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The hidden edge South Africa's world class inventions.

South African technology is not only world class, it is at the cutting edge of international innovation. A culture of secrecy during the apartheid era kept this fact hidden from most South Africans. But now the wraps are off and inventors are buzzing. Anver Versi reports. Extracts are from The Hidden Edge with text by Graeme Addison.

One of the cornerstones of the African Renaissance movement, as elucidated by Nelson Mandela when he introduced the concept during an OAU summit in Tunis in 1994, is knowledge and the application of knowledge to everyday needs. Today, most African thinkers on the subject are agreed that Africa cannot make the economic and social breakthrough the continent is crying out for without the development of scientific thought and innovation.

The scarcity of resources in Africa and the lack of formal education, even at a basic level, for most Africans does not mean that innovation is absent on the continent. On the contrary, Africans are proving themselves as some of the most innovative people in the world. Go to any jua kali (hot sun) workshop anywhere from Kenya to Guinea and you will find innovation and ingenuity in full flow. Humble workshops turn out serviceable spare-parts for all sorts of gadgets from the most unlikely material. Children use discarded bottle-tops, bits and pieces of wire, plastic containers and virtually anything else they can lay their hands on to make wonderfully detailed working toys. Women have only to look at photographs of dresses in catalogues to produce garments any high street shop would be proud of.

Yet all this creative energy and the drive towards invention remains stunted. This is because most African countries do not have formal systems of developing, patenting and then marketing creative ideas. The dearth of formal and tertiary education hampers our budding geniuses, the almost complete absence of easy-to-follow science and technical publications further conspires to nail creativity to the floor. This cycle must be broken if the aspirations of the African peoples are to be realised.

One exception to the general rule in sub Saharan Africa is South Africa. Here the spirit of science, invention and innovation is alive and well. However, for years, especially at the height of apartheid, when secrecy was the prevailing sentiment, the country's achievements in science and technology were kept under wraps. The result is that even today, the majority of South Africans are unaware that for years their country has been at the cutting edge of First World technology.

President Thabo Mbeki, having picked up the African Renaissance torch from Mandela, wants the veil lifted. The country's economic salvation, he says, will come only through knowledge and the application of that knowledge. He wants a pooling of both formal and traditional knowledge so that new solutions to Africa's problems can be found from within Africa itself. He wants good ideas recognised and rewarded, innovations patented, developed and marketed throughout the world. He wants to compete on equal terms at the technological end of the market. The new hero of Africa, he says, is the man or woman of knowledge, thought and action.

Celebrate South Africa campaign

As part of a campaign to show the world what South Africa is capable of, the South African High Commission in London organised a six-week-long 'Celebrate South Africa' festival. As part of the festival, a huge open air concert, attended by Nelson Mandela, was held at London's Trafalgar Square. There were film, music and art shows, there were business, investment and tourism conferences, and there was The Hidden Edge exhibition.

The exhibition, held at the ultra-modern Imax cinema complex at Waterloo, was a compact showcase of South African inventions and innovations. It left many people staggering in disbelief. The CAT scan, we learnt, without which no modern hospital in the world is complete, was invented in South Africa. A newer, low dose version, the Lodox is generating excitement throughout the world. Home-grown mining technology has been a world leader for generations. South African software producers are well ahead of the global game. Industrial methodologies, shaped in South Africa, are giving countries like Japan and Korea a run for their money. Denel Aviation is providing gearboxes for Rolls Royce aero engines; Sasol which was the first company in the world to turn coal into oil is now turning natural gas into environmentally friendly fuel; Ramkor Tools have come up with a stand-alone solar-powered phone booths - the list goes on and on.

At the low end of the tech spectrum, simple but ingenious devices like the Q-Drum water carrier are making life easier for multitudes of people. Harvesting the poisonous cocoons of the Gonometa worm has led to a new industry producing silk fabric; triangular bricks are taking the chore out of building and plastic spare parts are proving more reliable and vastly cheaper than their metal counterparts.

Although South Africa's technical edge has remained 'hidden' until recently, it has lost nothing of its vibrancy. The next task is to intensify research and development and create links with the rest of Africa so that a new era of African technical innovation can begin.

Following, we present some of the innovations on show at the Hidden Edge exhibition.



Low dosage X-rays and digital scanning were combined in a newly developed machine to make whole body images of trauma patients at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town. The technology, developed by De Beers and the University of Cape Town, is remarkable for the rapidity with which exposures are made (a typical exposure for a whole body is 13 seconds), the high resolution of its imagery and the extremely low dosage of X-rays required (5 - 20% of standard X-rays).

Originally developed by De Beers' technologist, Herman Potgeiter, for catching smugglers who had swallowed diamonds to get past mine security checks, the original machines were called Scannex. Now with further development, a medical version of the machine, Lodox, has attracted huge interest from hospitals at home and abroad. The cost of each machine is around $3m. It originated in a quest for high-quality low-dose X-rays of large areas and is converging on the technology of the Computed Tomography (CT) scanner, pioneered by UCT physicist, Allan Cormack, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1979.


