Pandor’s innovative rejig will force Cabinet to listen and react

Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor has painted the Cabinet into a corner of accountability when it comes to advice about innovation.

Her rejig of the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) – a body that was meant to report to the minister and the government, but in the past has been silenced by bureaucratic procedures – opens the door to direct access to the minister and the Cabinet on matters affecting the country’s National System of Innovation (NSI).

It forces the Cabinet to respond to its recommendations, and to give reasons if it doesn’t.

Innovation is an unfortunate buzz-word, often sitting on a pile of useless jargon like synergies and mutually beneficial relationships. But, for South Africa, innovation – using knowledge, science and the flow of information to drive the economy – is the only way that we can dig ourselves out of the resource-based rut we find ourselves in.

Innovation has been shown to increase international competitiveness, create jobs and promote economic growth, but, although this has become increasingly commonplace around the world, South Africa is still struggling to convince citizens and industry that this is the way to go.

The discovery of diamonds and gold in South Africa in the 1800s formed the backbone of the country’s economic growth and advancement. Without cheap labour that could be sent into deep and dangerous shafts, mining would have been considered uneconomical.

Agriculture and manufacturing were later added to the economic portfolio, and the thing that unifies these large contributors to today’s gross domestic product is that they all require cheap unskilled labour. But we cannot compete with the likes of China and India when it comes to cheap labour.

This is why the government is pushing to turn South Africa into a knowledge-based economy, and promote the NSI. Unfortunately, this path has not been without its pitfalls.

According to the ministerial review in the science, technology and innovation landscape, published in 2012, South Africa’s NSI has been stymied by, inter alia, a lack of integration, no co-ordinating body with the gravitas to make itself heard and business often being left out of the loop.

Countries’ innovation systems are not a one-size-fits-all: Germany’s system is different from Japan’s, which is different from the United Kingdom’s.

But the one thing that unifies them is the goal of efficiency.

An innovation system needs to take the money that is put into it – and amplify it. South Africa’s system is rather porous, as noted in a number of reviews of the system.

It needs a strong hand to advise on the system, and – more importantly – it needs those in power to listen. Previously, the advisory council, established under the NACI Act of 1997, sat within the department of science and technology. This meant that, because of the hierarchies and structures, bureaucracy stood in the way of advising the minister and the government on policy decisions, which is what the system desperately needs.

Pandor has in effect done just that in her “new NACI”, which has to prepare reports on issues in the innovation space – from skills to red tape affecting small business – for the minister and the Cabinet. But the Cabinet is now also mandated to respond.

Cheryl de la Rey, vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria and the new head of NACI, told the Mail & Guardian that the goal was not just to create reports on the latest economic-innovation indicators for the Cabinet.

“We need to take stock of where we are [in the progress of the innovation system] and identify the most urgent issues that need to be addressed, the levers that are most likely to institute the most change in the shortest period of time possible,” De la Rey said.

Interestingly though, Pandor has denied NACI the use of rather expensive task teams to find these levers, saying that there was enough expertise in South Africa’s innovation system that would give of their time to come up with solutions.

For a change, that also includes business, which is well represented in the new NACI. It has managed to attract some big names, such as Standard Bank chief executive Sim Tshabalala, Dimension Data Middle East and Africa executive chair Dr Andile Ngcaba, Human Sciences Research Council chief executive Professor Olive Shisana and Econometrix chief Azar Jammine, among others.

It must be said, though, that in terms of the ministerial review’s recommendations, this is very low-hanging fruit, even though it may have disproportionately positive consequences.

We can only hope that Pandor will be as proactive when it comes to other things, such as making teaching an essential service.

But although the Cabinet may have agreed to look at reports from experts, it is unlikely to touch the politically hot potato that would make an even larger difference to the skill-starved innovation system.

Sarah Wild is the Mail & Guardian‘s science editor

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