Rocking All Over the World – Ancient life in South Africa

Rory Changleng
Friday 23 August 2019

“If there is a job to be done in Africa, someone is employed to do it.” This was reiterated by my Laidlaw colleague Lot Koopmans, as we continued our journey through the Mpumalanga province of South Africa. At every fuel stop, a smiling young local in uniform would be there to greet us, fill up our car, and bring us a card reader in return for a couple of rands. In every supermarket car park, another would, without request, aid in our reversing in return for a few rands more. Unemployment in this African nation currently stands at 29%, so there is no wonder that the government is keen to create jobs. This was one of the many quirks about South Africa that I had to get used to. For someone as independent and forward planning as I, this nation provided me with a steep learning curve.

Lot and I are currently sitting in O. R. Tambo international airport on the outskirts of Johannesburg, initiating our 18-hour journey back to the U.K. We have been in South Africa to undertake fieldwork for our respective Laidlaw projects, giving us both the opportunity to lead each other, and be there in a supporting role. My project was focused on understanding how the geological record could preserve evidence of ancient ocean chemistry, and how this, in turn, may have impacted the evolution of complex life. This is done through the search for a curious mineral by the name of greenalite, which is hypothesised to have drawn zinc out of the Earth’s primordial oceans, influencing and perhaps even hindering the development of eukaryotic organisms.  I came to South Africa because here the rocks are unusually ancient, up to three and a half thousand million years old.

For the past few months, I have been coordinating with Dr Rosalie Tostevin, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town whom I approached for her expertise in the greenalite field. We arranged to meet up for several days in the Council for Geoscience’s national rock core library on the outskirts of Pretoria. This was a large green warehouse housing hundreds of kilometres worth of rock cores stacked on shelves two storeys high in dusty metal boxes. We planned to examine two cores which intersected rocks deposited during the time of the Great Oxidation Event 2.4 billion years ago and collect samples for analysis back in St Andrews. This was all written, along with the logistics of our visit, in numerous emails to the staff at the Council for Geoscience weeks in advance. Therefore we were a little surprised to find that upon arrival, the very cheerful security guard standing behind the razor wire and 10,000-volt electric fence adorning the front gate had no idea who we were, and given the semi-automatic MP5 assault rifle he brandished, we were not inclined to argue.

This was the first incident in a long and at times quite painful saga that narrates our time at the core shed. Our carefully laid plans constructed over the past month were tossed out the window, into a shredder coupled to a matter vaporiser. A little disheartened, we decided to visit a nearby nature reserve to look at giraffes and make some phone calls. We called the head of security, who told us to go away. We called the Council for Geoscience head office, who said they had never heard of their own National Core Library facility. We eventually got through to the manager of the shed who told us that he was on holiday and so had neglected to inform his colleagues at the shed of our proposed visit. However, since he was now about to do so, we hurried back and after a bit of negotiating with the nice man with the gun at the gate, we eventually got through and into the shed.

Anyone reminded of the last scene in Raiders?
This is roughly 1600m of rock core ranging from 300 million to 2.5 billion years old

The core was laid out box by box by two men employed solely to do that job, whilst another employee drove the forklift. At this point, we all got very excited and starting prospecting through the boxes looking for the specific formations and rock types that may contain the greenalite. Beside each interesting specimen, we placed a small plastic sample bag and printed on an identification number in black ink.

We were just about ready to start taking our samples when the man whose sole job was to operated the rock cutting saw though it was useful to inform us that his rock cutting saw would not be doing any rock cutting today as it was currently without a rock cutting blade. This was very much sub-ideal.

And so a catalogue of phone calls was made to different people. The head of security told us to go away again. The geoscience office still had not heard of their own core shed, and the core shed manager was enjoying his holiday too much to pick up. We eventually got through to the maintenance man, who informed us that he would employ someone to walk half an hour to the rock cutting blade shop, get a quote for the rock cutting blade. He would then employ someone else to walk to the bank and get a check to pay for the rock cutting blade. A third person would then go to the rock cutting blade shop once more the by the rock cutting blade. The maintenance man would then walk to the core shed and fit the rock cutting blade to the rock cutting saw. This he warned, may take some time.

The next day we were at the shed for opening time at 8:30. At 8:55 on the dot, the security guard arrived to open the gate and let us it. At precisely 9:14 the five employees rocked up in a battered “buckie” pick-up and informed us that the rock cutting blade was still not in the rock cutting saw. What unfolded proved to be another frustrating day of waiting. However, by the end of the day, we had been informed that the rock cutting blade was in the office and would be installed into the rock cutting saw tomorrow.

8:30 on the dot the next morning and we were at the razor-wired gate once more. At precisely 9:17 we were informed by the nice man with the gun that the rock cutting blade had been installed in the rock cutting saw but since it was Saturday no one was in to operate it. We would have to return on Monday.

I tried to cut a long story short here, as it turns out unsuccessfully. However by the end of Monday, after getting up at 4:30 am to drive to the core shed from where we had been staying near eSwatini for the weekend, we had our samples cut and were ready to depart. We then were informed by another employee whom we had not yet encountered that we were only allowed half the samples we had taken. And thus ensued a frantic hour of prioritising and carefully selecting the samples that would be most useful to us.

To summarise. I learned a lot about how things are done in Africa during my brief visit. I started by stating that if there is a job to do, someone is employed to do it. This may sound great in principle, but in practice, it means that more hurdles are created to accomplish any task. If three people do the job of one, then communication needs to be efficient between them to achieve any progress. When this inevitably breaks down, it results in a lot of people not doing anything, and each passing off responsibility as to how to resolve a situation, meaning that it was up to ourselves to take the initiative and find a solution.

However, that is not to say that we can’t learn a thing or two from the people of South Africa. Many have nothing. Yet when you travel around you are confronted by smiling people who are often content with life. In the developed world, we have a never-ending drive to amass more commodities, acquire more influence and achieve more success without stopping and contemplating what we already have. A happy medium is needed between these two end-members; having the drive to further society, and the contentedness to be happy with what you have.

I mentioned I was a forward planner, and this proved to be the biggest challenge in South Africa. I quickly realised that there was no point in planning ahead too much because it would just be too disheartening when the plan inevitably had to change. If you were blinded by previous arrangement, you missed key opportunities to achieve more than you originally set out to do. Instead, I found it best to set short term goal, be flexible, and take any opportunities that came my way.

A visit to the field to sample as well, between core shed visits.

If someone asked me to summarise my Laidlaw Scholarship fieldwork in South Africa, I would have said indescribable. However, I hope you appreciate that I have given it my best shot.


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