#04 2022

20 years of innovation to get South Africa’s natural environment better observed and understood

By Johan Pauw, Juliet Hermes, Tony Swemmer and the NRF-SAEON Team

During 2022, SAEON reached its 20th impactful year and celebrations are in order. Not only has SAEON become an established environmental science instrument of the South African Government, but it has also become deeply integrated in South African society by working closely with several national and provincial departments, non-governmental organisations, universities in South Africa, science councils, commercial companies and industries, research sponsors, government agencies and enterprises, schools and communities. 

As both a leader and a team player, SAEON succeeds in honest brokering among these sectors and in leveraging the resources and powers vested in them. In doing so, SAEON has advanced environmental sciences in general by creating more and better research capacity and opportunities, stimulating scientific reasoning and standards, contributing information and understanding towards the improvement of the quality of life of South Africans, proudly carrying the South African flag in global organisations and initiatives, and redressing national race and gender inequalities.


The more diverse stakeholders an organisation has, the greater is the need to engage and consult with a view to excellence and longevity. The conceptualisation and planning phase of SAEON is a prime example of how many stakeholders were involved in the seeding of SAEON, a six-year process described in more detail by Van Jaarsveld et al., 2006.

Among other key milestones was a consultative think tank held in 1999, the outcomes of which were published by Van Jaarsveld & Biggs (2000). The article reported the names of 93 participants including approximately 12 from outside of Africa, three from the rest of Africa plus the former Deputy Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Rejoice Mabudafhasi, who opened the proceedings. The notion of stakeholder consultation and collaboration became entrenched over its two decades of formal existence and ensured the sustainability of SAEON.

Five years of deliberation and strategic thinking led to a nationally supported proposal by the LTER (Long-Term Ecological Research) Steering Committee, with Prof Albert van Jaarsveld as chair, to establish SAEON. The proposal was submitted to relevant government departments and the National Research Foundation (NRF) on 1 March 2001. Dr Rob Adam, then Director-General of the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, was the main recipient of the proposal and the meeting included the then Director-General of Water Affairs and Forestry, Dr Mike Muller, and President of the NRF, Dr Khotso Mokhele. Other representatives from the NRF and the Department of Agriculture were also in attendance.

On behalf of his Department, Dr Adam undertook to fund SAEON with a core grant for infrastructure through the NRF. The other departments were expected to become clients of SAEON and contribute funding given that SAEON’s ultimate purpose was to meet the declared priorities of government.

Aligned to the core ethos of long-term ecological research, the proposed name was the South African Ecological Observation Network, but Dr Adam requested in the meeting that the name be changed to the South African Environmental Observation Network, to emphasise the human-nature interactions that SAEON would be dealing with. The meeting also agreed that the timing to launch SAEON in 2002 was most appropriate since South Africa would be hosting the high-profile World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD 2002) in Johannesburg.  

Establishment of SAEON and its nodes  

The NRF subsequently developed a business plan jointly with government departments and from March 2002, received commensurate core funding from the new Department of Science and Technology for SAEON’s establishment. On 1 September 2002, a Head: SAEON was appointed to oversee implementation. SAEON was indeed “born” in 2002.

By 2008, advisory structures and four research nodes were operational in accordance with “The design of SAEON”, a document largely authored by the late Dr Bob Scholes with inputs and endorsements from the advisory structures. The plan was for all nodes to be hosted by contracted organisations and with a geographical spread across pertinent natural systems, including the terrestrial biomes, the coastal and the offshore-marine systems. In three of the four nodes established by 2008 this was achievable and the respective host organisations also appointed the nodal staff on behalf of SAEON. In 2006 and 2010, two SAEON Summits were held, giving LTER researchers an opportunity to present their work and to contribute to the refinement of SAEON’s observation and research programmes.

Until 2010, SAEON had obtained administrative services from the NRF Head Quarter staff. These arrangements allowed SAEON to focus on operational development often associated with the host organisations’ own infrastructure instead of administration. This strategy allowed for the rapid establishment of observation sites and systems. However, to align general administration and operations, SAEON found it necessary to establish its own central administrative centre and incorporate all the staff from the various nodes during 2010–11.

For all the research nodes, a competitive process required of prospective node host organisations to submit their proposals for evaluation and selection by the SAEON advisory structures. The final two research nodes, Grasslands and Arid Lands, were established by 2012. In the very same year, SAEON was honoured to have Minister Naledi Pandor of the Department of Science and Technology as keynote speaker for its 10-year anniversary celebration function at Jonkershoek.

