Hell is Other People (Named Graeme)

This post will be about South African science and technology. But first, an endorsement of bizarre names.

South Africa would be a lovely spot for a holiday, were it not packed with people named Graeme. If you’re a Graeme in the U.S., you get used to knowing that when you hear your name, someone’s talking to you. But after a week here, where I have heard “Graeme” and turned to respond dozens of times in vain, I am learning what misery it must be to answer to “Matt,” “Alan,” “Tim,” or some other common name. I’ve dealt with other Graemes before — in Kandahar this summer, at one point the air field’s print-media tent housed Graeme, Graeme, and Graham. (The TV guys next door were Mike and Mike.) The situation became nearly unbearable. This would never have happened if I were Vladimir Ashkenazy.

Despite this frustration with Graemes, I must express my gratitude for a set of questions suggested by Graeme Addison, a South African science writer who has helped arrange my trip. The questions were prompted by a presentation in Cape Town by Kobus Meiring, CEO of Optimal Energy, the company designing South Africa’s electric car. The Joule is likely to be on the market in two years and is supported by the South African government. Meiring — a tall, confident Afrikaner — had spent nearly half an hour on the subject of low-emission transport, and his strong bid to construct an electric car with commercial appeal beyond the Ed Begley set, when a flicker of moral hesitation entered his talk: Meiring said he had been “not always proud of what we did, but technically it was very stimulating.” Was the Joule not a straightforward case of green do-gooderism? Why the diminished pride?


Above is the Rooivalk Attack Helicopter, manufactured by the South African parastatal Denel Aviation. Meiring, like many white South African engineers of note, applied his considerable talent to the South African defense industry during its boom under apartheid. His most notable project was the Rooivalk — reputedly one of the finest aerial attack platforms ever built. The Rooivalk is no longer in production, in no small part because during apartheid, few countries allowed arms shipments to the South African pariah state. And an attack platform without weaponry is really just a platform. Even though Denel never had a functioning product to ship, Meiring and other engineers made advances in technology and process that have helped solve tricky issues like the battery design of electric cars like the Joule.

This employment history is common among South Africa’s elite: nearly any white South African over a certain age in a technical field at one point or another served the apartheid government. The day after the electric car briefing in Cape Town, I listened to a presentation at a Stellenbosch technology park by Jan du Plessis, the MIT-educated chief engineer of SunSpace, which designs cheap, lightweight satellites. His astonishingly dry and technical talk was leavened only by a misheard remark about “Jew Observation Systems” (in turned out he said, in his thick Afrikaans accent, “Geo Observation Systems, which sounded much less interesting). Du Plessis’s research record also included work for the apartheid government — a government that bragged of its expansionist capabilities, fought its neighbors, and produced functioning nuclear weapons. I presume that the South African government wanted aerospace research for purposes more applied than theoretical.

Du Plessis and his team at the University of Stellenbosch designed and sent up one satellite already. It was launched by the U.S. in 1999 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The U.S. conducts its polar-orbit launches from Vandenberg, because the clear shot south allows rocket parts to fall harmlessly into the Pacific (rather than onto Havana, as they might if we launched south from Cape Canaveral). Polar-orbiting satellites circle the globe parallel to lines of longitude, overflying Santa Claus and the Emperor penguins on every rotation. Meanwhile, as it circles, the earth spins perpendicular to its path, so any one place on the planet’s surface sees the satellite, and is seen by it, once a day.

I don’t believe the word “spy satellite” ever came up in the presentation, but that’s what his product — due to launch from Baikonur, Kazakhstan — looked like to me. He assured us that the foreign governments that worked with SunSpace did not include North Korea, Iran, or Syria, but he couldn’t say which they did include. And he emphasized several plausible civilian uses of a satellite.

Science policy often includes moral dimensions. What’s most remarkable about these scientists with checkered (and unconcealed) histories is that they are, to all appearances, still treasured for what they represent to South Africa — as perhaps they should be. They represent, as exhibits on a pro-South African tour like this, the ANC government’s support for the continuation of the high-level research common during apartheid. We may be new to government, in other words, but we know a good thing when we see it, and we’ll be more open in our embrace of our enemies’ talents than our enemies were in their embrace of ours.

The ANC, after all, is hardly knee-jerk anti-science, the pronouncements of Thabo Mbeki about HIV notwithstanding. The ANC loved the nuclear program under apartheid, since it supposed the nuclear weapons the apartheid government developed would belong to the ANC after the ANC took power. When de Klerk shuttered the nuclear weapons facilities irrevocably in the early 1990s, ANC politicians howled in anger. This howling, and the peaceable turn that formerly gung-ho militarist engineers have taken, are perhaps signs of a kind of political health. If one of the nice things about shifts in power is that scientists self-police more carefully — and that governments, in the best of cases, cut back their own powers, lest those powers pass over to their rivals — then so much the better.