International O.R.: O.R. roots run deep in southern Africa

Long lineage of operations research in South Africa and Zimbabwe paves the way for historic 2011 ORSSA conference and continued growth of O.R. across the continent.

International Operations Research

By Dave Evans, ‘Maseka Lesaoana, Philimon Nyamugure and Caston Sigauke

The Executive Committee of the Operations Research Society of South Africa (ORSSA) awarded its 2011 conference to the Zimbabwean O.R. community. In doing so, ORSSA hopes to foster greater collaboration and cooperation across southern African O.R. communities, accelerate the expansion of O.R. applications and education in Zimbabwe, and encourage the establishment of a Zimbabwean O.R. society. This article outlines the history of O.R. in South Africa and Zimbabwe and the events that led to the decision to hold this year’s ORSSA conference in Zimbabwe.

A Brief History of O.R. in South Africa

Many readers are aware that operations research (O.R.) started as the study of military operations (hence the name) during World War II. The development of O.R. professional societies began soon after the conclusion of the war with the establishment of the Operational Research Society in the United Kingdom (ORS) in 1948, the Operations Research Society of America (ORSA) in 1952 and The Institute for Management Sciences (TIMS) in 1954. These three societies introduced the theory and practice of O.R. to the international community through their respective journals, Operational Research Quarterly (now the Journal of the Operational Research Society), the Journal of the Operations Research Society (now Operations Research) and Management Science.

The French Society (SOFRO) joined ORS and ORSA to address the growing interest in O.R. by founding of the International Federation of Operational Research Societies (IFORS) and organizing the first international conference held in England in 1957 [1]. Only a single participant from Africa was present at that conference, R.R. Tusenius, who was then based at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of South Africa and would later become professor of Business Management and Administration at the University of Stellenbosch. The CSIR and the University of Stellenbosch still feature prominently in South African O.R. activities.

By 1963, IFORS had spread to five continents as the founding members were joined by societies from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, The Netherlands,Norway, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. The Federation is now composed of 50 national societies.

What most readers may not realize, however, is that OR has a long and successful history in South Africa that in many ways parallels the discipline’s development in the United Kingdom and the United States. The development of O.R. in South Africa emanated from the interest by Gen. J.C. Smuts, who was the Prime Minister of South Africa during World War II and who, due to his personal interest and contributions to science and philosophy, was highly respected by the scientific community. In January 1945, Gen. Smuts used his authority as a member of the British War Cabinet to recall Dr. B.F.J. Schonland from the European Theatre of war and appoint him to be scientific advisor to the prime minister. Schonland was a professor in geophysics at the University ofWitwatersrand and was responsible for organizing the Special Signals Service for the South African Defence Force, focusing on the development and application of radar.

As a scientific advisor to the prime minister, Schonland was responsible for formulating plans for developing South Africa’s natural resources and coordinating scientific research in the national interest. Later in 1945, the CSIR was established with Schonland as its first president (1945-1950).Under his tenure as CSIR president of the CSIR,O.R. was practiced in much of the applied research conducted by the organization.

In addition to the early applications of O.R. in military operations, the mining industry in South Africa was also a frequent user of O.R. techniques. H.S. Sichel, who was involved in applications of O.R. and statistics in the mining industry in South Africa, established a consulting company called the Operational Research Bureau in 1952. Sichel may be regarded as the mastermind behind most of the early application of O.R. in South Africa. For approximately 20 years,O.R. applications by the Operational Research Bureau encompassed health hazards in mining, queueing problems in open-cast mines, market research, ore evaluation in underground mining and preventive maintenance of industrial equipment. The O.R. team established by the South African Defence Force in the 1950s was also a prominent pioneer of O.R. in South Africa. The Defence Force group won the 1996 Franz Edelman Award for Achievement in the Management Sciences and Operations Research [2].

