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Tribute given at the Memorial Service for Prof Edmund Zingu held on 25 April 2013 at the University of the Western Cape May 18, 2013

Posted by International.Chair in : Astronomy and Astrophysics (ASTRO), Condensed Matter and Materials Physics (CMMP), History, Policy and Education (HPE) , trackback Bookmark and Share

by Prof Patricia Whitelock

I have been asked by Simon Connell, the current President of SAIP to pay tribute to Edmund on behalf of SAIP, but I have also been asked by Ted Williams, the director of the South African Astronomical Observatory to speak on behalf of SAAO. That is important for me as I first met Edmund Zingu in 1995 at the 175th anniversary of the observatory and I came to know him as a personal friend as well as a valued colleague. He was then head of physics at UWC and I had the pleasure of showing him around and was impressed and intrigued by his interest and perceptive questions.  It was the start of a relationship between SAAO and UWC that has gradually strengthened over the years and which will ultimately allow the two organizations to do great things in astrophysics.

You will have your personal memories of Edmund but he was best known to the broader community through his service with SAIP and that is what I want to talk about. As you have already heard Edmund served on the Council of the SAIP for 8 years from 1999 to 2006, as VP from two years while I was President then as President from 2003 to 2004. It would not be an exaggeration to say that when Edmund joined the Council, physics in SA was in crisis. The numbers of undergraduate students enrolling had been dropping for several years, the image of physics among the public and decision makers was poor, finance for physics projects was very limited and the SAIP itself, particularly its leadership, was not representative of the community of physicists in SA,  and people rightly wanted to know what SAIP was going to do.

By the time Edmund left the SAIP council, physics in SA was in a very different place. That was of course due to the combined efforts of a number people, but Edmund was without question was one of the most important. In 2001 Council set up a transformation committee with a very broad mandate to look at all aspects of the SAIP. Edmund and I both served on that committee. The initial driving force for transformation came from Nithaya Chetty, but Edmund, who chaired the committee while he was VP, was absolutely crucial in keeping the debate focused and most importantly keeping us all talking to each other.

These years were particularly exciting as we grappled with the problems in physics at the same time as attempting to restructure the SAIP to play a more relevant role in SA society. My entire experience of working with Edmund was a positive one.  He was someone you could test ideas on and who would tell you very gently and very sympathetically when and why you had got it wrong.  I don’t know if we could have done what we did without him, but I very much doubt it. What I am certain of is that it would have been more difficult and there would have been many more casualties and more blood on the walls. I would like to quote from Jaynie Padayachee, who was secretary of the SAIP during my and Edmund’s presidency and who was also secretary of the transformation committee: “The one thing about Edmund that will always stay with me, is that he personified diplomacy. It was really inspirational (in this world of too many words and opinions) knowing someone who took the time to think about what he was going to say before he said it. “

During my term as President I quickly came to rely on Edmund’s judgment and his support above anything and anyone else.  I suspect that there are many others who must have had similar experiences. He was never heavy handed or unpleasantly forceful, when things were said that he did not agree with he would gently point out that not everyone had the same experience and that there were other ways of looking at issues. It was quiet, it was gentle, it was undemonstrative and it dramatically effective. I quote from Jappie Engelbrecht, who is the treasurer of SAIP, as he was when Edmund and I were President: Japie after reading Simon Connell’s words about Edmund responded “I have nothing to add except my sadness at the passing of a truly great South African, whose impact on my own life enabled me to transform to our new democracy.”His words apply to many of us who worked with Edmund.

Those transformation activities resulted in a revised constitution and by-laws for the SAIP, more involvement of the specialist groups in council, a president who was directly elected by the membership, and a new mindset and symbolism of a new logo to prove it. That of course took several more years.

At roughly the same time that we started the transformation process, in fact really as part of the same initiative we established the process that culminated in an international panel review and the production of a document: “Shaping the future of physics in South Africa”.  This process was lead by Edmund during his presidency and must have taken up a huge amount of his personal time. This led to a new strategy for physics, and among other things establishment of the National Institute of Theoretical Physics (NITheP) and to the increased financial support from government that enabled SAIP to appoint an Executive Officer – which has been so important in allowing SAIP to do things more professionally.

One of the international participants in the shaping the future process, was Jim Gates, who as many of you know is now on USA President’s scientific advisory panel. The following words were written by Jim Gates and express Edmund’s role better than I can:

I am certain now that the Shaping Report has served exceedingly well as a national strategy and planning document for the South African physics community in a manner that none of its authors had foreseen in terms of its scope, duration or effectiveness. Dr. Zingu’s management of the entire Shaping process was a marvelous testament of his dedicated to the health of the physics field in South Africa.   His skills as a manager of personnel were on direct display, from my perspective, in the assembly of the International panel. He chose persons from S.A., from Europe, and the U.S.A. as a reflection of his understanding of the international and global nature of the interaction required for physics to thrive in S.A. in the new millennium. He also saw the International Panel was assembled in such a way as to be a final executive part of the process that lived up to his high expectation and vision.

The Shaping Report is among the greatest of tributes to Dr. Zingu as it continues almost a decade latter to have a substantial impact on thinking about South African physics. The report challenged all of the stake-holding communities to plan on multiple levels. “

He goes on to describe his personal gratitude to Edmund as a mentor for giving him the skills that he has particularly needed and which prepared him for his role as advisor to President Barack Obama

Since leaving the SAIP Council Edmund has continued to serve the community. In particular he has again played the leadership role in the Review of Physics Teaching, which is currently underway – the next big hurdle in the success of physics in SA, or indeed globally. I have no direct experience of his work with this, but Simon Connell tells me that he handled the project magnificently. In fact has been so well constructed by Edmund that neither SAIP nor CHE have any concern about its completion.

There can be no doubt that Physics and South Africa are better off because Edmund Zingu was who he was, when he was. We,as physicists and as friends of Edmund, have every reason to thank his family and to join them in celebration of a life extraordinarily well lived in the service of our community.

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