11 brilliant achievements by South African geeks

A number of South Africans have recently been honoured with international awards for products, projects, or research in science and technology.

[Also read: South Africa’s most valuable export – brilliant South Africans]

From winning supercomputer championships two years in a row, to being recognised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, South African academics, techies, and school students are achieving acclaim around the world.

South Africans have also been involved in building impressive technology that is used globally.

Here is some of the great technology South Africans have had a hand in building.

Amazon EC2

Chris Pinkham (left) and Willem van Biljon (right)
Chris Pinkham (left) and Willem van Biljon (right)

While cloud computing existed before Amazon’s Compute Cloud (EC2), the launch of the service in 2006 was a significant milestone for the industry.

EC2 was the first public cloud infrastructure platform, allowing developers to launch distributed web applications without having to worry about the underlying hardware and network infrastructure.

Most of the initial development of EC2 happened from Amazon’s development centre in Cape Town.

Chris Pinkham led the development of EC2, and was joined by Willem van Biljon – another South African – and Christopher Brown from the US.

WooCommerce + WooThemes

Mark Forrester (ZA), Magnus Jepson (NO), Adii Pienaar (ZA). Photo of Adii by Betsy Weber.
Mark Forrester (ZA), Magnus Jepson (NO), Adii Pienaar (ZA). Photo of Adii by Betsy Weber.

Co-founded by South Africans Adii Pienaar and Mark Forrester, and Norwegian Magnus Jepson, WooThemes has turned over millions of dollars in revenue through selling themes and extensions for WordPress.

Though its roots are in blogging, WordPress has become the world’s most popular publishing platform.

Automattic, the company behind WordPress, recently acquired WooThemes specifically for WooCommerce – its e-commerce extension for WordPress.

“Even a conservative estimate that WooCommerce powers 650,000 storefronts means they’re enabling a huge number of independent sellers,” said Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg.

The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but Recode pegged its value at $30 million in cash and stock.

Strong security for the web, Ubuntu Linux

Mark Shuttleworth
Mark Shuttleworth

Mark Shuttleworth shot to fortune when Verisign bought his web security company Thawte for $575 million.

Founded in 1995, Shuttleworth ran Thawte from his parents’ garage with the plan to operate a certificate authority that was not restricted by the regulations the United States placed on the export of cryptography.

In addition to going to space, Shuttleworth used some of the money to found the Ubuntu project – a distribution of the GNU/Linux operating system with the aim of taking on Microsoft Windows (see: Microsoft has a majority market share).

Since Ubuntu’s genesis in 2004, the largest online distributor of PC games in the world – Steam – has started supporting Linux, and even released its own variant of Ubuntu which it calls Steam OS.

3D Printing

South Africa has made significant contributions to the global maker movement, particularly in the realm of 3D printing.

In 2013, Quinton Harley’s RepRap Morgan 3D printer won the $20,000 Gada prize, while Richard van As (from SA) and Ivan Owen (from the US) developed the Robohand – a low-cost prosthetic hand that could be 3D printed on a Makerbot.

Van As has since led the development of the RoboBeast, a 3D printer designed to work in harsh environments; and has announced the RoboLeg – a prosthetic leg based on the same low-cost principles as RoboHand.



The microwave-based tellurometer was designed and built in the 1950s and was the first portable electronic distance measuring equipment on the market.

Invented by Trevor Lloyd Wadley from the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, it revolutionised map making and surveying – especially of remote locations.

Lodox full-body X-ray scanner

Lodox Xmplar-dr Digital X-Ray System
Lodox Xmplar-dr Digital X-Ray System

The full-body X-ray scanner from Lodox received a mention on the TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” for its ability to produce an X-ray of an entire human body in 13 seconds.

Lodox’s technology was first developed for use on South Africa’s diamond mines to prevent the smuggling and theft of diamonds by mineworkers.

