‘SA doesn’t want to be seen as big brother in Africa’

‘SA doesn’t want to be seen as big brother in Africa’


The Department of Rural Development and Land Reforms is responsible for geodetic surveys in South Africa. The Department of Rural Development and Land Reforms is responsible for geodetic surveys in South Africa.
Derek Clarke
Chief Director
Surveys and Mapping, Department of Rural Development and Land Reforms
South Africa

Q: What is the mandate of the Department of Rural Development and Land Reforms?
A: The Department of Rural Development and Land Reforms is responsible for geodetic surveys in South Africa. We are responsible for the national geodetic framework in the unique geospatial reference system. We are responsible for the Aero Imaging Programme and also the acquisition of other remote sensing imagery. We also undertake the production of topographical base maps and dissemination of information and the archiving of all these records and information. We provide services to other government departments and public entities. For example, we provide all aeronautical charting for southern Africa on behalf of the Aviation Authority. We have cartographic expertise.

We also provide support for surveys for land reform programme in South Africa and any other special survey that we may be requested to undertake from time to time. We also provide training. We have some structured training that we undertake and we assist students from the universities of technology who require to undertake one year training for the completion of their academic course. We assist fellow organisations in other African countries after an undertaking from our ministry to provide such assistance.

Q: What is the status of mapping in South Africa and how is usage and awareness about Geo – information in South Africa?
A: South Africa has complete mapping coverage of its territory at 1: 50,000 scale since 1976. We are now in the process of revising these maps to make sure that the information on these maps is up-to-date and relevant. We have seen tremendous changes in the use of maps over years. From the earlier days, maps were readily available in hard copy but mostly by key national government departments. But now, maps are available in a fully structured GIS databases. The information is not only available in the form of a summarised map but in a free structured GIS format.

We are finding many uses coming forth and users can call for information they want. The user base has increased tremendously. We have also seen a huge increase in the use of digital geospatial information and that is due to the fact that we provide this information and hence duplication is avoided. We changed our data policy a few years ago. We do not charge for information anymore and so we have not seen a really tremendous amount of spatial data being supplied.

Q: How is the Department of Rural Development and Land Reforms adopting and adapting to latest technologies in surveying and mapping?
A: These digital technologies have had a big impact on our work. We started introducing these technologies in late 1970s. Particularly in 1980s, we started converting most of the processes into digital. Today, we don’t produce maps through manual mapping any more. We use computer based efforts and we have seen significant savings in production time because of this. From the initial acquisition of data right through to the final product dissemination to the user – it is a complete digital process now.

Q: Tell me about the online services provided by your organisation.
A: We are providing many online services and many are in the pipeline. We don’t yet have proper web mapping facility. That it is in development at the moment. But the user community can browse for information of various products available. For example, if they want to see what aerial photography we have, they can have a quick look at the maps that we have and can request for such information online.

On the geodetic service site, we have a matrix of continuously operating GNSS base stations and that information is downloaded on to the controls at our office and that is input on to the website so that users can get information in real time through the Internet.

Q What is the status of SDI efforts in South Africa?
A. We still have a lot of work to do in this regard. To start with, we had a legislation which was enacted early in 2004, passed by the parliament in the end of 2003. We have taken a bit of time in creating governance structures. The legislation provides for committee of spatial information which consists of representatives from all the key stakeholders in public sector and from the scientists. That committee has recently been appointed and is expected to have its first meet in the coming months.

We do have a component in the department that is responsible for driving the NSDI and it is one of their responsibilities to provide online metadata through the portal browser and to have facility which has been restructured and redeveloped and is about to be launched where people can know the availability of geospatial information online.

Q You said there’s lot of work to do in SDI efforts. Are there any initiatives to rope in private sector or to have a PPP kind of model to quicken this process and also to expand the horizons of the use of geospatial data?
We do rely a lot on the private sector to provide inputs into what is required, what should be there. A lot of development work is being undertaken through the private sector by the appointment of consultants. We try and get expertise from the private sector and our working groups consist of representatives from private sector. They come in and put their expertise, for example, in the development of standards. It is really important to ensure the involvement of private sector but the latest legislation is primarily to govern the public sector. It’s not easy to have a legislation to tell the private sector what they may or may not do, particularly in the area of cooperating and sharing of information in the public sector.

Q Availability of skilled manpower is a critical problem in this part of the world. What is the situation in South Africa?
We are far better than many other African countries. We do have quite a number of resources in South Africa. At technician and operator level, we have adequate resources. What we lack is highly skilled mnpower. We still need many more people in these areas.

Q While training people is one aspect, retaining them is another problem. What is the situation in South Africa?
We certainly do have that problem, particularly in the public sector because we cannot compete with the services in the private sector. Often we feel we are a training institution for the private sector, particularly because we are working in an area of scarce skills and people who are trained are very marketable. We are fortunate that we have not lost too many people in a brain drain to European or American countries at this stage. Better living conditions and services may be one of the reasons we are retaining people in the country, if not in the public sector.

Q Being the leading country in the arena of geospatial in the continent, how do you see this industry growing in the next five years in South Africa?
South Africa is keen on assisting our colleagues in other countries so they can develop it themselves. I have mentioned to our minister that we have not only look at what is happening within South Africa but also look at our neighbouring countries as well. We need to assist them as much as we can; otherwise it creates imbalance in the development in the region. This may create many economic refugees flooding the country. So, we need to ensure a degree of quality within the region in the area of development. We certainly don’t want to be seen as the big brother or the next colonial power. We feel that we are brothers in Africa and we need to work together.