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TWAS Newsletter
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Science and change in South Africa

Science and change in South Africa

On the eve of TWAS's 11th General Conference in Durban, Daniel Schaffer, the Academy's public information officer, explores the current state of science in South Africa.

Science and change in South AfricaFew countries in modern history have experienced such tumultuous change in such a brief time as South Africa.

In the early 1990s, South Africa was a politically isolated country, a pariah among nations for having doggedly followed a path of apartheid despite growing resistance from the majority black population, moral condemnation from the global community and an international embargo that had acutely sapped the strength of its economy.

Fifteen years after the end of apartheid, South Africa is a country with a vibrant democracy, despite the one-party domination of the African National Congress (ANC), and a strong and resilient economy, despite the steep global economic downturn of the past year. In April 2009, over 17.5 million South Africans participated in the nation’s fourth presidential election. Jacob Zuma, head of the ANC, was elected president with just under two-thirds of the vote. The campaign was boisterous and contentious, and the public was fully engaged. Nearly 75% of the registered voters cast ballots.

With a nominal annual gross domestic product of more than USD270 billion, South Africa has the world’s 32nd largest economy.

With a nominal annual gross domestic product (GDP) of more than USD270 billion, South Africa has the world’s 32nd largest economy – an economy that grew at nearly 5% between 2003 and 2007. The country, moreover, is rich in biodiversity. Indeed, with 20,000 different plant species (10% of the known species on Earth), a 2,500-kilometre coastline and ecosystems ranging from extreme desert in the northwest to subtropical forests in the southeast, it is one of only 17 countries considered ‘mega diverse’.

Yet deep-seated social and economic problems persist, including crushing inequality (more than one-third of the population lives on less than USD2 a day) and high and chronic levels of crime and violence (South Africa’s murder rate – 40 murders annually per 1,000 population – is seven times that of the United States). In addition, more than 10% of the population – an estimated 5 million people – is afflicted with HIV/AIDS. In 2007, the virus claimed the lives of 350,000 South Africans. That amounted to nearly 1,000 deaths every day.

The global economic recession, moreover, has begun to stymie economic growth. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced this spring that for the first time in nearly two decades, South Africa’s GDP is expected to contract in 2009. Whether this is a small blip or the beginning of a long-term economic downturn remains to be seen.

Despite its daunting problems, South Africa has managed one of the most remarkable transformations in recent history. Today, as a multi-racial democratic nation with an abundance of natural resources, strong institutions in both the public and private sectors, a small but highly skilled workforce and large youthful population, South Africa seems as well positioned as any country to enjoy sustained levels of growth in the years ahead.

And Science

A political revolution, yes. But what about science? Did it have a role too? And if so, what role did it play – not just as a source of economic development but also as a wellspring of national unity, pride and identity? What part, in short, has science played in national efforts to build a multi-racial society where a growing number of people can live in peace and prosperity?

Unlike in many developing countries, science in South Africa is deeply woven into the fabric of society.

Unlike in many developing countries, science in South Africa is deeply woven into the fabric of society. It has been an essential element of continuity for the nation, stretching more or less seamlessly across the enormous gap in political sensibility separating the eras of apartheid and democracy.

Yet, during apartheid, science operated exclusively for the benefit of the ruling white class, which constituted less than 15% of the population (just 5 million people in a country of 40 million). Consequently, leaders in the newly democratic country faced a new challenge: How could South Africa reorient its scientific capacity to serve the needs of the majority?

At the same time, unlike, for example, the former Soviet Union, which also experienced tumultuous change in the early 1990s, science in South Africa was not exclusively a government enterprise. The private sector in in the country accounted for more than 50% of the investment in research and development (R&D) during apartheid, and it remained a key investor in R&D after democracy took hold.

The changes that jolted South Africa in the 1990s led to a steep reduction in public investments in scientific research (the portion of gross domestic product devoted to R&D declined from 1.1% in the late 1980s to less than 0.7% by the mid- 1990s). Private sector investments provided a welcome cushion softening the impact on the scientific and technological agenda during a time of momentous change. Today, the private sector spends an estimated 9.2 billion South African rands (USD1 billion) on R&D. That is three times more than the government invests.

