-third of adults presenting for HIV counselling and testing at healthcare clinics in South Africa come from households with insufficient food. In a study of over 2700 adult women and men presenting for HIV testing at three public sector healthcare clinics in eThekwini (Durban metropolitan region), Nyirenda and colleagues found that individuals from food-insecure households were more likely to test HIV positive than those from food-secure households. Although the reason for this association was not evident, the results highlight that many newly diagnosed HIV-positive individuals do not have enough to eat. Their findings support the need for socio-economic and structural interventions to transform food-insecure into food-secure households. Failure to do so urgently in high HIV endemic areas like KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is likely to seriously challenge the attainment of global targets such as the UNAIDS’ 90-90-90 goal.

 

Local journals face a difficult task: escaping the ‘impact factor trap’ by attracting good research away from international journals; a task which will be made impossible by graded national financial incentives. Although the Department of Higher Education and Training does not differentiate between national and international publications with respect to subsidy for journals on accredited lists, some local universities award a higher proportion of the subsidy to authors who publish in international journals. There is pressure throughout academia to publish in high impact factor journals. The Scimago Journal Rank is an index that ranks journals based on impact and prestige, partly by measuring from where citations come. Lee and Simon examined 23 000 journals listed in the Scimago database, which included only 82 South African journals. They argue that this index is not suitable for Africa, as journals with Africa in their title are ranked lower than other journals by this index. They assert that African journals have not yet had the time required to gain the same prestige, as historically they have had low visibility. Applying incentives based on Scimago Journal Rank will therefore disadvantage local journals.

 

July/August 2018

Awareness campaigns alone may not be sufficient to reduce the number of accidents on South African roads. Introducing compulsory third-party insurance and the imminent emergence of self-driving cars may have an impact. According to Fourie and Verster, human factors contributed to almost 80% of the fatal road accidents in South Africa in 2015, with road and environmental conditions contributing to 13% and vehicle factors to 8%. Fourie and Verster analysed the fatal road accidents – those in which at least one person is killed as a direct result of the accident – in South Africa in 2015. Although fatal accidents constituted only 1.3% of all road accidents, they equated to 42% of the total costs involved. The economic cost – R143 billion in 2015 – is not the only cost: 13 000 lives were lost in 2015 as a result of road accidents. Pedestrians accounted for 38% of the fatalities and male individuals 78%, with 41% of those killed being younger than 30 years old.

 

Bt modification in maize does not affect non-target beneficial microorganisms such as endophytes. Although Bt maize is one of the most popular GM crops in the world, little is known about potential impacts on ecosystem functionalities. Genetically modified Bt maize contains a gene from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which provides resistance to major insect pests. Mashiane and colleagues investigated whether genetic modification affected non-target microorganisms such as endophytic bacteria which are important in agriculture. Maize is one of the most important crops in the world – it is consumed as a staple food and as animal feed in both developing and developed countries. Bacterial endophytes from two developmental stages of both Bt maize and its isogenic parental line were screened for their capabilities to participate in plant protection, nutrient mobilisation as well as production of a plant growth hormone. Interestingly, Mashiane and colleagues found that growth stage rather than genetic modification had a significant impact on the endophytes and their functions.

 

Efforts to improve performance in science should also focus on developing non-cognitive aspects such as self-efficacy. A person’s motivation and confidence can make seemingly impossible tasks possible. This self confidence in one’s ability (self-efficacy) extends to performing science-related tasks in the classroom. The strength of this belief has an impact on behaviour – those who have higher self-efficacy are more likely to persevere in an activity, no matter how difficult, until they succeed. Using information from 12 500 Grade 9 students in South Africa, Juan and colleagues found a positive relationship between self-efficacy and science achievement. In addition, positive student–parent and student–teacher interactions were related to increases in students’ science self-efficacy. Of concern was the finding that girls reported lower self-efficacy than boys, even when they scored the same on the science assessment.

