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For South Africa, 1955 was an interesting year. Fans of sport or culture will tell you it was the year both soccer hero Jomo Sono and the brilliant Johannesburg artist William Kentridge were born.

Historians may recall it as the time that the African National Congress adopted the Freedom Charter – declaring "South Africa belongs to all who live in it" – under the resentful eyes of security policemen.

But hardly anyone remembers that the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) was formed in July of that year.

The SAIP's chequered history is something we should remember. The professional physics body, holding its annual conference this week (3-7 July) at the University of the Western Cape, was instrumental in supporting the apartheid-era government.

This was an era when nuclear weapons were a priority for a minority government nursing long-held grievances — a government convinced that it was under attack from communism. Physics and politics shared the same bed in organisations such as the defence company Armscor and the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research, both in Pretoria.

Members of the influential secret society Afrikaner Broederbond — all male, all Afrikaans-speaking, all white and supporters of legally mandatory racism, until it was opened to all races and women on the eve of democracy in 1993 — served in the top ranks of the SAIP.

In fact, at that time the closest the institute got to echoing the Freedom Charter clause was its requirement that at least one member of council must come from outside the then vast minority-ruled Transvaal province. Or perhaps it was that communication in English, as well as Afrikaans, was allowed.

Physics was definitely for pale males. Nuclear physicist Krish Bharuth-Ram of the University of KwaZulu-Natal appears to have been the first 'non-white' to have a paper accepted at a SAIP conference, in the 1960s.

At the opening night of this year's conference, Bharuth-Ram recalled the letter from the SAIP informing him that his paper was accepted, but declining his presence on the grounds that the conference was at a whites-only university.

Tool for liberation

Nowadays, the SAIP faces new and very different challenges in a much-changed South Africa. High-energy physicist Zeblon Vilakazi of the University of Cape Town divides his time between lectures, work at the iThemba nuclear physics hospital and research facility, and flying to Switzerland for research at the CERN particle accelerator.

Vilakazi objects to the idea that developing countries must focus all their scientific power on solving problems of poverty and disease. He notes that theoretical physics often has beneficial spin-offs that cannot be predicted.

Anyhow, he asks, where is the cut-off line? At what point does a country decide that its economy is strong enough to allow research into particle physics? "We condemn ourselves to permanent second-class status if we decide that we cannot do research into the beginning of the universe," he argues.

But the previous South African government, for all its sins, may have known something that many activists have forgotten today. Physics is an incredibly powerful tool for liberation — personal, professional and political. Men and women fluent in physics can get jobs anywhere in the world. They are in huge demand as entrepreneurs, in industry and in academia.

More importantly, physicists have a deep understanding of how this world works, from the forces of gravity to the atomic bomb, from blasting cancerous cells in the brain to decoding the age of the universe. If knowledge is a weapon, physics graduates can be considered soldiers.

Why else would the old whites-only government have been so alarmed at the prospect of allowing the so-called non-white 'bush' universities to run physics courses? Bharuth-Ram, who currently heads the iThemba Laboratories for Accelerator-Based Sciences (LABS) in Cape Town, remembers having to smuggle his students from the segregated University of Durban-Westville to labs around the country because the authorities balked at the idea of providing proper facilities.

Now a number of universities across the country are reporting a worrying drop in the number of students taking physics. Some of this may be due to merger troubles and consequent negative publicity at places such as the universities of KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo, and North-West University. These face the logistical nightmare of running campuses scattered across considerable distances — in some cases, hundreds of kilometres. It's hard to maintain a focus on cutting-edge science under such circumstances.

Soccer over science

But it's far more likely that the dearth of students taking physics at university level is simply down to fewer pupils doing mathematics and science at high school level. And of those who squeak through high school mathematics and science, how many of them truly, deeply understand the concepts? South African society is, as a whole, more appreciative of soccer than of science, even though physics dictates the arc of a ball in a penalty shoot-out.

This lack of skill worries people like Nithaya Chetty of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. "Physics has an extremely important role to play in development. The single most important reason why Africa lags behind is our low level of maths and science literacy."

It may be that physics, like other university-level disciplines, is still recovering from the academic isolation imposed by the international science community on South Africa in protest against apartheid. Some of South Africa's brightest minds were born in exile during the apartheid era. Others simply joined the brain drain, either leaving South Africa permanently or conducting a kind of high-level migrant labourer shuttle. They move between the incessant demands of a developing-world university and the benefits of one in the developed world.

But many South African physicists abroad return whenever they can, keen to share new knowledge at events like the SAIP conference. This year it was attended by about 500 delegates who enjoyed three intense days of seven simultaneous sessions on the latest in almost every area of physics.

"The opportunity to refresh our knowledge of current trends is extremely important," says Chetty, who is the SAIP's incoming head. Another benefit for South African researchers is the support they receive from colleagues eager to encourage physics within a developing country.

Sandra Klevansky, a particle physicist based at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, gave a presentation at the SAIP conference about how information and communication technologies influence physics. A radio journalist asked her how South Africa could compete in physics, given its poor infrastructure. "All you need is your brain," Klevansky replied.

Working for the future

So much for people already involved in physics, but what about the next generation? The organisers of the SAIP's 51st conference are acutely aware that they need to encourage young students.

This week they held one-day physics schools at the University of the Western Cape, the Hermanus Magnetic Observatory and iThemba LABS, targeting dozens of science students from universities around the country to encourage them to specialise in physics. There were even a few students from Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other southern African countries.

On 5 July they invited local high school science teachers and their best students to attend a plenary session at the University of the Western Cape's Great Hall, offering teachers help with resources and workshops, and telling the students what they need to know about jobs.

"We haven't marketed physics well enough," says Chetty. This week's day schools offer a window of opportunity to change that. "We have to move away from the mindset where we would be colonial and rely on Western powers for our intellectual commodities," Chetty urges. "We have to develop our own."

Hopefully, today's SAIP can carve out a future to be proud of. While memories are long, it is worth remembering this: about 60 per cent of the papers at the conference came from the young generation of homegrown black physicists. Transformation is well underway.

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