Not a typical research institute  

It should be emphasised that there was never an intention to adopt the organisational model of a typical research institute. SAEON’s network organisational model was institutionalised to deliver and guarantee the core long-term observation systems and to provide leadership and drive to the environmental science system, SAEON’s environmental science education-outreach programmes and SAEON’s data and information management system.

Beyond these core activities, SAEON had to maintain porous borders and remain highly interactive with all its stakeholders. In particular, the head and scientific personnel of SAEON had limited scope to pursue personal research interests.

Stakeholder communications and publications  

An important stakeholder communication channel about (and archive of) SAEON’s activities is the SAEON eNews. Several informative science communication videos have been produced and made available on YouTube. The SAEON YouTube Channel is now steadily fed with recordings from SAEON’s monthly online seminar series.

The research nodes formed strong relationships with various existing communities of practice such as the Fynbos Forum, the Arid Zone Ecology Forum, the Savanna Network and the South African Network for Oceanic and Coastal Research. In 2010, the SAEON Core Science Framework: Understanding Environmental Change in Complex Systems was produced by Prof Tim O’Connor as SAEON’s Observation Science Specialist.

This provided welcome direction to SAEON observation and research programmes and was followed by a compendium of informative chapters edited by Prof Larry Zietsman under the title Observations on Environmental Change in South Africa. To do justice to the DST’s expectation that SAEON should inform policy making, the booklet Combat Change with Change was edited by Johan Pauw in 2011, also serving as a summarised interpretation of the policy implications that may be drawn from the said compendium.

A major resource in support of marine science is the Field Guide to the Offshore Marine Invertebrates of South Africa by Drs Lara Atkinson and Kerry Sink, published in 2018.  

Formal agreements  

Over the years, formal agreements were signed with most universities and relevant science councils and government agencies to facilitate collaborations and provide access to SAEON’s research, data and education platforms and programmes. Importantly, some of these agreements led to the resuscitation of historical LTER experiments and sites such as at Cathedral Peak, Jonkershoek, the Long-term Fire Experiments in Kruger National Park, Tierberg LTER and more.

Agreements also facilitated the establishment of new sites such as several estuaries and lakes along the coast, the Algoa Bay Sentinel Site, the Agulhas System Climate Array (ASCA), sites under communal management and the NRF-acquired land for the purposes of establishing the Square Kilometre Array for radioastronomy. In the mode of the Working for Water Programme of the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism that required job creation as a major output, both the SAEON Ndlovu and Fynbos Nodes successfully performed large multi-year environmental monitoring programmes.

International networks  

International networks such as the International Long-Term Ecological Research Network (ILTER), Agulhas-Somali-Current Large Marine Ecosystem (ASLME), Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA),Global Ocean Observation System (GOOS) and Global Ecosystem Research Infrastructure (GERI) complemented the local networks and ensured connectivity between SAEON and cutting-edge practices and platforms around the world. Due to their grounding in SAEON’s vibrant and diverse platforms, several scientists and information managers from SAEON were elected to leadership roles in those international organisations.

Research and research infrastructures  

The years since 2014 brought dramatic changes. SAEON appointed the A-rated Emeritus Professor William Bond as Chief Scientist, a participant in the 1999 think tank, and this demonstrated that SAEON was serious about the excellence of the science it performed and supported.

At the same time the DST embarked on a competitive process to develop and fund a South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR). SAEON became involved in the consultative planning phase, and jointly with partner organisations submitted three successful proposals for the implementation of three national research infrastructures (RIs) – the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI), the Enhanced Freshwater and Terrestrial Environmental Observation Network (EFTEON) and the South African Polar Research Infrastructure (SAPRI). The RIs are reliant on higher levels of instrumentation and standardised observations across sites and platforms than SAEON’s research nodes, where adaptive investigations and experimentation are more prevalent.

The DST’s decision to place all three of the National Environmental RIs under SAEON gives credit to the cumulative planning, lobbying and implementation work done by so many people since 1996, the outcome of which was that SAEON has proven to be the right organisation at the right time for the implementation of South Africa’s three National Environmental RIs.

The rolling annual RI budgets granted by the DST (now the Department of Science and Innovation, DSI), increased SAEON’s operational and administrative responsibilities more than threefold. Major administrative and operational efficiencies and cost-savings to the public purse have thus become possible. Although each RI is unique in many aspects, they also share a lot among themselves and with SAEON’s LTER platforms deployed by its six research nodes.    