Another early success story in the application of O.R. in South Africa concerns the PUTCO bus company in Johannesburg, where the number of accidents on the company’s buses was dramatically reduced through the introduction of a selection scheme for scheduling drivers. Other South African companies that applied O.R. in the 1950s were the Iron and Steel Corporation (Iscor) (in the operation of its open-hearth furnaces and steel mills) and South African Railways (on routing problems by determining the correct ratio of traction power to rolling stock, the right number of tracks on a given route and forward planning in general).

International Operations Research

Other support that fast-tracked the marketing and application of O.R. in South Africa included publication of textbooks and lecture notes at the University of Stellenbosch and CSIR and the key leadership positions held by O.R. experts. In 1961, the National Research Institute for Mathematical Sciences (NRIMS) was established within the CSIR,with A.P. Burger as the director. One of NRIMS’ major studies was a large transportation problem for the South African Maize Board. During Burger’s tenure as director of NRIMS survey results were used to establish possible applications of O.R. in South Africa, and a series of lectures on O.R.were presented to NRIMS personnel. A myriad of possible applications of O.R. was suggested by the survey,many of which had yet to be employed in South Africa. This shaped academic O.R. programs in South Africa and was reflected in activities in South African and Southern African Development Community (SADC) universities, where O.R. has largely been offered in support of the application of industrial engineering, statistical and applied mathematical techniques, generally at later stages of first degrees or higher degrees. Lectures developed under NRIMS were used to introduce and promote O.R., and later O.R. was established as a discipline within NRIMS (with a separate division for Operations Research and Statistics). Some NRIMS personnel studied O.R. at foreign universities, mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Burger’s active involvement in establishing O.R. as a discipline at the University of Stellenbosch helped to place this institution where it is today in the development of O.R. He introduced O.R. in graduate and post-graduate courses in applied mathematics, and he supervised master’s degree theses on O.R. topics such as search theory, traffic flow problems, critical path scheduling, quadratic programming and game theory. O.R. graduates under Burger’s supervision quickly spread the use of O.R. techniques throughout the country and became involved in applications of linear programming and other O.R. techniques in the steel industry.

Gerhard Rudolph, who was appointed as senior lecturer in the Department of Statistics at the University of South Africa (UNISA), introduced the first degree course in O.R. at a South African university in 1968. Other South African universities, including the Universities of Cape Town,Witwatersrand and Stellenbosch, followed his leadership at UNISA by introducing postgraduate degrees in O.R. in the late 1960s.About that same time, some overseas trainees in O.R. also completed their studies, took employment and advanced O.R. techniques in the banking sector,with the Atomic Energy Board, and at the universities of Potchefstroom, Pretoria and Port Elizabeth. O.R. topics undertaken by early Ph.D. students in South Africa included work on quadratic programming and inventory control. Having acknowledged the value of O.R., the Post Office recruited and appointed Professor Rudolph in 1970 to establish an O.R. group in the Department of Posts and Telegraphs.

The 1960s and early 1970s saw further development and formation of O.R. groups. As early as 1968, a Statistics and Operations Research Group was already functional at the University of Cape Town, and a Johannesburg Operations Research Group had also been established. These groups met regularly to present and discuss interesting O.R. methods and applications. Today these groups are mirrored in the regional chapters of ORSSA, which include the Johannesburg, Pretoria, Vaal Triangle and Western Cape Chapters. These developments received further encouragement from Professor George Hadley. Hadley, a scholar who was internationally recognized for his excellent textbooks on linear programming, inventory control, non-linear programming and dynamic programming, visited South Africa in 1968 and inspired potential operations researchers through his lectures on O.R. topics in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg.

By the end of the 1960s a number of universities and companies were actively involved in O.R. throughout South Africa. Both in-house experts and external consultants were involved, and most applications of O.R.were executed by statisticians and engineers. By this time several South African industries were also involved in O.R. applications. These included the CSIR, Iscor, the railways, the Operational Research Bureau, the South African Defence Force, the Chamber ofMines and several other mining companies, Sasol, other oil companies,African Explosives and Chemical Industries (AECI), the banking sector, the South African Post Office and computer companies.

