Professor Maarten de Wit: 1947-2020

We are hugely saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Maarten de Wit on 15th April 2020.  Professor de Wit held the Chair of Earth Stewardship Science at Nelson Mandela University and was a Visiting Professor at the University of Southampton. He was a great thinker, an outstanding geologist, a visionary Earth steward and a good friend.  Our thoughts are with his family, students and collaborators from around the world at this difficult time.

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Professor Maarten de Wit, image from Nelson Mandela University:

As an Honorary Fellow of both the Geological Society of America and the Geological Society of London, he was recognised for his achievements, not only in science but as an ambassador for geological science and its promotion to the wider public. His citation for the Geological Society of London states, ‘Maarten de Wit is one of Africa’s most distinguished earth scientists whose 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 African continent. His promotion of the ‘Africa Alive Corridors’ 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.’

I met Maarten in 2016 on my first visit to South Africa to build the partnership between the University of Southampton and Nelson Mandela University. It took some time at the outset for Maarten to recognise that the Southampton collaboration was not a corporate, management-led delegation and that there was real benefit in working together on our common goals. Once we had passed this test, he was the most fabulous host, always challenging and insightful, always generous with his ideas and time.

He took us swimming at dawn in Summerstrand Bay with his group of hardy year-round swimmers.  Laughing, he did nothing to settle my nerves around Great White attacks by telling us to the stay in the middle of the group of swimmers to avoid being picked off. Discussions over breakfast on the deck while the beach came to life was as always, stimulating and challenging.

He and his group in the Africa Earth Observatory Network are pushing the boundaries of cross disciplinary thinking and challenging the way we educate the next generation, from all backgrounds and we can learn much from these new ways of thinking.

Maarten de Wit at Portland Bill, Jurassic Coast, Dorset, UK

We made Maarten a visiting Professor in Southampton later in 2016 and his visit to our campus was memorable in so many ways for staff and students at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton. A particularly unfogettable day was in the field at Portland Bill, where he was still challenging our thinking about geological time, pulling disparate strands of science and society together to produce new concepts.

At Portland Bill, October 2016

He hosted the University’s digital team visit to Nelson Mandela University in 2017, inducting them in the beauty and splendour of the Eastern Cape. The contributions from young researchers from the Africa Earth Observatory Network, Bastien Linol and Stephanie Plön, add a fantastic international dimension to our Exploring our Ocean course the continues to fascinate our learners and develop new conversations in each and every run.  We dedicate our current run of Exploring our Oceans to the memory of our passionate colleague and great friend, Maarten de Wit.

May his unbounded spirit live on in the next generation of learners and stewards of this planet.

Rachel Mills, April 2020.

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