By Mojalefa Murphy
I met Aziz in mid-1992 upon return from exile and assuming employment at the then Atomic Energy Corporation (AEC).
We would occasionally meet at the Market Theatre down town Johannesburg and share moments of deep conversation and drinks.
Whereas I used to strictly take Guinness, he would settle for Scotch Whisky, jokingly saying he wouldn’t rob a pregnant woman of her food.
I learned from him that, in the past, doctors in Ireland, the country of the origin of Guinness, would prescribe moderate quantities of this beer brew to pregnant and nursing women because of its rich iron content.
He seemed to have been fascinated by my meagre academic achievement in the field of physics against the odds of young life in exile with its adverse impact, including housing instability, elusive sense of belonging to host communities and isolation from family and friends.
He was eager to know if the AEC could be re-purposed for a broader civilian benefit.
I painstakingly furnished him with voluminous information on the current and potential non-power R&D activities in diverse economic areas, including agriculture, robotics and computing, manufacturing, medicine, pharmaceutics, water provision and conservation, education, support for non-nuclear scientific R&D in the frontiers of knowledge and so on.
I recall my warning that if we dared forego the scientific and technological capability at the AEC, we would forever lose our economic, competitive edge in the emerging 21st century economy that would be anchored by automated manufacturing and service delivery, based on the then advancing technology of computing, telecommunications, Internet and digital data transmission, notably the hyper text transfer protocol (http).
His response would often include a suggestion that I join the ANC in order to have my voice directly heard.
He’d hint to me that I was occasionally a topic of discussion in some of the broad church’s liberal anti-nuke circles.
Apparently, I was regarded as either a dark horse or someone whose skin colour was useful to some “boers” in their mission to sustain the nuke white elephant for their extended gain.
I consistently brushed his suggestion aside.
When asked if the ANC was aware of the total nuclear roll back (the dismantling of nuclear technology and industrial infrastructure beyond the nuclear weaponry capability) taking place at the AEC, I remember him shrugging his shoulders and saying something like: It was not illogical that the ANC would know.
He encouraged me to remain at the AEC and learn as much as possible about that apartheid strategic entity.
I subsequently learned a great deal about the suspicious developments at the AEC, documented some that were startling, including the folly of destroying the nuclear energy scientific R&D technological capability platforms in the light of the 1996 Kyoto Protocol.
My lessons and concerns fell on deaf ears!
Ironically, talk of energy mix policy that included a nuclear option started gathering traction after the implementation capacity had been severely compromised!
One costly result of belated nuclear energy policy is the failure of the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (PBMR) project by Eskom, instead of the AEC that was being dismantled amid the crisis of rapid de-nuclearisation of post-apartheid South Africa’s industry!
Much as poor political decisions are being cited as the reasons for the demise of the PBMR, the fact is that Eskom had no requisite scientific and technology capability to successfully undertake such a project, but the AEC did, but was undermined.
That is why the estimated R10 billion was fruitlessly spent on a desktop exercise, mostly by outsourced consultants, without producing a single prototype of a power generating pebble bed modular reactor of even one milliwatt rating to at least prove the concept of a safe, operable high temperature gas cooled nuclear reactor.
Had we met recently, during these days of raging power cuts, water supply interruptions, scotching hot summers, increasing floods, drought and wildfires, and the nation’s lack of a clear strategy for climate change readiness, I am certain that Aziz and I would have had interesting conversation punctuated by several tots of whisky and pints of Guinness.
Perhaps it is fortuitous that the demise of Aziz happens when I am home in South Africa.
More recently, although I am currently resident in Canada, I have since dedicated my productive time to the quest for scientific and technological solutions with community and environmental impact.
I am presently involved in the international endeavour to introduce an alternative renewable energy system based on a novel indirect evaporative cooling technique, M-Cycle, for climate control, water desalination and enhancement of electricity generation capacity of fossils fuelled power plants while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
Robala ka khotso, Aziz, mora Goolam le Amina Pahad.
Your down-to-earthness, superb listening skills and firm commitment to freedom and Justice for all are etched in the memories those who knew you.
Mojalefa Murphy is a former research and development scientist, a member of the executive management committee of the former Atomic Energy Corporation and subsequently the Deputy Director of iThemba LABS (formerly National Accelerator centre). Murphy obtained his Bachelor of Science (Honours) in applied nuclear physics and Master of Science in radiation medical physics from Canada’s University of Manitoba and UK’s Surrey University, respectively.