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This article was published 13/5/2021 (456 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
From the halls of academia to the shores of a flooding riverbank, and now in the upper echelons of bureaucracy, Johanu Botha has seen emergency management from almost all angles.
As logistics head of Manitoba's vaccine rollout, he now oversees the province's most complex operation of its type in modern times — at just age 30.
He's in charge of getting life-saving shots to all Manitobans, while at the mercy of everything from global supply chains to Manitoba weather.
It's a challenge he relishes.
"There is never a perfect solution in practice," says Botha. "Human beings and disasters are far too complex."
Born abroad and raised in Altona and Winkler, Botha excelled at academics, gaining accolades for exploring understudied questions about how Canada responds to natural disasters.
But he eschewed the ivory tower for the hands-on work of trying to prevent wildfire evacuations in Manitoba, and rejigging the province's flood-compensation model.
"I think Manitoba's extremely lucky," says Botha's former thesis supervisor, Leslie Pal, a senior Carleton University public-policy professor.
"You probably couldn't find a better person to manage these issues than Johanu; he's kind of made for it."
Botha was born in 1990 in South Africa, just as its apartheid regime was winding down. He grew up in Harrismith, a rural town in the country's breadbasket.
His father is an engineer, and his mother was among the hundreds of South African physicians recruited by Prairie provinces to help shore up rural health centres.
Manitoba was supposed to give them a few years of adventure abroad; instead, it became their new home.
Botha did an undergrad in Montreal, and was studying for an LSAT test before getting cold feet about law school.
"I realized that public-policy problems were the most interesting to me, and just solving logical puzzles in the context of the law was less and less interesting," he says.
He instead chose to study public administration, which examines how bureaucracy works, and how civil servants balance the public's needs with the demands of elected officials.
"He was truly an impressive student, even back in 2012," says University of Manitoba public-administration professor Karine Levasseur, who taught some of his grad-school courses.
"He displayed such a strong passion for public service; he challenged assumptions that are kind of built into the public-policy and public-admin literature. He spends a fair amount of time working through the puzzles that are put in front of him."
Levasseur invited Manitoba's former emergency-management director, Gerry Delorme, to speak to her students. She recalls a conversation with Botha afterward, enthusiastic about wanting to focus on that field.
Emergency management gets scant academic attention in Canada, despite growing in importance as floods and wildfires become more common.
"It's one of the few policy areas that will touch every level of government," Botha says.
He felt drawn to intractable problems that must be resolved and managed in real life instead of composing analytic theories that only work under ideal parameters.
While working on this PhD in Ottawa at Carleton University, Botha was a reservist who spent his summers training on an army base.
In spring 2017, he was tapped to help respond to the Ottawa River floods as a junior infantry officer, but he stresses that he only ever oversaw 30 troops.
On paper, the military is supposed to respond to disasters by cleanly slipping into an existing incident-command structure prescribed by the local municipality, which means being given clear tasks that support the defined roles of provincial officials and non-profit groups, and holding meetings on a pre-determined schedule.
"The gulf between theory and practice was just so salient," Botha says of the 2017 floods.
"Roles and responsibilities blur, inevitably, and the hazard itself won't co-operate. You want to have meetings at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., but the rate at which the water moves is going to ignore that."
Botha completed his PhD within four years. His supervisor, Pal, describes that as lightning speed, particularly on a topic without a lot of academic study.
"Right away he distinguished himself in terms of his organizational capacity," Pal says.
"Most PhD students look kind of ratty and raggy (but Botha) had that self-possession, which I think comes from a military background."
Botha won the prestigious Joseph-Armand Bombardier Award, and Pal says his thesis passed its defence with few revisions.
The dissertation is a 363-page tome touching on how much capacity the military has to respond to crises, the political calculations provinces weigh in deciding whether to seek federal help and how the military and civilian branches can work together without jeopardizing civil liberties.
The thesis includes assessment tools and practical checklists.
"There are very few people, a handful of people in Canada, that have thought as rigorously about these issues as he did," Pal says.