Data and information systems  

It immediately became necessary, and possible, to centralise and integrate the data and information systems under a new node called SAEON uLwazi Node. The Node developed several government-funded information portals namely the South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (SARVA), the National Climate Change Information System (NCCIS), the Bioenergy Atlas, the Marine Information Management System (MIMS), the South African Spatial Data Infrastructure (SASDI) and SAEON’s own Observations Database.

Building vital capacity  

Beyond the fact that South Africans are guaranteed environmental quality by the Constitution, redressing the legacy of apartheid policies is a government imperative.  Since 2003, SAEON has emphasised environmental science education programmes (ESEP) with secondary schools and underprivileged communities. The ESEP engages the school learners and teachers in the natural sciences and mathematics through practical training workshops, science camps, research projects following scientific protocols, opportunities for learners to learn presentation skills, scientific research cruises and the annual Eskom Expo for Young Scientists. Once observation systems were operational, SAEON followed through with support, training and supervision of large numbers of black and female research students from higher education institutions.

A highly impactful Graduate Student Network (GSN) was launched in 2006 by the then Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom. This student-driven organisation is active across all universities and emphasises the multi-disciplinary and cross-ecosystem application of LTER, an aspect poorly addressed by postgraduate schools where specialisation is key and academic melting pots are rare.

Academic excellence is advanced through a competition for attendance of the annual GSN Indibano as well as general training workshops on specialised career-supporting topics such as statistical software and science communication. The efforts of the GSN were complemented by the SEAMESTER research training cruise, offered by ASCA, partnering with the University of Cape Town and the Department of Environmental Affairs.

Within SAEON, the proportion of female staff members generally approached or exceeded the expected 50% across all levels including managers. Major programmes like ASCA and the Benthic Trawl Experiment were headed by women scientists. Racial transformation in SAEON was slower for a variety of reasons, but in this 20th year of its existence SAEON appointed an African woman, Dr Mary-Jane Bopape, as Managing Director and its first Node Manager from a designated race.

SAEON should more broadly be seen as a transformative organisation that has and is making a significant impact in the science system from the perspective of environmental sciences. It is an innovation based on its unique organisational design. It also changed the environmental sciences landscape through providing ecosystem sciences with much needed infrastructure and resources.

Proudly South African 

The more recent addition of three National Environmental Research Infrastructures have opened the doors to much greater coordination, co-location and capacity development among the range of role players. There exists a breath-taking opportunity to integrate the RIs within SAEON and intercontinentally across the Southern Ocean to Antarctica.

The SAEON research nodes, the information management nodes and three RIs are already centres of gravity attracting external researchers. The ability to seamlessly access a broad spectrum of research infrastructure and data linking Africa with Antarctica will undoubtedly become a global pillar of strength in planetary management.

Overall, SAEON’s top management structure, research coordination, Environmental Science Education Programme and administrative hub are in a continuous state of rising scope and complexity to accommodate and duly integrate the exponential growth of SAEON’s mandate received from the SARIR. Accordingly, a formal organisational strategy was developed in 2020 and a new vision statement adopted to drive a cohesive SAEON.

The functional competence of SAEON flows from the dedicated, passionate and selfless people who do the job for love, not money, and who devote their lives to enhancing and promoting South African science and developing capacity in their respective fields, either directly or through a supporting role or as a SAEON collaborator. The staff and students of SAEON and their supporters from the past 20 years should be celebrated, without them SAEON would not be anywhere near where it is today.

From the 3000m above sea level weather station established by SAEON’s Grasslands Node to the 4000m deep underwater monitoring transect established by SAEON’s Egagasini Node, and from the northern savannas of South Africa under the observing eyes of the SAEON Ndlovu Node to the SANAE IV station on Antarctica coordinated by SAPRI, and from the dryland systems in central and western South Africa meticulously surveyed by the SAEON Arid Lands Node to the immense biodiversity of the Mediterranean system troubling the SAEON Fynbos Node, and from the six Carbon Flux towers of EFTEON across the land to the intense underwater monitoring systems of SMCRI along all of South Africa’s coastline, in a mere 20 years the excellent and dedicated staff and students of SAEON, with unwavering support from the DSI, NRF and many partners, managed to get South Africa’s life-supporting natural environment better observed, quantified and understood in unique and innovative ways.

Six ecosystem research sites across the country have been selected for EFTEON.

The highly impactful Graduate Student Network (GSN) was launched in 2006 by the then Minister of Science and Technology, Derek Hanekom. This student-driven organisation is active across all universities and emphasises the multi-disciplinary and cross-ecosystem application of LTER, an aspect poorly addressed by postgraduate schools where specialisation is key and academic melting pots are rare.