The speed at which O.R. had spread in South Africa led to a meeting on April 18, 1968.More than 180 individuals interested in O.R. attended the meeting at the Sunnyside Park Hotel in Johannesburg. The guest speaker was Professor Patrick Rivett of England, one of the best-known operations researchers in the world at that time. During the meeting a National Steering Committee was formed to address the possible establishment of an Operations Research Society in South Africa.

The Operations Research Society of South Africa (ORSSA), known in Afrikaans as Die Operasionele Navorsingsvereniging van Suid-Afrika (ONSA), was founded in Johannesburg on Nov. 20, 1969. The event was witnessed by about 150 individuals who came from all parts of South Africa and what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The new society benefited from an excellent initial management team under the leadership of Sichel, who was internationally known for his work in mining statistics.
The Society has continued to serve the interests of its members since then. Current details may be found on its website:

Why Zimbabwe?

A CONFLUENCE OF EVENTS over many years led to the selection of Zimbabwe as the host country for the 2011 ORSSA conference. Operations Research in Zimbabwe started in the 1970s with elective courses offered under engineering and statistics degrees at what was then the University of Rhodesia. Although not called “operations research” during those years, courses such as systems engineering, optimization, decision theory and mathematical programming were found in several relevant degree programs. The current president of ORSSA, Dave Evans, lectured on systems engineering at the University of Rhodesia (now the University of Zimbabwe) in the late 1970s. After the country attained independence in 1980, the secondary school mathematics syllabus was reviewed and courses that included linear programming were introduced and are still a part of the curriculum.

While at the NUST in the mid 1990s, Professor Santosh Kumar introduced linear programming, operations research, queueing theory, decision theory and stochastic processes into the curriculum in courses that were offered under the applied mathematics honors degree program. By heavily integrating industry application into these courses, Kumar made it easier for students to acquire industrial attachments in their penultimate years. During his tenure as the chairman of the Applied Mathematics Department, the M.Sc. degree in operations research was introduced at NUST in 1998.

The following year a special honors degree in O.R. was introduced; the program was designed primarily for candidates who had general degrees in mathematics/applied mathematics, computer science and other related disciplines. In 2005, in response to recommendations from industry and commerce, the department introduced a four-year bachelor of operations research honors degree. The program targeted “A-level” graduates who, in their third year of study, would go for industrial attachment for the entire academic year. This increased the spread of O.R. in industry across the country.

International Operations Research

The same year lecturers in O.R. and statistics established a Statistics and Operations Research group, and this group immediately began marketing O.R. across Zimbabwe. One of the group’s most important external activities during this period was exhibiting at the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair for four consecutive years. The group of lecturers also formed the NUST Operations Research Society, and they are now in the final stages of forming the new Zimbabwe Operations Research Society (ZORS).

In 2007, Sigauke and Nyamugure (both at NUST at the time) attended an ORSSA/ORPA (Operations Research Practice in Africa) conference held at the University of Cape Town. In addition to presenting research papers at the conference, they addressed the final plenary session. During this final plenary session they highlighted the Department of Applied Mathematics’ efforts to encourage the study and application of O.R. in Zimbabwe. They also discussed their efforts to form the NUST Operations Research Society and the ZORS. The conference delegates encouraged these efforts and pledged to support them in their endeavors.

Lesaoana and Professor James J. Cochran of Louisiana Tech University met for the first time at that ORSSA 2007 Conference at UCT.Cochran’s plenary presentation at the conference on his research on problems at the interface of O.R. and statistics provided an initial foundation for collaboration between the two researchers. This later translated into agreements that led to Cochran’s commitment to support the ORSSA 2010 Conference and participation of African delegates from beyond South Africa’s borders (especially Zimbabweans) by giving the conference’s opening plenary address, four days of pre-conference workshops and a public lecture at the University of Limpopo, as well as by interacting in research activities with faculty and students at the University of Limpopo and NUST.

