Obituary: Geoff Blight - Academic and world leader in geotechnical engineering

17 November 2013 - 02:02
By Chris Barron
INSPIRED LECTURER: Professor Geoff Blight
INSPIRED LECTURER: Professor Geoff Blight


GEOFF Blight, who has died in Johannesburg at the age of 79, was a professor of civil engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and a world leader in geotechnical engineering.

He had five doctorates, two from Imperial College in London, two from Wits and one from the University of Cape Town, for five different pieces of work. This was, and is thought to still be, unheard of.

He was the kind of larger-than-life lecturer that one goes to university for. He was utterly erudite and gave the sense of being in complete command of his discipline. At the same time, he was wonderfully encouraging of the possibility that he could be wrong. One could almost see the thrill on his face when a student pointed out something that he had not considered.

"I come to Wits because I know that somebody is going to disagree with me," he said. That was why he loved being an academic.

He collaborated extensively with many people in many different disciplines across the world, and a large part of the reason was that he was keen to have his ideas tested. There was nothing parochial about him.

One of his PhD students wanted to add Blight's name to a paper the student had written because he thought it would stand a better chance of being published. Blight read it and said he thought it was good enough to be published without his name. The journal that rejected it would not be worth publishing in anyway, he told the student. Most academics would have grabbed the opportunity to have another journal paper on their CV.

Blight was not overtly political. He did not join in protest marches with other Wits academics. But he had an acute sense of what was fair and what was not, and believed passionately in fairness. He encouraged black students to enrol and did everything he could to support their applications as far back as the 1960s. He also made it an unwritten rule in his department never to do work for the South African Defence Force.

He was appointed lead consultant in the investigation into the causes of the Kinross mine tailings dam disaster, which damaged the village of Merriespruit outside Welkom in February 1994.

He was also the lead investigator into the causes of the 1974 Bafokeng tailings dam failure, which overran a squatter settlement of black mineworkers. He told a conference of the South African Institute of Civil Engineers that the failures of tailings dams - built to contain waste after the mining extraction process - were common.

He sharply criticised the dangerous practice of allowing people to live at the foot of tailings dams, which he said was only because they were black.

He was severely sanctioned in private by the South African civil engineering community for daring to make a statement like that. He refused to alter or withdraw his paper and invited them to cancel his membership of the institute if they wanted to. He would frame the letter, he told them. They backed down.

There is now a lot more understanding of and caution about high-risk zones and where settlements can be built in relation to tailings dams because of his work.

He was a leading world expert on containment structures such as silos. He was also an international expert on the reasons for the deterioration of concrete - a major problem with the M1 motorway and other highways. Highways around the world are built, monitored and maintained differently thanks to his discoveries, and his knowledge in this field continues to be applied internationally.

Blight published 330 papers in accredited journals. Since 2010 he had published four books, and he completed a fifth just before he died. He continued working until several weeks before his death from cancer.

He was born in Pietersburg (now Polokwane) on July 30 1934 and matriculated at Benoni High School.

He is survived by his wife, Rhona, and four children.