Students assist with the cleaning and measurements of gauging weirs on the monitored streams of the Grasslands Node’s Cathedral Peak site.

The Grassland Node’s most remote field research site, Vulture’s Retreat, is located on a small inselberg (free-standing peak) near the Drakensberg escarpment.

SAEON Grasslands Node PhD candidate Allister Starke has demonstrated that there are valuable resources within the Maputaland area that could provide potentially viable economic alternatives to Eucalyptus plantations which are threatening the water resources of the area.

Baited remote underwater video techniques were introduced to South Africa by the Marine Protected Area Unit of the Elwandle Node in 2006. Since then, continuous development, technological advances and international collaborations have evolved their application in South Africa from simple tethered mono-camera systems to fleets of simultaneously deployable stereo-HD-camera systems.

The airborne remote-sensing platform is an initiative of the Shallow Marine and Coastal Research Infrastructure (SMCRI) managed by the Elwandle Node. The platform comprises a single-engine high-wing light aircraft, a Glasair Sportsman, equipped with complex sensory equipment for aerial surveys.

The latest addition to the Elwandle Node’s biogeochemistry laboratory will extend the range of elements measured in the coastal environment.

The Egagasini Node was launched during the GEO Ministerial Summit held in Cape Town in 2007. From left: Prof Albert van Jaarsveld, former CEO of the NRF, Prof Juliet Hermes, manager of the Egagasini Node, former CEO of the NRF and Johan Pauw, former manager of SAEON.

The relatively pristine Marion and Prince Edward islands serve as ‘laboratories’ in which to conduct research to distinguish the effects of climatic driven change from those driven by human pressures. Twelve sites were re-surveyed with the SAEON SkiMonkey III camera in 2013. Results from these surveys show significant changes in composition of the benthic community around the islands. To improve our understanding of these changes, biennial seabed surveys have been introduced.

The first ever Field Guide to the Offshore Marine Invertebrates of South Africa, edited and compiled by marine biologists Lara Atkinson (left) and Kerry Sink, was launched in Cape Town on 10 May 2018.

SAEON inherited the Jonkershoek catchment experiment in 2010 and is maintaining it as a long‐term eco‐hydrological research platform and global change observatory. The Fynbos Node installed new instrumentation including full weather stations, fog gauges and an eddy covariance flux tower.

Rob Skelton, a Research Fellow at the Fynbos Node, measuring plant water status with a pressure chamber in the Cederberg. (Photo: Abri de Buys)

Fynbos Node student Bongiwe Seleka collects physico-chemical property measurements in the Jonkershoek catchment using a YSI multiparameter probe.

Night shift: Tshililo Ramaswiela (left) and former Arid Lands Node colleague Omphile Khutsoane deploying a weather instrument at Compassberg in 2016

A rare fairy shrimp, Pumilibranchipus deserti, was discovered for the first time in South Africa after being recorded only once from a single locality in Namibia during the 1980s. Betsie Milne, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Arid Lands Node, made the discovery in Hakskeenpan, one of four major pan systems found in southern Africa.

Researchers from the Arid Lands Node aim to investigate the changes taking place in the larger Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope landscape.

One of the Ndlovu Node’s current research themes is the ecology and hydrology of savanna rivers, which aims to understand the impacts of river degradation.

The Ndlovu Node and collaborators are conducting a study on the endangered pepper-bark trees in the Kruger National Park to identify factors at each critical stage in the reproductive process. Here Ndlovu Node MSc student Kaylee van den Bosch performs an artificial pollen transfer. (Photo: Dianne van den Bosch)

The Photographic guide to the wildflowers of the Limpopo Province was published in 2022 as a joint venture between the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) and the Ndlovu Node (Cover photo courtesy of SANBI).

Scientists from SAEON and Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal Wildlife have presented (article published in Land, September 2021) a first synthesis of the mountain observation in southern Africa and the collective value of long-term research from the region.

The South African Risk and Vulnerability Atlas (SARVA) is in its third phase of development and the uLwazi Node released a new portal 2020 – sarva.saeon.ac.za.

ILTER’s first Open Science meeting, hosted by SAEON, was held in Skukuza, Kruger National Park, in 2016.

NRF-SAEON’s environmental science education programmes engage school learners and teachers in the natural sciences and mathematics through practical training workshops, science camps, research projects following scientific protocols, opportunities for learners to learn presentation skills, scientific research cruises and the annual Eskom Expo for Young Scientists.

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