 

South Africa nearly doubled its R&D expenditure in social sciences and humanities research fields between 2005 and 2014, outpacing countries such as Russia, Turkey and Uruguay. A closer look at the data, however, suggests that R&D expenditure was mainly concentrated in a few research fields – finance, economics, education, accounting and political science. Intense global environmental and technological changes, coupled by critical levels of poverty and inequality in South Africa, are key urgencies that science policymakers face in the development of the new White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation. Within this context, the case for advancing the social sciences and humanities in South Africa could not be more urgent and compelling; although questions remain as to where to target strategic R&D investments for meaningful socio-economic and epistemic impacts. Molotja and Ralphs argue that institutional R&D planners and national policymakers need to better balance current priorities and future needs if R&D in the social sciences and humanities is to be leveraged for larger socio-economic impacts, as envisaged by the new draft White Paper on Science, Technology and Innovation.

 

The global knowledge economy continues to be dominated by the Global North. Reasons may include a lack of proper national government support and funding and academic prowess on the part of scholars in the Global South. However, focusing on only these largely technical and economic reasons, whilst ignoring the greater cultural and political reasons within which the practice of academia is in itself deeply entrenched, limits our understanding. Dalu and colleagues consider the barriers that stem from the practice of the ‘old boys’ network’ as a possible contributor to Global South academic performance in the global knowledge economy. They contemplate the idea of monopolies of power centred in the Global North with regard to who moderates academic outputs, and how the Global South continues to uphold the standards of academic outputs as they are stipulated in the Global North. Knowledge exchange platforms between the Global North and South have developmental implications within the decolonisation agenda currently on the South African table.

 

May/June 2018

Did Cape Town’s water crisis happen because the city’s leadership thought that they lived in Europe? More generally, does the practice of applied sciences like engineering adequately reflect the South African context? These questions offer practical perspectives on the contentious debate about the decolonisation of our universities and society. There is plenty of evidence that civil engineering initially served the colonial purpose of extracting wealth; and that the exclusion of black people from the profession in South Africa and the British colonies left a legacy of damaging distrust. How can the society and its engineering professions move beyond this inheritance? As we seek an inclusive way forward, engineers must become more assertive about their role as pathfinders. They must help to engineer more effective institutions as well as physical structures and services. On the way, they will have to help politicians to learn to take advice.

 

Inadequate governance of groundwater harms economic growth, food security, social stability, land reform, transformation and other sectors. Mahikeng, the capital of North West Province, depends on groundwater from nearby aquifers for more than half of its water supply, but falling groundwater levels have made this water supply less predictable and less reliable. According to Cobbing and De Wit, the groundwater aquifers near Mahikeng – if they were better managed – could help to make Mahikeng’s water supply more reliable, and less vulnerable to drought. The natural environment would also benefit, as would social stability and business confidence. The root of the problem is poor cooperation between those extracting and those controlling the groundwater, including farmers and the municipality. An undesirable “Nash” equilibrium has emerged, meaning that all the parties are currently losers. However, this sub-optimal equilibrium can be broken – there is enough water to go around, and “win-win” outcomes are possible. But the hidden cost of today’s poor management is high.

 

South African researchers contribute more than 3% of the global literature on mammalian behavioural ecology, with a strong focus on the broader themes of mating, social and foraging behaviour. The large number of protected areas and mammalian guilds in South Africa provide unique opportunities for the study of behavioural ecology – a sub-discipline of zoology that has evolved and grown significantly since the start of the 20th century. Researchers link behaviour to genetics, evolutionary trends, and fast adaptation to a rapidly changing world. Le Roux reviewed over 1000 papers published from 2000 to 2015 and determined the South African contributions to this multidisciplinary field. Although South African researchers contribute more than 3% of the global literature, some important themes within behavioural ecology – such as animal cognition and personalities – that are gaining rapid international traction are not studied locally.