According to the company, its Xmplar-dr X-ray system can provide high-quality X-ray images with a minimal radiation dose of 0.12 milligrays.

Awards and competitions

In addition to building brilliant technology, a number of South Africans and SA-based scientists working for government agencies have won awards and competitions in recent times.

Some of these are highlighted below.

Supercomputer champions

SA ISC14 champions
ISC-14 SCC champions, by Sabine Dedering
From left to right: Katlego Moukangwe, Jan-Willem Steeb, Kerren Ortlepp, Ryan Strange, Evelyn Khoboka, Muhammad Atif
ISC-13 SCC winners from left to right: Katlego Moukangwe, Jan-Willem Steeb, Kerren Ortlepp, Ryan Strange, Evelyn Khoboka, Muhammad Atif

South Africa is the reigning champion of the International Supercomputing Conference Student Cluster Competition, having won both the 2013 and 2014 competitions.

The national team is selected by the Centre for High Performance Computing (CHPC) at the CSIR, which sent different teams each year.

To be selected for the CHPC’s team, students have to participate in a national competition. The Centre then typically builds the national team from the university group that won, adding members from other teams.

Royal Academy of Engineering innovation in Africa Award shortlist

Fencesitter (“Draadsitter”)

The Royal Academy of Engineering recently awarded its Innovation in Africa prize, with South African Ernst Pretorius named a runner-up for his security system called “Draadsitter” (fence-sitter).

Pretorius’s security device came in second to a low-cost water filtration system that uses sand-based water filters and nanotechnology, made by Askwar Hilonga from the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science & Technology in Tanzania.

Another South African in the running for the prize was Reinhardt Kotze, of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, who developed an industrial fluid quality control system called Flow-Viz.

International Science Fair

South African finalists at Intel ISEF 2015
South African finalists at Intel ISEF 2015

Of the 1,700 school students from around the world who attended Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair, 11 were from South Africa (see: Meet 11 of South Africa’s smartest young minds)

Three of the high school students placed in their respective categories:

  • Anna Midgley, 16, from Herschel Girl’s high school in Cape Town won a $1,500 second place in the Plant Sciences category for her research into the potential of high-protein fynbos nuts as a crop.
  • Bernard Smit, 18, from Hoerskool Waterkloof in Pretoria won a $1,500 second place in the Microbiology category for his method of generating electricity using Magnetotactic bacteria.
  • Armand Duvenage, 17, from Hoerskool Garsfontein in Pretoria won a $1,000 third place in the Embedded Systems category for his mobile energy management system.

Smit and another student, Iselle Van Den Heever, who invented an apparatus that can determine the duration of a sidereal day, also received special awards with associated cash prizes.

Third place at Falling Walls in Berlin for wastewater treatment

Dyllon Randall won third place at Falling Walls in Berlin for research conducted at the University of Cape Town into the treatment of wastewater with Eutectic Freeze Crystallization.

When he presented his talk, Randall was working in the engineering, management, and specialist technical services at Aurecon’s water unit in Tshwane. However, at the time of publication he had moved to Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology.

In his talk, Randall explained that Eutectic Freeze Crystallization provides a more sustainable method for the treatment of highly-concentrated wastewaters, or brines.

His work showed that up to 97% of a reverse osmosis brine can be converted into pure calcium sulphate, pure sodium sulphate, and pure water.

First African to receive Sunanda & Santimay Basu Early Career Award

John Bosco Habarulema in the SANSA space weather centre
John Bosco Habarulema in the SANSA space weather centre

While John Bosco Habarulema is not a South African, he receives a special mention as he is based here and works at the South African National Space Agency.

Habarulema, a Ugandan scientist, became the first African to receive the Sunanda & Santimay Basu Early Career Award.

The Space Physics & Aeronomy section of the American Geophysical Union presents the award to scientists who are still early in their careers, but have already made outstanding contributions to research in Sun-Earth Systems Science.

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11 brilliant achievements by South African geeks