And, finally, unlike other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, which experienced a precipitous decline in the quality of their universities in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa’s privileged, largely white, universities have continued to function at a high level of excellence through the 1990s and into the new millennium.

Thus one of the critical challenges for post-apartheid South Africa was not to rebuild a national system of higher education (as much of sub-Saharan Africa still needs to do), but to provide opportunities for thousands of black students to enrol in the nation’s best universities, while simultaneously upgrading the quality of both education and research in black universities that had been largely neglected during apartheid. This goal has made the task of improving primary and secondary schools even more urgent in order to ensure that black students are adequately prepared to meet the rigours of a university education.

Way Ahead

When it assumed power, South Africa’s newly formed democratic government recognized that the country’s legacy of apartheid included a strong foundation in science and technology. Global sanctions in the 1970s and 1980s had forced South Africa to become largely self-reliant. Along with a deeply rooted tradition of efficient administration and management dating back to the late 19th century, scientific and technological capacity was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise forbidding period in South Africa‘s modern history.

The problems were threefold. First, the research community was almost exclusively white and male. Second, the research agenda was fixated on issues of importance to the minority white society. And third, the success of South Africa’s democracy would largely be determined by its ability to deliver goods and services to the nation’s impoverished majority black population. That raised serious questions about whether there would be sufficient financial resources to continue to invest in science.


South Africa’s strengths in science and technology were derived from the skills of a privileged white population who constituted only a fraction of the society. Not surprisingly, the fields of study in which South Africa had gained international recognition were narrowly cast in ways that provided only limited benefits for the new nation and the vast majority of its people.

For example, during apartheid South Africa devoted a great deal of its resources and capabilities to the development of nuclear power and weaponry. South Africa was one of only a handful of nations that possessed the atom bomb. It voluntarily relinquished this capability in 1993, the first nation ever to do so.

Such R&D initiatives were part of a broader effort on the part of South Africa’s apartheid government to gain energy independence in the face of a stringent global embargo and to acquire a strong military presence in a world that was deeply hostile to its racist and repressive regime. Expertise in nuclear R&D enabled it to make progress on both fronts, providing important buffers against the threats posed by external forces calling for radical change.

Even in research fields that held promise for societal improvement, the goals were narrowly cast. South Africa, for instance, had a world-class group of medical researchers who garnered international attention when Christiaan Barnard of Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town became the world’s first surgeon to perform successful heart transplant surgery in 1967. But such path-breaking medical procedures did little to improve the health of the hundreds of millions of people living in sordid conditions and without access to basic health-care.

The same disconnect between scientific excellence and social impact existed for agricultural R&D, where the vast majority of expertise and resources focused on the needs of corporate farmers and not small landholders. With less than 7% of the workforce employed as farmers (and less than 3% of the nation’s GDP derived from agriculture), South African agriculture today resembles that of a developed country more than it does a developing country. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 75% of the workforce is involved in agriculture (and agriculture accounts for 30% of the GDP).

First Things

In 1996, the government of South Africa issued its first comprehensive report on the future of R&D in South Africa – The White Paper on Science and Technology: Preparing for the 21st Century. The report, prepared by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology, called for the creation of a “national system of innovation”.

As the report observed, “no government can order innovation to take place. But government can help ensure that a competent pool of expertise, from which innovation can spring, is grown and maintained.”

The key to South Africa’s strategy for sustained development, according to the report, would lie in the promotion of “innovation.” Such a strategy would broaden the scope of R&D to include such fields as engineering, design and marketing. While a system of innovation would emphasize the importance of science and technology, it would do so within the context of a broad range of factors that would all be part of an integrated effort to promote sustainable economic growth.

Put another way, South Africa’s system of innovation would acknowledge the importance of basic scientific research and would seek to adequately fund such endeavours. As the report observed, “it is important that fundamental research not be regarded as impractical, because it is the preserver of standards without which, in the long-term, the applied sciences will also die.”

Nevertheless, the national innovation strategy would place even greater emphasis on new products and services that could ultimately benefit the economic and social well-being of people, especially the poor. South Africa’s ‘national system for innovation’, in short, would embody a strategy that extended well beyond the conventional definitions of R&D.


