A glance at Dr Nielen van der Merwe’s CV reveals a slew of leadership positions, starting with being the head prefect of Hoërskool Voortrekker in Boksburg and culminating in his current position as Professor, Centennial Chair for Rock Engineering, at the Wits School of Mining Engineering.
He has become a doyen of rock engineering, having first come into contact with the discipline during his post-graduate training at Goldfields. “In the rock engineering department, I saw that engineering work was actually done, as opposed to management in production,” he explains.
This love for the real work of engineering has seen him become a Fellow of South African Academy of Engineering, membership of which is limited to 100 engineers across all disciplines in South Africa.
That is just one achievement among many – he has prizes, awards, qualifications and publications galore to his name. His perseverance and determination to strive for seemingly impossible excellence has paid off, again and again.
Two of the positions he has achieved stand out. Nielen is currently the President of the Federation of International Geo-Engineering Societies, which has a combined membership of some 35 000 geo-engineering professionals worldwide. He also served as the President of the International Society for Rock Mechanics (ISRM) from 2003 to 2007. He says: “If I could reach this, as a son of Africa, any young Sanire member can.”Long involvement
Nielen values his Sanire membership and has been involved in the institute and its predecessor since the early 70s.
“Being involved has given me the opportunity to learn about different approaches to the same problem and similar approaches to different problems in rock and soil mechanics, mining and civil engineering environments,” he says.
“Sanire’s greatest benefit is contact, contact and contact. Here and all over the world. I also love the social contact after technical events.”
Maybe this gives him a further opportunity to engage in what he says he loves most about his current job: “Learning by arguing with bright post graduate students, combined with continued contact with reality by consulting. I thoroughly enjoy finding out where the technology gaps are and filling them through the university work.”
The social side of his job also gets a mention: “I appreciate the continued contact with friends in France and elsewhere via joint projects and discovering new places in the world through the other associations I serve.”Changing field
He says the most encouraging thing about rock engineering at the moment is that there are so many young people joining the profession. “Our average age was a concern a while ago.”
But it’s not all rosy. “I am still concerned about the level of knowledge and qualification and also the lack of formal training in rock engineering. That said, who trained the older generation? Nobody was around to train people like Salamon and Wagner – or even my generation. We read whatever we could get and thought and argued about what we saw underground.”
Nonetheless, Nielen emphasises: “I will retire satisfied professionally once we do serious research again in mining in South Africa.”
He also says younger rock engineers have to operate in a changed world. “Our times were different and we could do things that people would get arrested for today. We worked hard and played hard and never mixed the two.”
Nielen is able to recount many funny stories, including this one: “There was the guy we rescued after being trapped for 48 hours following a rockburst at Doornfontein. We had to mine through solid quartzite with paving breakers to get to him. We took turns being in front, for short spells only because of the heat. Once, when we swopped positions, the guy who was in front encouraged the trapped man by shouting to him ‘Hlala gahle, my boy’ and he replied in a creaking voice, ‘Upi mina azi ******* hamba?’”
Nielen is happily married to Hantie “a more supportive person than I deserve” and enjoys spending time with his family, all of whom appreciate free thinking. “We have animated discussions when we get together and we love nature and good music,” he says.
He points out that their three children have totally diverse personalities and have followed different careers. Melani (36) is a teacher, Hein (35) is an advocate and Nielen (27) is a paramedic.
Free time is really precious. “I try to make the most of it. I listen to opera and love romping with the dogs on the beach at sunrise. When there was more time, I coached rugby, but now I go to Loftus to watch good rugby whenever possible. This year, I could only go twice. Maybe that’s why the Bulls got nowhere. I also cultivate chillies and deep red roses,” he elaborates.
Couple time is also high on the agenda. “When Hantie accompanies me overseas, we try to have one day away from everybody else, no appointments, no meetings. It’s not always possible, but we try.”