In 2008, Sigauke and Nyamugure attended the IFORS Triennial Conference in Sandton, near Johannesburg and assisted three of their honors students in O.R. and statistics from NUST in producing research papers that these students presented at that conference. These efforts prompted IFORS interest in the NUST Operations Research activities, and IFORS pledged to assist NUST and Zimbabwe in forming ZORS (which will be proposed for IFORS membership in due course). IFORS also recommended to ORSSA that it hold conferences in neighboring countries to encourage the spread of O.R. education and application more widely across the SADC region. All students from NUST who participated in the 2008 IFORS Conference were sponsored by ORSSA.

In February 2010, the Department of Applied Mathematics at NUST signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the School ofMathematical and Computer Sciences of the University of Limpopo.Among the objectives of the MoU was the promotion of student and staff exchange with the hope of providing mutual support and promoting collaborative research, teaching and learning.

Nyamugure, Chiyaka and Hausitoe Nare (all lecturers from NUST) attended the ORSSA 2010 conference that was hosted by the University of Limpopo in Polokwane. At the conference, the lecturers assisted seven NUST students who presented papers on a range of topics in O.R. ORSSA fully sponsored the 10 delegates from NUST (three lecturers and seven students) to attend both the four days of 2010 Pre-Conference Workshops offered by Cochran and the 2010 ORSSA Conference.Among all universities that participated in the ORSSA 2010 conference, NUST had the second largest number of students who gave presentation of papers at the conference.

NUST will be at the forefront in organizing the 2011 ORSSA conference (see accompanying sidebar) in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, Sept. 18-21. The conference promises to be one of the largest in ORSSA history. Given its heavy academic focus on O.R. (NUST now offers three degrees in operations research), the university plans to provide at least 15 presenters to the conference.

The host town of Victoria Falls is a major southern Africa tourist destination, and the venue will present delegates with an opportunity to view and explore its magnificent falls. While the falls are certainly a glorious attraction, the town is host to many other attractive tourist activities such as hiking and game viewing, bungee jumping,white water rafting, helicopter sightseeing, kayaking, zip lines, sunset cruises, elephant rides, lion walks, game drives, and river boarding, to mention but a few. One of the days of the conference will be reserved exclusively for excursions, and delegates will be given an opportunity to experience the hospitality of the people of Zimbabwe. The conference will be held at the Elephant Hills Hotel. For more information see the ORSSA website ( or contact the Conference LOC Chair Edward Chiyaka by e-mail (, or telephone (+263 928 2842, ext. 2467 or 2204).

David William Evans works for the Development Bank of Southern Africa in the areas of corporate strategy, risk management and IT SAP project management. The president of the Operations Research Society of South Africa, he has been active in the organization for 30 years. He spent 27 years in the chemical industry with ICI (United Kingdom) and AECI (Southern Africa) in O.R., IT, organization development, corporate strategy, factory administration and logistics, most of it in management positions. He holds a master’s degree in operations research and management studies from Imperial College, London.

‘Maseka Lesaoana is the director of the School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences and an associate professor in the Department of Statistics & Operations Research at the University of Limpopo and served as chairperson of the Local Organizing Committee of the 2010 ORSSA Conference.

Philimon Nyamugure is chairperson of the Department of Applied Mathematics, University of Science & Technology, and a visiting lecturer with the School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences at the University of Limpopo.

Caston Sigauke is a lecturer in the Department of Statistics & Operations Research, School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences, University of Limpopo, and was a member of the Local Organizing Committee of the 2010 ORSSA Conference.


  1. del Rosario, E. A. and Rand, G. K. 2010, “Opiniones sobre la profesíon: IFORS: 50 at 50,” Boletín de Estadística e Investigacíon Operativa, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 84-96.

