Steering South Africa's knowledge economy

Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology; Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa; DST Minister Naledi Pandor and Professor Mike Bruton, founding director of Cape Town Science Centre

Professor Sarah Anyang Agbor African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology; Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa; DST Minister Naledi Pandor and Professor Mike Bruton, founding director of Cape Town Science Centre


ientists and science advocates the world over struggle to get buy-in from politicians. South Africa is very lucky to have a passionate minister in the department of science and technology (DST) who takes research and development (R&D) very seriously.

Minister Naledi Pandor was able to persuade Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, currently one of the country’s most influential political figures, who may well be South Africa’s next president to deliver the keynote address at the opening of Science Forum South Africa (SFSA) 2017.

“If you have a leader of the country in your science forum, then you know you’ve cracked it,” Pandor said in her welcome address. As a consequence of the deputy president’s attendance, the main auditorium was filled to beyond capacity, with various media reporting the two-day forum to the general public.

During his address, Ramaphosa highlighted how the SFSA has become synonymous with building bridges to promote Africa’s growth and development through innovation and collaboration.

“It is a forum working to advance pan-African co-operation in science and technology to advance regional integration, peace, social cohesion, inclusive development and global partnership,” Ramaphosa said. “We are confident that it will move the youth of our continent to exploit opportunities that exist in scientific careers.”

Many of these young people were at the SFSA 2017 to showcase some of the work they do. One of them is Dr Busiswa Ndaba, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Agricultural Research Council in Pretoria. Ndaba’s research focuses on producing biofuels from the parts of crops that humans do not consume, in line with one of the key focus areas of the DST: the development of biofuels.

An equally brilliant young SFSA 2017 participant, 27-year-old Tshiamo Legoale, a geologist and researcher at Mintek. Legoale won both the audience and judges awards at the FameLab International competition. The competition challenges anyone to present any scientific idea in three minutes to the general public. Legoale presented research that she works on in which they use wheat plants to “mine” gold from mine dumps.

Also in attendance was Dr Kerry Sink of the South African National Botanical Institute and Dr Lara Atkinson of the South African Environmental Observation Network. These two young women study the kinds of species that live in South Africa’s offshore waters. Atkinson, Sink and their colleagues have discovered 20 new species and rediscovered four species thought to be extinct.

“These stories of success — of young people who often come from impoverished backgrounds — demonstrate that indeed, young people can reach the pinnacle of their potential if we support their dreams,” Ramaphosa said.

He went on to say that investment in science and technology for the benefit of South Africa’s raw materials has led to the development of an ambitious hydrogen fuel cell technology programme. The South African National Space Agency’s earth observation programmes are helping to ensure better management of our natural resources. South Africa is at the cutting edge of drug and vaccine development for infectious diseases such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis. And through the global Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, South Africa has developed significant technical and technological capacity to play a leading role in big data.

“The countries of this continent should embrace the opportunity of the knowledge economy to ensure they do not remain dependent on commodity exports,” said Ramaphosa.

According to the World Bank, knowledge economies are defined by four pillars. These are: skilled labour availability and good basic and tertiary education systems, institutions that provide incentives for entrepreneurship and the use of knowledge, a vibrant R&D and innovation landscape that includes academia, and ICT infrastructure and access to that infrastructure.

The DST has made major strides in all four aspects. Huge investments have been made for research and development for technological innovation through the National Research Foundation (NRF), a business unit of the DST. The South African Research Chairs Initiative has also gone a long way in bringing new research leadership capacity into public universities, while simultaneously retaining established researchers.

The DST also funds numerous programmes aimed at school learners and university students through the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. The DST, through the NRF, also provides direct and indirect funding at all levels of tertiary education through other business units such as the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).

The CSIR, an institution that exists to bridge a gap between the research done at academic institutions and the needs of different industries, is among Africa’s leading science organisations.

The work of this entities illustrate the huge investments the DST has made in developing South Africa’s knowledge economy. Pandor has been a champion for science and technology in South Africa and the African continent at large for many years now, and is slowly starting to obtain support from other members of the Cabinet. In addition to the keynote address by the deputy president, Minister of Communications Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane was on a panel discussion at SFSA 2017 on science journalism and communication in South Africa.

In her closing address at SFSA 2017, Pandor announced that Members of Parliament would be given a policy orientation course in science early in 2018. The plan is to eventually roll this out to other African countries. Hopefully, with time, Pandor can gain the support of Cabinet members involved in the departments of basic and higher education.

“The National Development Plan sees science and technological innovation as crucial for our country to move towards economic diversification and sustainability,” Ramaphosa said. “We are committed to work with African and international partners for sustainable development.”