More specifically, the report stressed the importance of maintaining excellence in research and teaching while, at the same time, calling for measures to make the system more equitable, open and focused on societal needs. It called on the scientific community to develop an agenda that embraced scientific knowledge not only as an intellectual pursuit but also as a critical instrument for the creation of a more prosperous and equitable society.

Fields of Plenty

The White Paper on Science and Technology and all subsequent government reports – most notably, South Africa’s National Research and Development Strategy, also published in 1996 by the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology – highlighted a number of scientific fields in which the government would continue to strive for international excellence. These fields included:

  • Archaeology and human palaeontology, in which South Africa enjoys a number of global advantages related to the discovery of hominid fossils (for instance, Australopithecus africanus was found in the Sterkfontein Caves near Johannesburg in 1947).
  • Astronomy, which not only has a long tradition of research excellence in South Africa’s universities but for which researchers also enjoy an advantage due to the nation’s position at the southern tip of Africa. This enables observation of parts of the sky not visible from elsewhere and helps to reduce atmospheric turbulence, making South Africa an excellent place for viewing and listening to the sky.
  • Scientific and technological knowledge and skills for the mining of metals and minerals that dates back to the discovery of diamonds, gold and other precious resources by European explorers in the 19th century.
  • A treasure trove of indigenous knowledge, an advantage that it shares with many other developing countries and for which South Africa can provide added value because of its strong scientific base that allows for a melding of traditional and modern knowledge in the pursuit of new products and services, especially in agriculture and health-care.
  • Processing of coal to liquid fuels based on the nation’s long-standing expertise in advanced manufacturing. Indeed the South African Coal, Oil and Gas Corporation (SASOL) remains the only firm to have developed this process on a commercial scale.
  • Development of fluorine-based chemicals, advanced irradiation processes and laser-based isotope separation technology that draws on the nation’s military R&D efforts that took place during apartheid.

South Africa has called for additional funding to advance a number of enabling technologies.

In addition, the government of South Africa has called for additional funding to advance a number of enabling technologies, including information and communication technologies and biotechnology.

An important point is this: When it comes to science and technology, government officials, in many respects, view South Africa not as a developing country but rather as a middle-income country seeking to maintain – and improve upon – its international standing in R&D. The nation’s average per capita GDP (at purchasing power parity) of USD10,119 (comparable to Brazil’s USD10,326) supports this perception. Yet the fact that more than one-third of the population lives on less than USD2 a day suggests otherwise.

Innovate Now

When it comes to advances in R&D, South Africa has certainly made significant strides.

Today, the country has a multi-tiered, vibrant university system led by 12 leading universities, including five listed in the 2007 Shanghai Jiao Tong University ranking of the top-500 universities: Cape Town, Pretoria, Stellenbosch,Witwatersrand and KwaZulu-Natal. It can also turn to a strong network of government-supported science councils in such fields as agriculture, energy, geology, industrial research, medicine and the social sciences. As mentioned above, the private sector continues to make significant investments in R&D, especially in deep mining technology, conventional and renewable energy and agriculture. Moreover, the nation’s Ministry of Science and Technology, established in 2002, is considered to be one of the government’s most effective ministries and a prime reason for broad-based public support for science and technology as major components of the nation’s economic development strategy.

South Africa’s complex system of science governance is one of the best in the developing world.

South Africa, in short, has a complex and interwoven system of science governance that is undoubtedly the best in Africa and one of the best in the developing world.

To broaden student access to privileged universities, South Africa has launched an aggressive programme to enrol qualified black students. The result is that the country’s leading universities have a rising number of black students in attendance. At the University of Cape Town, for example, nearly half of the student body is black. At Witwatersrand University, nearly two-thirds are.

Critics, however, contend that many of these students are ill prepared for university studies, a reflection of the poor state of primary and secondary education. They are calling for additional investments at all levels of education to ensure that students fully benefit from their university training.

Meanwhile, aging white professors continue to hold the majority of university positions. But most experts agree that it is only a matter of time before black professors dominate teaching and research positions.

Migration: In and Out

When it comes to brain drain, South Africa finds itself in a unique position, especially among developing countries. It is both a benefactor and victim of this phenomenon. Conflict and violence in other sub-Saharan African countries has pushed many skilled and educated workers to South Africa. At the same time, attractive job opportunities in developed countries have enticed South Africa’s educated population to migrate to the North, most notably to the United Kingdom and the United States. An estimated 5% of South Africa’s scientists working in government research institutes and more than 20% of scientists in academia leave each year. Moreover, such highly trained professionals as doctors, nurses and engineers have found lucrative careers on other continents. For example, there are at least 3,500 South African doctors working in Britain, 2,000 in the US, over 1,000 in Canada and close to 500 in New Zealand.