"I did try to entice him into academia; I thought he'd make a fantastic professor, but he had his eyes set on going into government and working in practice."
Levasseur agrees, saying she's relieved as a Manitoban to have someone so competent overseeing the vaccine rollout.
"He isn’t ivory tower; he isn't public servant — he works at thinking about theory and practice on a day-to-day basis. That, to me, is the sign of a profoundly strong public servant," she says.
Botha is more humble, summarizing his doctorate as saying governments need "to know who is who in the zoo" and have enough resources to respond to multiple disasters.
"There's something mildly hilarious about doing four-plus years of research and having one of your main findings be people need to be nice to each other and trust each other," he says.
His dissertation is going to be published in textbook form, which currently requires some after-work emails to keep tabs on edits and the peer-review process, in addition to a job that has thrust Botha from the anonymity of the civil service to the spotlight of weekly news conferences.
"The best emergency management is the kind you don't notice," says Botha, who's more comfortable leaving the gaze of the media in a crisis, to firefighters or soldiers.
In a call with reporters last week, Botha rejected the idea that the province might need the military to help gets shots into arms beyond an existing deployment in remote First Nations.
Botha's background allowed him to answer with a certainty that has been uncharacteristic among Manitoba officials, who constantly stress that rolling out vaccines is a process in perpetual flux.
There has been no shortage of hiccups.
A rough plan to have pharmacies dole out AstraZeneca shots caught staff off guard when it launched. The province also corrected course on a hastily announced plan to locate a mass immunization clinic at Thompson's airport, which sits far outside the city.
There were significant problems in scaling up operations at RBC Convention Centre; seniors waited outside in the snow for hours or stood in lengthy queues inside without being offered seats or water.
The city offered help from its pool of workers, and yet clinic staff told reporters they would often sit idle on Sundays as immunization rates slowed at the downtown site.
And Manitoba's decision to ration doses pending more shipments came just as other provinces were doing neighbourhood blitzes. That led to one of the slowest vaccination rates in North America and calls for Ottawa to step in, until recent weeks.
Even when the news is unflattering, Botha says he's happy to be updating Manitobans on what is ultimately a good-news story.
"The vaccine rollout has a bit more hope tinged around it, even on the tough media days, than testing or case numbers," said Botha.
That hope might shine through in his colourful suits. A purple shirt and beige jacket combo got some notice among the press pack, as did a spiffy burgundy-windowpane blazer.
"I haven't changed my wardrobe much when I started doing press conferences," Botha says with a snicker.
He speaks in paragraphs, enthusiastically reflecting on federalism, multiculturalism and the role of the monarchy.
But when asked about his hobbies, he goes silent, save for a nervous chuckle. He's not really into social media, and his exercise regime has lapsed since his military days.
Aside from canoeing across the province with his wife and hanging out with their dog, Botha says he's still an academic at heart.
"If I can spend a Saturday doing nothing but reading fairly esoteric works from a gem of an academic journal, and there's a dead quiet in the house, and there's no one else, I could do that for hours on end," he says.
"That side of me still lives, and I think I might miss that the most, the unadulterated hours or reading and writing and thinking."
Botha had ample opportunity for a life focused on research and teaching, Levasseur says.
"He could have gone anywhere with a degree like that; with his work experience, but he came home, and I think that speaks to his love for Manitoba," she says.
In fact, there's a tattoo of a bison on his left shoulder.
"It's very much an affection for the province that took me in, as an immigrant," says Botha, whose right shoulder bears a Cape buffalo, indigenous to southern Africa.
Manitobans are now facing tighter pandemic restrictions and a surge of daily cases last seen months ago. Huge shipments of vaccines are on the way, but most people are sick of seeing rule-breaking protesters hold rallies while their lives and those of their families and friends are on hold indefinitely.
Botha says he's in the same boat, but he's buoyed by the work of Manitobans, both in and outside government, to get through COVID-19.
"I have a front seat to that, and I feel good about where we will get to," he says.
"We're going to get through this, and it's going to be better on the other end."
— With files from Danielle Da Silva