By Charles John MacRobert 22 March 2022
Recently I have been researching past geotechnical engineers from South Africa and I would like to reflect on three: George Donaldson, Dereck Sparks and Tony Brink.
Interestingly, George Donaldson and my grandfather George MacRobert graduated in the same civil engineerin class at the University of Cape Town in 1950. Although both had their careers interrupted by serving in World War 2, this did not stop them making the most of their post war careers. My grandfather ended up in the civil service in Zimbabwe and George Donaldson went on to make significant contributions to safe tailings management; a sector in which I am now actively involved. We can all consider this resolve when faced with difficult circumstances.
George Donaldson was one of the first to systematically study tailings and I recall paging through his MSc thesis in the UCT African Studies Library. This library unfortunately burnt down, and I have been too scared to find out if this important document was also destroyed. Nevertheless, it is inspiring to know that South African’s were at the forefront of safe tailings management and that I held a part of history. History is another link between me and George Donaldson as he documented the earlier Geotechnical History of South Africa. While I was not the keenest student of history in high school, I really enjoy it now as it gives context to the world around.
The next person on my reflection list is Dereck Sparks, with whom I share a birthday 28 June, although separated by a few decades. Dereck Sparks is perhaps not one of the ‘household names’ in geotechnical engineering, but he was one of the first to introduce me to geotechnical engineering when I studied at UCT. Recently, I delved into his publication history. I was intrigued to find papers he had written for the Proceedings of The South African Sugar Technologists’ Association. These papers simplified geotechnical concepts for easy application by farmers and scientists. We can all do more to make knowledge easily available and understandable for the improvement of our fellow men.
Considering our role to fellow men brings me to the third person Tony Brink. Earlier this year I read Spine of a Dragon, it was a fascinating read and I managed to finish it in a single weekend. I was fascinated to find one of the contributors was John MacRobert. While my father is John MacRobert, this was not my father, but rather a relative from the wider MacRobert family. This John MacRobert recounted Tony Brink’s political activities during apartheid and afterwards. Activities that sought to bring racial harmony to South Africa. This was a reminder that we can help those around us beyond just our technical abilities.
So, in conclusion, these three individuals illustrate that we are first humans, then engineers and finally specialists. As humans we have a basic responsibility of pursuing harmony amongst mankind, as engineers we serve mankind in a more specific way, and as our expertise develops, we become of greater service to our fellow engineers.