To help counteract the loss of many of its educated citizens, some 72 research chairs of excellence have been established in such fields as bioinformatics, indigenous knowledge, math education and nanotechnology. Plans call for 210 research chairs to be in place by 2010. The positions are not only prestigious but also well endowed, receiving 2.5 million South African rand (USD280,000) per year for 10 years. The global financial meltdown and shrinking government budgets have recently put the programme on hold. But government has every intention of increasing the number of research chairs when the global economy improves.

Similarly, South Africa has launched a programme for the creation of centres of excellence that is designed to promote new knowledge and develop collaborative research projects on such critical issues as biomedical treatment for tuberculosis; research and development of strong materials (for example, alloys, metal oxides, ceramics and diamonds that retain their distinctive properties under extreme conditions); the impact of invasive species on biodiversity, ecosystems and tourism; and examinations of chemical catalysis, primarily for the conversion of gas to liquid fuels. Many of the centres operate collaborative multi-disciplinary ventures focusing on long-term challenges relevant to the nation’s efforts to build its scientific capacity and enhance economic competitiveness.

The government has pinpointed critical fields of research deserving special attention and support because of the potential impact that advances in these fields could have on society and the economy. The nanotechnology initiative, for example, focuses on developing nano-applications for intelligent, slow-release drugs to treat HIV/AIDS, nano-sensors for precision environmental monitoring, and nano-filters for improving the quality of drinking water. The high-performance computing centre, meanwhile, concentrates on developing reliable models for the potential spread of HIV/AIDS in the event of a pandemic; devising complex scenarios for the study of climate change; and creating web simulations for the design of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.

South Africa has also invested substantial public resources in government institutes that are currently devoted to an array of areas that include energy and environmental research. These institutes pre-date the advent of democracy and are deeply rooted within the nation’s multifaceted scientific enterprise. A key point of debate revolving around the future of these institutes today is the level of governmental funding that is necessary for them to function effectively and whether larger percentages of private funding would help them fulfil their mandates to produce R&D results that impact society.

SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere.

And finally, South Africa hosts a large and growing number of international scientific organizations. It is, for example, the home of the African Laser Centre (ALC), as well as the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). It serves as the headquarters for the World Association of Industrial and Technological Research Organizations (WAITRO). In 2006, South Africa became the host for the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology’s (ICGEB) third component after New Delhi, India, and Trieste, Italy. The country has begun construction on the Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT) and the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). The latter is the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere and the 10th largest in the world. South Africa, moreover, is one of two finalists (Australia is the other) for hosting the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope, which will be 50 times more sensitive than the most powerful radio instrument currently operating.

R&D Investments

South Africa has also made slow but persistent progress in its efforts to invest at least 1% of its GDP in R&D. In the late 1980s, during the final years of apartheid, the nation was spending about 0.9% of its GDP on R&D. That figure fell to just 0.69 % in 1994 and remained mired there for several years.

In the late 1990s, the government once again called for investing 1% of the nation’s GDP on R&D by 2008. That goal has nearly been achieved, and a new target – to invest 2% of the nation’s GDP in R&D by 2018 – has been set. Although South Africa has been jolted by the global financial crisis, the government remains confident that the nation will be able to reach this new goal.

This trend, of course, does not necessarily ensure that science and technology will gain the level of prominence that advocates hope. After all, how the money is spent is likely to be as important as how much is spent. It should be noted, moreover, that developed countries invest on average 2.5% to 3% of their GDP on R&D. (In 2006, Japan spent 3.39% of its GDP on R&D, and Finland 3.45%). So, while a 1% (or even 2%) funding goal represents a significant step forward, it also indicates that more work needs to be done.

Nevertheless, the rise in R&D expenditures is a clear sign of the government’s commitment to long-term science-based development, and a willingness to devote limited resources to such endeavours despite the other formidable challenges that demand attention.

