Tributes paid to NMU earth sciences academic

EMBRACING AFRICA: NMU earth science Prof Maarten de Wit
EMBRACING AFRICA: NMU earth science Prof Maarten de Wit

Inspirational earth sciences academic Prof Maarten de Wit from Nelson Mandela University has died.

De Wit, 73, an A1-rated National Research Foundation scientist, was founder director of the Earth Stewardship Science Institute and the African Earth Observation Network at NMU.

Prof Raymond Auerbach, from the School of Natural Resource Management at NMU’s George Campus, said his friend and colleague was an exceptional man.

“Maarten was a one-off — indefatigable, brilliant, typically Dutch in his bluntness, but with the most enormous heart,” he said.

“He had a talent for spotting postgraduate students in need of mentorship and also funded their studies.

“He was able to see where academics were not understanding the needs of their post-grads, and helped several who were about to drop out, with his kind but penetrating analysis and his ongoing support.”


The UK Geological Society, where De Wit was a fellow, said his interests and knowledge were exceptionally broad.

“Maarten de Wit is one of Africa’s most distinguished earth scientists.

“His research interests span geodynamics, tectonics and stratigraphy, early earth processes and the evolution of the Gondwana supercontinent.

“Despite his European birth, he has become an ambassador for the entire continent.

“His promotion of the Africa Alive Corridor programme is inspirational, as it embraces science, culture, landscape in a positive, educational, pan-African context and is a genuine attempt to embrace all African society.”

In an interview in 2011 about the new earth stewardship discipline he was working to establish at NMU, De Wit said the aim was to establish a team of young experts to tackle the planet’s interrelated environmental and social challenges.

“How do we transform this into a sustainable society? 

“Nelson Mandela Bay is part of a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the world.

“We can set an example here of how it can be done elsewhere,” he said at the time.

According to Auerbach, De Wit was born in Holland, schooled in Ireland and completed his PhD in geosciences at Cambridge University.

He spent four years at Columbia University in New York, conducting most of his field work in Chile, trying to understand the origin of the Andes mountains and how that mountain range ­connected with Antarctica.

He left academia to join the UN, training geologists in Ethiopia for two years.

Disillusioned with the UN’s work, he returned to Europe to cycle around the continent for a year.

A chance meeting with an SA professor in a pub in Amsterdam was the catalyst for his coming to  this country in 1979.

NMU spokesperson Zandile Mbabela said the university was mourning the loss of De Wit.

“He worked on the National Research Foundation/department of science and innovation-sponsored Inkaba-ye-Africa project, now known as Iphakade, and global change programmes stretching back over 15 years.

“These programmes funded the development of over 300 graduate and postgraduate students across many SA universities.

“Of these, he personally supervised over 75 thesis-based PhD and MSc students.”

In a post on its website, the paeleobiology unit at the University of Cape Town, where De Wit worked before his move to NMU, said it was saddened by the news of his passing.

“Besides being a distinguished earth scientist, he was such a wonderful person.

“What a loss for SA, Africa and the world.”

De Wit died at his home in The Crags near Plettenberg  Bay in the early hours of Wednesday.

He leaves his partner, Lynne Ferguson, his son, Tjaart, and daughter, Thandi Gondwana.