Reflections on the history of aquatic science in South Africa with particular reference to the period after 1994

24 March 2015

In this article we reflect on how freshwater research has evolved in South Africa from its beginnings in the early 20th century and how it has altered over time to align with the post-1994 socio-political environment. We situate aquatic science within a research question to explore why aquatic science has developed in the manner it has done, providing some of the broader environment of political change, access to funding, the relevance of particular research themes at different times, and the research agenda of some prominent individual scientists. We do not, therefore, intend merely to itemise what has been achieved over the years. Our intention is to develop an historical context that may help frame research in ways that bridge the cultural divides that persist between the humanities and the sciences. Moreover, although water is crucial to life and livelihoods in a country of scarce water resources, the fields of aquatic study are not generally familiar to the South African public and do not have the high profile they merit. In order to chart important current developments in freshwater research, this article highlights significant aspects of this scientific arena during the earlier part of the 20th century that are pertinent to explaining how and why the current situation, by way of research fields, policy and legislation came into being. The history has been necessitated by, and driven by, regional socio-economic and geopolitical factors as well as developments in the relevant scientific disciplines. After examining how this state of affairs came to be, an overview of the present state of the field is provided.