Passion for chemistry and golf drives Bethuel Sehlapelo

Bethuel Sehlapelo.
Bethuel Sehlapelo.
Image: Phumla Mkize

It was a blistering hot Sunday at the Pretoria Golf Club, but he insisted that we each use a caddie. I consoled myself with the fact that I will at least clock 20,000 steps on my pedometer.

It was not until we were sipping sundowners at the 19th hole that it became clear to me why one of the members of my three-ball, Bethuel "Tiny" Sehlapelo, insisted we use caddies in the heat.

Sehlapelo was a caddie himself throughout his high schooling. Making only R20 on weekends, he said he never doubted that he would one day be playing the sport he loves instead of giving players
advice for meagre pay.

Sehlapelo, a father of two who grew up in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria, also never doubted that one day he would be a doctor.

"I thought I would be a medical doctor, but I realised that I do not like hospitals nor their smell," said the postdoctoral graduate in chemistry.

"Besides, you couldn't get into medical school in SA [during apartheid] unless you had permission from the minister of health to study medicine.

"Another way of doing medicine was to do a bachelor's degree in science first and then go to medical school afterwards."

Sehlapelo's eyes light up when he draws parallels between the game of golf and the field of chemistry.

"Golf is an interesting sport. It has many variables, including emotions. If you are not in the right frame of mind, you will find it a challenge. There are many other variables, for example how you turn, whether your eyes are fixed on the ball - that is golf.

"Science is also challenging, it requires imagination. You deal with things you cannot touch. It is like electricity; you cannot touch it, but it is there.

"In science you deal with a number of things at the same time. The parallel with golf lies in that you need to consider a number of variables and you need to be single-minded in what you do."

Sehlapelo has been working for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) for the past year and a half. He started playing golf in the 1990s, but said he is a Sunday golfer.

"I started learning about golf in my teens when I was caddying to make money for school," he said. "I used to caddy at Waterkloof golf course, which used to be called Monument."

He studied for his BSc in Lesotho and taught at a high school for a year. He studied for his master's in Canada. He did his PhD at the University of Natal and his postdoctoral studies at the University of Cape Town.

"The love of science is like golf, it is addictive," he said.

He said he spends his days trying to find solutions for everyday problems.

"It could be water. The purification of water is a long, complex process and is expensive. The world over, people are looking at cheaper ways to purify water. It calls for SA to first look for different sources of water and second to look at how it can reuse its water.

"Israel reuses 70% of its water. In SA, water from the basins is not reused. In some countries it is used to flush the toilet."

He did his PhD at the University of Natal and his post-doctoral studies at the University of Cape Town.

“The love of science is like golf; it is addictive,” he said.

He said he spends his days trying to find solutions for everyday problems.“It could be water. The purification of water is a long, complex process and is expensive. The world over, people are looking at cheaper ways to purify water. It calls for SA to, first, look for different sources of water and, second, to look at how it can reuse its water.

Sehlapelo said after graduating with a PhD in chemistry he worked in Cape Town for an explosive company, a subsidiary of Denel. They used to manufacture teargas. He recognised the smell the first time he went to work.

“I was shocked on my first day. I could smell teargas. I got to know the scientific name. It is a chemical reaction that gives a gaseous product that is nasty to human beings.”

Born in 21 May in 1961, Sehlapelo insisted that his daughters studied science, but they followed their passion at university.

“My children have followed the arts; one is studying English and dance, the other fashion design,” he said. Sehlapelo is learning to play the alto-saxophone.

“It is an interesting and complex instrument,” he said.