The ORSSA 2011 Conference

ORSSA has been working for many years to spread the use and benefits of O.R. in Africa. It hosted an International Conference on O.R. in Development (ICORD) in the Kruger National Park in 2001; an Operations Research Practice in Africa conference at the University of Cape Town in 2007; and the prestigious International Federation of Operational Research Societies’ Triennial Conference at Sandton, Johannesburg, in 2008 (which was attended by several hundred O.R. professionals from all over the world).

In September 2010, in an effort to spread its activities more actively across southern Africa, ORSSA selected Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe as the site of its 2011 conference and the Zimbabwean National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, as the host. Given NUST’s long history of offering O.R. as a discipline, the high caliber of O.R. education in Zimbabwe, the strong links between O.R. and industry in the country and the visible presence and increasing numbers of NUST operations researchers (both students and lecturers) at ORSSA conferences since the 2007 conference at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Zimbabwe is an ideal choice for ORSSA’s expansion of its conference beyond South Africa’s borders.

Only once has ORSSA previously held its annual conference outside the borders of South Africa, in 1996, in Swaziland. This was when Professor V.S.S. Yadavalli was at the University of Swaziland. He later joined what was then the University of the North (which became the University of Limpopo in January 2005) and introduced O.R. to the Department of Statistics (which has since become the Department of Statistics and Operations Research). During his tenure as President of ORSSA in 2007-2008, Yadavalli strongly supported and encouraged the University of Limpopo to host ORSSA 2010.

ORSSA’s 2010 conference was held in Magoebaskloof, east of the city of Polokwane, and hosted by the University of Limpopo; this was the first time that the organization’s national conference had been hosted by a historically disadvantaged university. It was an extremely successful and well-attended conference that counted among its delegates several participants from the NUST. While the Society’s National Executive Committee was already considering Victoria Falls as a possible venue for the 2011 conference, the idea was also proposed independently by Professor James J. Cochran of Louisiana Tech University during his plenary speech at the opening session of the 2010 conference. In this talk he emphasized the need to spread O.R. more widely across southern Africa (and indeed across the entire continent) and challenged ORSSA to continue to take bold steps in this direction.

Professor ‘Maseka Lesaoana and Caston Sigauke of the University of Limpopo and Philimon Nyamugure from NUST had also been exploring this possibility. Through this convergence of independent yet strikingly similar thoughts it became clear that this is “an idea whose time has come!” The decision by the executive committee of ORSSA that the next conference be co-hosted by ORSSA and NUST in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, on Sept. 18-21, 2011 was made soon after. With the conference theme of “Spreading Operations Research Across Africa,” ORSSA is moving in its stated direction and working to expand the awareness, understanding and use of O.R. across the wider region.

The NUST Local Organizing Committee (LOC), chaired by Edward Chiyaka, has contacted local and neighboring universities within southern Africa to enlist their participation in the conference. Lesaoana, Sigauke and Daniel Maposa of the University of Limpopo, ORSSA President Dave Evans and Ozias Ncube of the UNISA (each of whom was heavily involved in the organization of the 2010 ORSSA conference) will assist the LOC in ensuring the success of the 2011 ORSSA Conference. ORSSA Vice President and University of Stellenbosch Professor Jan van Vuuren will be responsible for the conference program, and Cochran will provide assistance and support from the United States.

Event organizers expect that holding the 2011 ORSSA Conference outside the South African borders will encourage the spread of effective application of O.R. across southern Africa. The O.R. community at NUST anticipates that holding the conference in Zimbabwe will promote the development and broaden the visibility and application of O.R. in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, the event will help create a foundation for the establishment of the Zimbabwe Operations Research Society (ZORS) that has been delayed by the challenges that the country has faced over the past several years. It will strengthen collaborative relationships among operations researchers in the southern Africa region (and perhaps across the wider continent).

One of the LOC’s objectives is to market the 2011 ORSSA Conference to all the universities in the SADC region and ensure that in addition to Zimbabwean and South African participants, the conference attracts presenters from each of the other 13 SADC countries (Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, Swaziland, United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia) as well as from other African countries.