Some Systems Go

The rapid integration of the country’s researchers and research institutes into the international scientific community may be the nation’s most noteworthy accomplishment in science since the demise of apartheid. The once outcast nation is now a full and active participant in global science. In several fields of study, including archaeology, astronomy, plant and animal science, and mining research, it is considered among the world’s leaders. At the same time, South Africa has succeeded in creating a more diverse research community, and it has proven particularly successful in rapidly increasing the number of blacks (and to a lesser degree, women) in the nation’s universities and research centres.

In several fields of study, South Africa is considered among the world’s leaders.

Yet, in a number of critical areas, the nation has fallen far short of its goals. Today, South Africa has an estimated 18,000 active researchers (an additional 12,000 people work as technicians and support staff). That translates into about 2.7 researchers per 1,000 population. Japan, in contrast, has 10.2 researchers per 1,000 population, Sweden 10.6, and Finland 15.8. The number of researchers in South Africa is clearly too small to advance its ambitious agenda for scientific capacity building and innovation.

The number of articles published by South African researchers in peer-reviewed international journals averaged just under 0.5% of the world total between 2005 and 2007. That was 0.2% less than in 1987. Surveys, moreover, indicate that the percentage of articles published by faculty aged 50 years or over has climbed from less than 20% in 1990 to more than 45% today. This trend forecasts future declines in output unless vigorous steps are taken to train and employ a new generation of world-class scientists and scholars.

One of the most daunting unmet challenges that South Africa faces is to effectively use its impressive scientific and technological capabilities to address the critical social and economic needs of the poorest members of its society. With 22% of the nation’s workers officially listed as unemployed by the government (and an additional 22% of the workforce who have stopped looking for work), the nation’s bold efforts to create an innovation society marked by broad-based social and economic well-being has clearly not penetrated the nation’s ‘second’ economy. And, although an increasing number of South Africans can satisfy their basic needs (most notably, access to potable water), 25% of households still lack access to both adequate sanitation and electricity.

Universally Unique

As an unusual country with an unusual history, from the moment that South Africa began its journey for democracy, it has deftly navigated the difficult terrain of its past to reach a better future.

South Africa, of course, was never a member of the first world of rich industrialized countries (pervasive poverty and apartheid kept it outside the circle of wealthy nations). Nor, of course, was it ever a member of the second world of communist countries. And, it is fair to say that South Africa was never a full-fledged member of the third world either – racism (sadly) and science (happily) made that so. Indeed it is useful to recall that South Africa was subject to international sanctions and an embargo that prevented both goods and people from travelling freely to other countries, including the neighbouring countries of Africa. That made South Africans strangers even on their own continent.

South Africa has thus had to make its modern journey of discovery (or should we say rediscovery), in large part, by devising its own roadmap for reform based on its unique cultural, social and scientific terrain.


Its efforts, nonetheless, reveal a great deal to the rest of the world about both science and our global society: for example, the ability of science to flourish in different political contexts, even within the same country, and to operate within each of these contexts in productive and useful ways; the fact that it is easier for modern science to serve the needs of innovation and global competitiveness than it is for it to fight poverty and improve the status of marginalized populations; the continuing relevance of the often forgotten truism that science is not an end-all to all of society’s problems but simply a tool for progress that must serve a broad range of societal needs; and, ultimately, that fields of scientific inquiry operate best within a political environment whose primary goal is to both advance the economy and create a more equitable and harmonious society.

Over the past 15 years, South Africa’s scientists and technologists have often been remarkably successful at applying their expertise to address the challenges of the ‘first’ economy – contributing substantially to the nation’s efforts to improve its global presence in science and its ability to compete in the global economy. However, South Africa’s scientific community – and, more importantly, government – have been less successful at utilizing scientific expertise to address the challenges of the nation’s ‘second’ economy, including such issues as poverty alleviation, job creation and equity.

South Africa’s growing presence on the international stage is undoubtedly a long way from where it stood less than two decades ago as an isolated and censured country. Yet, in its openness and relevance, what South Africa shows us all today is that we still have a long way to go in our efforts to create a paradigm for science-based sustainable development that proves beneficial for all.

South Africa is indeed a remarkable country finding its way in the remarkable times in which we live. And, for this reason as much as any other, it deserves the growing attention that it is now receiving from the rest of the world.