 

Food waste in South Africa is lower than that in Europe but greater than in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. Households in South Africa dispose of less food into the municipal bin than European households do, but more than households in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding food fed to pets or disposed of onto compost heaps at home. Food waste is an important issue in light of population growth and global food security concerns. It is estimated that between a third and half of all food produced globally is wasted every year while 12 million people in South Africa go to bed hungry each day. Oelofse and colleagues measured the actual amount of food waste disposed of into municipal bins by households in the City of Johannesburg and Ekurhuleni. The food disposed of amounts to 12 kg per person per year in Johannesburg and 8 kg in Ekurhuleni – a contribution of about 51 000 tonnes in Johannesburg and 25 000 tonnes in Ekurhuleni to the municipal solid waste disposed of on already stressed landfills.

March/April 2018

Cole et al. propose additional indicators for SDG 6 – Sustainable Development Goal 6, namely “Water and sanitation for all” – on water efficiency that focus on how individuals and households benefit from allocations and the use of water resources. Appropriate indicators can support decision-making and highlight key issues on inequality, unemployment and sustainability. Water is fundamental – not just for human well-being but also for economic growth. In a water scarce country like South Africa, it is important to understand how the allocation of water resources is directly and indirectly benefitting individuals, households and the economy. Cole and colleagues analysed water use and water-dependent jobs across 42 towns in the Berg Water Management Area, in the southwest corner of South Africa and found significant variation across industries and municipalities, highlighting the impact of water allocation on the local population and economy. In the face of growing demand and uncertain supply, future water allocation decisions require better water-use and employment data, spatial analysis, scenario development and stakeholder engagement.

 

The Square Kilometre Array South Africa (SKA SA)’s success is underpinned by open and inclusive institutions, fostering and leveraging interrelationships, promoting innovation that may be commercialised, and attracting, retaining and training suitable individuals. These four themes or key pillars (institutions, interrelationships, innovation and individuals) – comprising the 4I model – were revealed to be crucial for engendering a knowledge economy. Bhogal developed the 4I model whilst exploring factors that inhibit and enable the impact of SKA on South Africa’s knowledge economy. Increasingly, nations pursue knowledge-based endeavours to promote economic growth. SKA SA – South Africa’s flagship science project and the world’s largest radio telescope – is expected to develop local competitive advantage, which will contribute to economic growth. Sub-themes in the 4I model include the role of a nation’s inherent competitive advantage in informing its competitive and innovation strategy, multidimensional interrelationships and politically astute leadership. A deeper understanding of the 4I model forms a basis for strengthening each pillar and thereby its impact on the knowledge economy.

 

Recently discovered Australopithecus sediba is known from only one time and place: Malapa, South Africa, dated to ~800 thousand years later than the earliest fossils attributed to the genus Homo – fuelling debate about whether A. sediba could be ancestral to Homo and modern humans. Because the fossil record is incomplete, researchers cannot be certain how far back in time any species extended. However, by reviewing evidence from other, better documented hominin species, Robinson and colleagues have demonstrated that dates alone are insufficient to reject the hypothesis of direct ancestry of Homo as, on average, fossil hominin species lived for almost one million years. Using the one date for A. sediba as a first, middle or last date of appearance, Robinson and colleagues compared possible temporal ranges of A. sediba and Homo for known modes of speciation, and showed that the possibility of A. sediba being ancestral to Homo could not be precluded. Until additional data are available for the temporal range of A. sediba, any inferences about the evolutionary relationship between A. sediba and Homo should be based primarily on morphology.

 

Age, experience and income affect users’ perceptions of online banking in South Africa. The adoption of online banking by South Africans has been very low compared with the global average. Mujinga et al. investigated if online banking usability was a barrier to adoption using a system usability measurement tool and found that assessment of usability was affected by age, experience and income – with older, more experienced and higher income users scoring usability more highly. Gender, employment, and use frequency had no impact on users’ assessment of online banking. Banks make large investments in providing self-service solutions. To realise returns on these investments and to reduce operating costs for in-branch services, clients must use the online services offered. An in-depth investigation is needed to identify usability factors that might be contributing to the lack of uptake of online banking services in South Africa.

