In 1986, the late P.W. Botha, then president of South Africa, revealed the toll that the international oil embargo was taking on his pariah state. “There were times,” he told the Windhoek Advertiser, “that we had enough oil for only one week.” If necessity is the mother of invention, the isolation of apartheid South Africa had an unintended consequence: It spurred innovation.
The oil embargo encouraged Sasol, a domestic company formed in 1950, to commercialize its pioneering coal-to-liquids technology, itself built on work conducted by German scientists during the second world war. The Fischer-Tropsch process, which Sasol honed to a fine art, enabled the country to survive sanctions by extracting fuel, naphtha, paraffin and a range of chemicals from coal.
Today, this and similar technology is used not only domestically but in countries as far afield as Nigeria, Qatar and Uzbekistan. During the Cold War, cut off from international suppliers, South Africa also built a sophisticated aerospace and defense industry, even developing a nuclear weapons program.
Those technological breakthroughs were part of what Alison Lewis, dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Cape Town, calls a “frontier” mentality. “Under apartheid, there was a sense of ‘the world’s not going to help us. We’re just going to do our own thing,’” she says. “It’s controversial because it was the White Afrikaners who were doing the innovation.”
The challenge in postapartheid South Africa has been to harness that pioneering spirit to the benefit of all South Africans, particularly the Black majority, who were previously all but excluded from science and technology.
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