An Act of Faith: The establishment of the SASOL Project

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Seminar Date
May 6, 2009
This paper argues that the establishment of the Suid-Afrikaanse Steenkool, Olie en Gaskorporasie (SASOL), South Africa’s project to produce liquid fuel from coal through a synthetic chemical process in the 1950s was an act of faith on a number of levels. Firstly, I attempt to show that instead of resulting from the apartheid state’s determined attempt to survive oil boycotts, South Africa’s oil-from-coal scheme reflects a longer-standing ambition, typical of modern nation-states, of securing the country’s fuel autonomy. In this sense, then, we might say that this oil-from-coal project constitutes an act of faith in the name of autarky: the nationalist fantasy of economic self-sufficiency. In the process, I show that rather than being invented out of necessity by apartheid South Africa’s scientists’ as popularly imagined, oil-from-coal has a longer, more international history dating back to 1920s Weimar Germany. Nazi Germany’s synthetic fuel industry and the United States also feature prominently in this story. I then trace the history of SASOL’s establishment in 1950, focusing on the attempt by Anglo-Transvaal Consolidated Investment Corporation, over nearly 15 years, to establish an oil- from-coal scheme in South Africa. This section of the paper tries to understand why Anglovaal fell out of favour with the government and how this allowed the group of men who would later become the founding figures of SASOL to ultimately bring the oil-from-coal scheme to fruition. The paper then turns to an analysis of the technical aspects of the oil-from-coal project. As my analysis of the first few calamitous years of SASOL’s operation suggest, neither the politicians nor the technicians responsible for bringing SASOL into being had any real grounds, beyond faith, for believing that the largely untested synthetic processes involved would work., By drawing on the theoretical insights of the historical and sociological literature on the history of science and technology, I attempt a close analysis of the failure of significant processes in the SASOL plant to work. The centrality of faith and trust to the evaluation of technoscientific claims and to catalytic research at SASOL over the last half century emerge as key themes. The final section of the paper begins by trying to explain how SASOL managed to make oil-from- coal ‘work’ and in the process this section becomes a tentative meditation on the significance of a Calvinist work ethic and morality, paternalism and notions of toil, faith and productivity to the SASOL project.
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