Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Astronomer saga sparks outrage

The disciplinary hearing of top South African astronomer Phil Charles has opened a rift between Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor and the National Research Foundation (NRF), which suspended Charles and has subjected him to a lengthy disciplinary hearing.

Pandor called last week for Charles’s hearing to be concluded speedily — it started on February 11 in Cape Town, was postponed until Tuesday this week and then again to next Wednesday.

Her department has officially denied any rift with the NRF, which it funds.

The Mail & Guardian reported at the beginning of the month that the NRF had suspended Charles, director of the South African Astronomical Observatory, allegedly because he discussed optimal sites for the headquarters of the world’s biggest proposed radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), with other scientists.

Scientists told the M&G this week that they were outraged that the matter had dragged on for so long. Top international scientists were shocked to hear of his suspension, voicing fears that it might endanger South Africa’s bid to host the R20-billion international SKA radio telescope project.

South Africa and Australia are both bidding to host the project, which aims to construct a radio telescope with a collecting area of a million square metres.

Patrick Thompson, group executive for human resources at the NRF, confirmed that Charles’s hearing continued on Tuesday after being postponed on February 11.

“This was a continuation of the adjourned session of February 11 wherein evidence by witnesses of Professor Charles was given,” he said. “This week’s proceedings were adjourned after the final witness testified.”

He said the proceedings would resume on Wednesday next week with the cross-examination of the final witness and the presentation of closing arguments. “Thereafter the chairperson will consider the evidence and make a ruling after a few days.”

Last week the Cape Times reported that Pandor had tried to intervene in the dispute by meeting the NRF. But the foundation told her that she had no jurisdiction in the matter and that it would proceed with the disciplinary inquiry in terms of its rules and procedures.

In a letter to the paper, Pandor’s adviser, Nasima Badsha, wrote: “The minister was informed that the NRF had decided to proceed with the disciplinary inquiry in terms of its rules and procedures. The minister has no statutory jurisdiction in the matter, which is between employer and employee. However, she continues to monitor the matter through her department.”

Sources close to the science and technology department said the minister and senior department officials were concerned about the negative publicity and any fallout the Charles saga might have in international scientific circles.

Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele, took a more reconciliatory line this week, insisting that there was no division between the minister and the NRF.
He said the minister hoped that Charles’s hearing would be concluded speedily.

“The minister has not taken a position on the charges,” he said.

“The hearing is a matter between the NRF and its employee as such. The department is not a participant,” he said.

Pandor is responsible for appointing the NRF’s board following a public nominations process. The board then holds the NRF accountable.

Ngqengelele said the NRF received its budget from the department, which played an important role in providing policy direction and monitoring the achievement of its stated goals and objectives.

He said the minister was free to comment on the activities of any of the science councils, including the NRF. “She meets regularly with the forum of the chairs [of the boards] of the science councils and other entities that fall under the department to discuss policy and other matters relating to the national system of innovation,” he said.

“The minister also meets the individual boards and executives of the science councils, in particular, to discuss their strategic goals and objectives.”

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald
Yolandi Groenewald is a South African environmental reporter, particularly experienced in the investigative field. After 10 years at the Mail & Guardian, she signed on with City Press in 2011. Her investigative environmental features have been recognised with numerous national journalism awards. Her coverage revolves around climate change politics, land reform, polluting mines, and environmental health. The world’s journey to find a deal to address climate change has shaped her career to a great degree. Yolandi attended her first climate change conference in Montreal in 2005. In the last decade, she has been present at seven of the COP’s, including the all-important COP15 in Copenhagen in 2009. South Africa’s own addiction to coal in the midst of these talks has featured prominently in her reports.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Basic web lessons for South Africa: Government hacks point to...

Recent cyberattacks at the department of justice and the space agency highlight the extent of our naïveté

If the inflation-driving supply strain in the US lasts, it...

In South Africa, a strong trade surplus, buoyed by robust commodity prices, will cushion our economy against pressure arising from US policy

More top stories

Almost two million voters register for local elections

Young people make use of online portal and women account for more than half of the total registered

Free State regions cry foul after dissolution by interim provincial...

Regional ANC leaders have asked Duarte to intervene after the interim provincial committee resolved to dissolve their branches ahead of local government elections

ANC unlikely to replace Joburg mayor Matongo before 1 Nov

A party source said the ANC in Johannesburg would most likely call on one of the mayoral committee members to stand in as mayor until the local elections

Ramaphosa hits the right notes as he urges Cosatu to...

Cosatu meets to deliberate on its support for the governing party in the upcoming local government elections

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…