 

January/February 2018

Did ancient giraffes once roam a savanna now submerged by the Gouritz and Breede Rivers? The recent discovery in 2016 of fossil giraffe tracks east of Still Bay on the Cape south coast – the first Pleistocene fossil giraffe tracks to be recorded in southern Africa – significantly increases the geographic range of this species. Until now there have been no reliable historical or fossil records for the giraffe south of the Orange River or northern Namaqualand. Based on correlations to dated sites nearby, the tracks were probably made around 125 000 years ago. Helm and colleagues report on the discovery which has implications for Late Pleistocene climate and vegetation in the southern Cape, because of the specialised feeding niche of giraffe populations. Evidence suggests that the currently submerged floodplains of the Gouritz and Breede Rivers supported a productive savanna during Pleistocene glacial conditions. This habitat would have been suitable for giraffe, and would likely have allowed giraffe to migrate along the southern coastal plain.

An assemblage of hominin fossils from Dinaledi Chamber, attributed to at least 15 individuals of the newly identified species Homo naledi, is strikingly different from australopith and Neanderthal sites with multiple individuals. The difference lies in the high proportion of infants and young juveniles in the Dinaledi assemblage as well as in the location of the Dinaledi fossils, which are scattered within a hidden cave chamber. About 1550 fossil specimens of a single hominin species were recovered from the Dinaledi Chamber (Cradle of Humankind, South Africa) during excavations in 2013–2014. Bolter and colleagues used 190 dental elements to identify life-history stages and attributed these elements based on their degree of development to 15 individuals: 9 immature and 6 adult individuals, including one old adult with very worn teeth. Adults were classified by sets of dentition with all the permanent teeth in place; infants (3) as those with only deciduous (or baby) teeth, juveniles (4) as those with a combination of deciduous and permanent teeth, and sub-adults (1) as those with permanent teeth that were not fully erupted. One immature individual could not be assigned to an age class. Current studies using forensic techniques are proceeding to match skeletal bones with the dental remains. The Dinaledi assemblage presents an uncommon opportunity to examine a fossil species at the population-level perspective. Additional excavations underway suggest more individuals lie in wait deep inside the cave system.

The fossilised skull of an Australopithecus africanus from Sterkfontein – well known as “Mrs Ples” – may indeed be a “Mr Ples”. Evidence obtained from an ongoing study of canine sockets and skull measurements supports the view that “Mrs Ples" is probably a small male individual. Both age and sex are factors that contribute to variation in growth and development of the cranium in australopithecines. On the basis of their comparisons of alveolar canine dimensions, Tawane and Thackeray conclude that “Mrs Ples” is the skull of a small male rather than a large female individual. The fossil is the most complete cranium of A. africanus and was discovered at the Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind in 1947 by Robert Broom and John Robinson. Broom claimed that it represented a female individual on the basis of canine sockets, but he did not have a large comparative sample of specimens to allow him to support this opinion. Within the last 70 years, more hominin fossils have been obtained from Sterkfontein. The view that "Mrs Ples" is a female specimen of A. africanus has been highly controversial and the skull continues to be the subject of research in the context of human evolution.

Termites are a food source with high economic and social importance and the preservation of the indigenous knowledge used during the harvesting and processing of termites should be prioritised. Netshifhefhe and colleagues surveyed over 100 harvesters, marketers and consumers from 48 villages in the Vhembe District Municipality of Limpopo Province, South Africa. Three termite species of the Macrotermes genus – mound-building termites which dominate the African savanna – are consumed, with M. falciger being the species of preference (90% of all termites). Individuals of all ages consume termites and the method of preparation preferred (by 78% of respondents) is frying. Termites are rich in proteins, fats, vitamins and many essential mineral nutrients. In addition to providing food security, income from the sale of termites can be as much as ZAR18  000 per year, and thus contributes significantly to the livelihoods of many rural families.