9 Jan 1947 – 15 Apr 2020
- Chair of Earth Stewardship Science at the Nelson Mandela University;
- Philipson-Stow Chair of Geology and Mineralogy at the University of Cape Town;
- Research Positions in Africa: BPI Geophysics Wits University, UN in Ethiopia;
- Research Positions held in Europe at: IPGP-Paris, GFZ-Potsdam, University of Utrecht, Imperial College of London;
- Research Positions held in North America at: MIT Earth and Planetary Sciences, Queens University (Honorary DSc), NASA Lunar & Planetary Institute, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory Columbia University;
- Research Position held in South America at University of Santiago Chile;
- PhD Cambridge University
- BSc/MA Trinity College Dublin
- Born in Holland
The Africa Earth Observatory Network (AEON) pays tribute to its Founding Director, Professor Maarten de Wit.
A remarkable contribution to our past, present and future
He would say to all including his students: “you call me Maarten”
Henceforth, Prof de Wit will be called Maarten.
An A1-rated National Research Foundation (NRF) scientist, Maarten was recognised nationally and internationally for his groundbreaking research projects, impacting hundreds of lives around the globe, with knock-on effects that will penetrate through generations. Maarten would have not become a lead geoscientist if it had not been for South Africa’s geology. He first came in mid-1980 to study the Makhonjwa Mountains in Barberton, which preserves some of the oldest and most complex rocks on Earth, and became passionate about learning from their ancient stories, and in particular how life first started, and how to use cutting-edge science experiments to learn as much as possible. This was a lifetime job that rapidly expanded into global tectonics, ecological geodynamics, geopolitics and complex systems solving, especially in Africa. This was for many years in the center of his Gondwana supercontinent reconstruction, which for the first time reunited the entire geology of Africa, South America, Antarctica, India and Australia. Maarten’s enthusiasm that encouraged lateral thinking touched many students, leading him to become an excellent professor. His “African Plate” class was one that many students could not wait to attend.
Maarten had a way of sharing knowledge that was desperately exciting and ignited the imagination. “What do we know about Africa?” “What is Africa?” “How can these questions be answered?” His inquisition would often be rhetorical, but his message was clear, there are mysteries traversing Africa’s length and breadth across billions of years, that would provide not only fantastical and magical stories, but also hard facts that could better inform a continent. With him, everything was inherently connected and should be woven together, especially within the structures of the university. Such thinking was behind his initiation of two multinational large scale scientific projects: the Kaapvaal Craton and the iKhure projects.
In 2006 he founded the African Earth Observatory Network (AEON) with 14 other scientists spread across 5 universities in South Africa, and 1 each in the UK and Australia. AEON was the logical development of what was probably the first university based GIS center in Africa called ‘Centre for Interactive Graphical Computing’ that Maarten setup. He already saw in the early 1990s the need for geological mapping to go digital and geo-information to be integrated. His focus then turned to Earth Stewardship Science with Africa as ‘top discount store for natural resources’ at the center of the debate. Ecological economics was the underlying theme.
Since joining the Nelson Mandela University in mid-2011, Maarten built a transdisciplinary research and postgraduate students program through the AEON linked Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (ESSRI), which served as a driver of the Global Change Grand Challenge National Research Plan. His exceptionally vast scientific interests encompassed a diversity of research projects on African geology, eco-dynamics, economics, sustainability of natural resources, intergenerational equity and transformation in agriculture linked to science and technology. Maarten focused on unravelling the deep structures of southern Africa and recently establishing a natural baseline of the Karoo as a key scientific voice to the debate on shale gas; but more so for the NRF-Department of Science and Innovation (NRF-DSI) sponsored Inkaba-ye-Africa (now known as Iphakade) and Global Change programmes. These programmes funded the development of over 300 graduate and postgraduate students across many South African universities, of which he personally supervised over 75 thesis-based PhD and MSc students. Maarten planted the seeds of a new ocean sciences initiative at Nelson Mandela University, asserting that a university by the sea without ocean sciences is an oxymoron.
Maarten was not simply satisfied with a deep and unrelenting understanding of the planet, but understood implicitly the crisis confronting Earth – our only home, and that there was an urgent and pressing need to confront the damage inflicted on our Commons. He understood that the solutions for the future could not be found in the antiquated thinking locked within the confines of disciplinary science, which contributed to the present crisis. Building on the thinking of Darwin, Humboldt, Goethe, O.E. Wilson, J. Lovelock and others he advanced the transdisciplinary science of Earth Stewardship, which sought to build an integrated approach to understanding the impacts of geological, biological, social and cultural processes. Through AEON-ESSRI, Maarten championed this through his commitment to social engagement and collaboration. He enlisted the support of numerous colleagues, government departments, state funded research institutions, and ultimately establishing the first NRF funded program for Earth Stewardship Science, focused on research and training of young scientists in Africa. Iphakade (‘observe the past and present to ponder the future’) serves to produce a new generation of young scientists capacitated and ready to address some of the planet’s most pressing challenges.
Today graduated students from AEON are all around the world in academia, government, civil society, and industry, making their contributions towards preserving and rebuilding our collective Commons. He was emphatic that whilst this applied to scientists, scholars, and thinkers in the academy, it meant nothing if it didn’t include the voices and agency of ordinary people, their hopes, their fears and their aspirations for the future. Maarten believed that the world yet to come belonged to all who occupied it, and as such that all had a stake in its future, not just scientists, politicians or the wealthy. With this in mind he built a formidable practice of citizen science in various communities of the Eastern Cape. This commitment to coproduction of knowledge was initiated with the Karoo Ground Water Monitoring Programme, and the establishment of a !Nau-Omkai Ku Dara (‘Transformation – building each other’) Khoisan indigenous research unit. In working with communities he embedded a fastidious attention to detail, and respect for their ideas, and agency, in both determining the research agenda and contributing to knowledge building, through citizen science. Maarten placed the youth at the center of all these initiatives, believing in their generational equity and having faith in the great value of their contribution.
Maarten saw a new way forward by co-creating the ‘Africa Alive Corridors”. He recognised that the African people are the building blocks of a new era, informed by 4 billion years of history, combined with the minds of exceptional leaders, like Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai, and many more, who have in their efforts lead us to this moment. Leaders, poets, song writers, earth scientists, and community members alike, have written poetry, told stories, sang songs, and filled book after book, that if coalesced into a single concept, or perhaps a multitude of concepts, might be embraced by “the children of today’s world and the children of tomorrow’s world” who together can reduce the suffering of all human-, animal- and plant- kind. Maarten and all the other visionaries of yesterday’s world have shown us new potentialities by their unique experiences on a continent in constant flux with itself and the rest of the world. In one way or another, they have experienced the horrors of a continent troubled by its past, yet they have also seen the endless beauty and possibilities for an African cosmodern future. The Africa Alive Corridors forms part of this vision, by uniting the sciences with the humanities, as “…two sides of the same stick”. Now, more than ever we will work harder and smarter to fulfil the dreams of yesterday’s visionaries and pass it on to new generations.
Maarten published extensively and was a founding member of the South Africa Academy of Science, an Honorary Fellow of the Geological Society of America, and of the Geological Society of London; and served actively on the editorial boards of five international journals.
Maarten is survived by his life partner Lynne Ferguson, his daughter Thandi, and son Tjaart.