Putty - a chemical dough that turns hard - is not usually something to get excited about. But a Krugersdorp company has put its putties to the test in ways that excite the imagination. Its epoxy adhesives have been used aboard NASA spacecrafts, have repaired sunken ships prior to refloating them and, in a marketing demonstration that made front page news, the company's CEO risked his life to prove the strength of the product.

The Pratley group was founded in 1948 by George Montague Pratley, a man with a total belief in his ability to succeed. During the 1930s he worked in Britain on the development of the Whittle jet engine, which was later used to power the first jet aircraft in World War II. George died in 1983 and was succeeded by his son Kim, who proceeded to literally lay his life on the line to prove his faith in the group's products.

At the launching of Pratley Wondafix, a 13t bulldozer was hoisted and held aloft by the new adhesive. Kim Pratley then stood underneath it, chatting with the apprehensive spectators. Like his father, he believes that innovation is the best method of growing an enterprise. To him, this means not just thinking up new ideas constantly, but being resourceful enough to put them into practice and get the market to embrace them.

A versatile group of companies based in the west Witwatersrand, Pratleys now employs about 250 people, manufactures 800 products and has filed over 300 patents worldwide. Although it mainly serves the industrial and mining sectors, home hobbyists know it too. Driven by an outstanding research capability, the group has maintained a leading market position on the home front and penetrated numerous markets abroad.

Although the putty is its most famous product, the company boasts two other major technical achievements. It has invented the first truly adjustable cable gland, the forerunner of a wide portfolio of electrical products; and developed mineral exploitation technologies to be used for insulation materials and molecular sieving.


Hardly anyone knows about a species of African worm that produces high-quality silk, or that a small industry is coming into being to exploit this cheap and renewable resource. Various subspecies of Gonometa worms spin their cocoons in the branches of mopani and acacia trees, and once the moths emerge, the cocoons can be collected for their silk.

Now the CSIR division, Textile Technology (Textek); and the provincial government of the North West have a two-pronged strategy to develop a rural silk industry. Apart from creating jobs, collecting the cocoons will remove a hazard as cattle, sheep and game can die from swallowing them.

A pilot silk project has been underway for some years in the remote village of Ganyesa, set amid dry bushland west of the provincial capital at Mmabatho. It is one upshot of Textek's research into indigenous natural resources and knowledge systems. The cocoons are delivered to a workshop where about 20 co-workers wash and de-gum them. Then the spinning begins. An SABC-TV special showed women at traditional spinning wheels in their homes, drawing and twisting the natural fibres into thread and their winding it onto bobbins.

Value-added products can range from teddy-bear fabric to lustrous material for curtaining and clothing.

The return of spinning has historical echoes. When President Mbeki refers to "two nations" - as a trained economist he is surely alluding to what the Victorian Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, said about more than a century-and-a-half ago. Disraeli had watched the industrial revolution destroy cottage crafts, including spinning and weaving, as land enclosures forced people to become poorly paid factory workers. Rich and poor, he said, were "dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets".

Britain reduced this gap through education, welfare legislation and massive industrialisation. Spinners in South Africa now have the chance to enter the economy from a rural base, rather than trekking to the cities where there is no work for them anyway. If the project succeeds it will help, in a small way, to reduce the gap between rich and poor, ironically, by supplying upmarket fabrics for urban lifestyles.

No matter: it promises income for people who previously had little access to markets. The worm turns as Africa discovers its wealth


Energy may be the people's best friend but it can be lethal for wildlife. In 1995 farm labourers near Lichrenburg in the North West Province reported that many Cape Griffon vultures were dying on power lines This came as a surprise to Eskom as the line had been made "bird-friendly", or so people thought, in the 1980s.

The Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) was approached for help on a national scale, resulting in a formation of a unique partnership to save wildlife. In rather formal language the partnership seeks "the limitation of wildlife mortality on Eskom infrastructure", among other things.

The motive is not entirely altruistic, for unless the problem is dealt with the public will be affected by electrical faults and power failures. Power lines are now being monitored for collisions and electrocutions, Eskom staff have been carefully briefed, volunteers are doing fieldwork, and the media are kept informed.

A real innovation coming from this situation is the Bird Flapper. Unlike the traditional scarecrow, which was supposed to frighten birds off, the flapper is truly bird-friendly. Its purpose is to make lines more visible for flying birds, and it consists of a simple plastic disk hanging from a difference hook on a power line.

Simple as it is, the flapper took some effort to develop. Early prototypes ended up on the ground, and staff got tired of putting them up. Now, a long link-stick handled by two people on the ground enables them to hang the disk quite easily. At certain localities there has been a 75% reduction in bird collisions where the flapper has been fitted.

Firms in the United States, Tasmania and other countries have shown interest, while the EWT has collaborated with the Bolivians in the development of a luminescent flapper.


In remote areas the daily chore of pumping water usually falls to women and children, and the ungainly hand-pump has become a common sight in villages. The equipment is sometimes cranky and can be exhausting to operate by hand; it also causes delays while people queue to use it.

The use of modern alternatives like electrical, diesel and petrol pumps is ruled out by costs and maintenance problems. What better way to pump water than to turn it into child's play?

