IN SCIENCE, engineering and technology South Africans are far more competent than most people realise. Sadly, this includes the science and engineering people themselves. I have been fortunate to have seen a significant cross-section of local technology competence.
I have been down goldmines and diamond mines, I have been inside power stations and large-scale heavy engineering works. I have also been into cement plants, cosmetics production plants, DVD production facilities and more. I love getting invitations to tour such places because I always learn things.
The concept of technology is a case of developing some science, which makes money within the boundaries of the law. So when I tour around I don’t only look at the machines. I also ask workers why they do what they do. I also check on quality assurance (QA) systems.
For years, I have watched QA systems evolve in motor car production lines. They now use laser beams to line up a car chassis to position the engine on it. In days gone by they used hand-measuring devices. These days, cars are painted by computers. I recall watching humans do it by hand, in the past.
This is all part of the natural evolution of the man-machine interface. We have heard so much about the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), much of which is incorrect. The 4IR is really nothing more than this natural evolution of technology in which computing power is playing an increasing role.
This concept should clearly indicate that the most important part of the 4IR is the brain of the human being. In this, South Africans are particularly good. Over many years South Africans have developed all sorts of ingenious solutions to really tough problems. I have personally been involved in a number of them, so I can speak from coalface experience.
A weakness of technology people is that they don’t tend to talk to others. By nature and by training they tend to keep information to themselves and are excessively modest. To put it bluntly, they don’t brag enough. As a result, the people who control much of the money and much of the policy system do not know enough about local capability.
Who knows that South Africans developed the world’s first frequency-hopping radio or that we developed the world’s most powerful artillery gun? Who knows that South African gold mines penetrate nearly 4km below the surface? That is staggering technology.
However, the entire technology community, plus the population in general, suffers from a significant inferiority complex when it comes to believing in our ability to make complex systems work.
I have been fortunate to have visited foreign countries to view their technology developments, only to frequently discover that many of ours are more advanced than theirs. On one visit to the US, I found that my cellphone would not work over most of the country, because our cell technology was two years ahead of theirs.
We also introduced SMS messaging two years before the US. I recall demonstrating, in the US Senate building how SMS messaging worked to the amazement of a group of people. They could not believe that I could send the typed message to Africa on my cellphone.
There is a general belief that if a technology comes from a first world country then it must be better than ours. Mostly, that is not true.
We need our technology organisations to budget to publicise the achievements of local engineering teams.
All our technology teams must develop more confidence in their own standing on the world stage. I am talking about all levels in the technology system. Our top-level welders are equal to the best in the world, so are our toolmakers.
Finally, I must add a word about the importance of project management and of people working well together. South Africans do that particularly well. From the top to the bottom, our teams tend to get on very well with each other. This is of critical importance. We are good. We need society to know this. We must be given major projects to handle. As a nation we all need more self-confidence in our ability to achieve great things.
Dr Kelvin Kemm is a nuclear physicist and chief executive of Stratek Business Strategy Consultants, a project management company based in Pretoria. [email protected].
* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL or of title sites.
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