A patented South African invention, the Play-Pump, simplifies the whole chore and actually turns it into enjoyable exercise.

The pump operates off either a playground roundabout or a merry-go-round driving standard borehole pumps and providing clean borehole water. Costs and maintenance are kept to a minimum while the children have fun and the women chat in the shade.

The Play-Pump was the brain-child of Ronnie Stuiver, managing director of Afribore, a company specialising in boreholes, pumps and tanks. The company is based in Delmas in Mpumalanga province and is beginning to sell its device to customers throughout South Africa and in Botswana and Swaziland.

The mechanism converts the rotational movement of the roundabout to reciprocating linear movement (up and down) through the use of only two working parts. This makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical.

It is also quiet because most of the pump equipment is deep in the borehole - not that makes much of a difference when the children are shouting for joy.


Carnage on the roads could be reduced if a device from the CSIR division of Mining Technology, Miningtek, were to be made compulsory for all drivers - especially those at the wheel of long-haul trucks, buses and taxis. The Stay Awake Stay Alive sleep detector safety device was originally developed for the drivers of heavy-duty trucks at open-cast mines.

The working environment of these drivers could be described as a strict sequence of monotonous operations in the same noisy and dusty places. Given the low speed of the vehicles and passive role of the drivers most of the time, many would nod off - costing some mines and construction companies thousands, sometimes millions, of rands, annually.

Miningtek devised a sensor that scans the driver's eye and a photo-receiver that detects the level of reflected light. The functions are very complex, but in essence, it entails having a lens positioned in front of the eye like ordinary glasses. When the eyes are closed for longer than 1-2 seconds a speech processor generates a loud signal that says "Wake up, wake up!."

About 6.5m drivers in South Africa and probably more than 100m throughout the world are potential users of the nifty device. The total cost of manufacture the detector commercially is only R5m. Sleeping at the wheel probably accounts for over 70% of night accidents and 30% during the day worldwide. At a cost to South Africa of more than R500m annually, this seems like a good investment in new technology.


Most visitors to rural areas have seen women and children lugging heavy containers of water on their heads or rolling them along by hand for miles. This exhausting daily task has been made easier by two independently developed drums that follow the same principle.

The Q-Drum and the Hippowater Roller both roll along easily and do not have to be lifted and carried.

Regarded objectively, they are hardly competing technologies but rather complementary ones. In each case, the sturdy plastic drum has a large cap allowing users to dip containers into them and also clean them out by hand.

The QDrum (so named because when looked at from the side the drum lid resembles the cedilla on the letter Q) won the prestigious international Rotex Design Award 1996 for the category of applied science and invention. A doughnut hole through the middle permits the drum to be pulled using a rope that can be replaced when lost or frayed.

Hans Hendricks, an architect living in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, and his brother Pieter - a civil engineer, designed it

Some Q-Drums have travelled as far as 12,000 kilometres, made seven million revolutions and provided more than a dozen people in a family with 120,000ltrs of water.

The Q-Drum has also been redesigned for commercial use in storing fruit juices or other liquids. Once discarded by industry it can be made available to people who desperately need it, free of charge.

The Hippo (a more bulky beast with no hole through the middle) won the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS) Design for Development award in 1992. It can be pulled or pushed by a detachable steel handle that fits into the middle. It was designed by J.L. Petzer, J.P. Jonker, H. Balme and S. Kleynhans and is distributed through the Hippo Water Roller Trust. As the SABS said in its colourful booklet Thirty Years of Design Excellence (1969 - 1999), the water roller "was one of an astonishing variety of indigenous products, ranging from the purely functional to the dreamily artistic."

The objective of the Hippo Water Roller trust is to see R100m donated from 20 major South African corporations to subsidise the distribution of drums. This would improve the lives of at least three of the eight million South Africans who have no ready access to daily water requirements.


Firemen need it, construction groups need it and in the bad old days of South Africa's border war, it would have been handy to remove obstacles in the field. Today, Denel, the South African arms manufacturer is reaping the rewards of peace with the Boulder Buster device currently being exported to many countries.

The device, trademarked under the name Boulder Buster, safely breaks rocks where conventional jackhammers would he useless and large explosive charges could he dangerous. Developed by Swarklip Products, a division of Denel, the tool weighs less than 10kg and can be carried by hand. It is specifically designed for low-energy rock breaking using a technology called hydro-fracture.

A shotgun shell is the initiator that sets off an acoustic shockwave in water that has been filled In a pre-drilled hole in the rock. The tremendous force generated by this causes the rock to fracture.

Swartklip also developed a tool called the Ro-Bust system in a joint venture with McCarthy Industries of Denver, Colarado. Using the same method of hydrofracture as the Boulder Buster Ro-Bust is integrated with a drill on a heavy duty boom, and mounted on a carrier which can move freely around the worksite.

The makers say it is not necessary to evacuate personnel or shut down other activities in a wide area when using these tools. Hydrofracture breaks-up-rock and concrete without flying bits and pieces, noxious fumes or loud concussion.
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Author:Versi, Anver; Addison, Graeme
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2001
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