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Scaling Up Science In South Africa

Government tries to grow a competitive research enterprise in five key areas

by Britt E. Erickson
December 17, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 51

Credit: Britt Erickson/C&EN
Photo of Derek Hanekom, Minister of Science & Technology, South Africa.
Credit: Britt Erickson/C&EN

South Africa’s scientific research output is less than 0.5% of the total global output. The country has high aspirations of boosting that number through investments in research and workforce development. But with major social challenges, such as poverty and disease, and an unemployment rate hovering around 25%, South Africa is struggling to revitalize itself as a contributor to global science.

Overseeing an annual R&D budget of about $500 million, Derek A. Hanekom, South Africa’s recently appointed minister of science and technology, recognizes that it won’t be easy for South Africa to become a major player in science and innovation. But he is confident that investing in human capital—the people who are going to generate knowledge—will reposition South Africa to compete on the global stage.


Scaling Up Science In South Africa

Hanekom took office in October, at about the halfway point of the Department of Science & Technology’s 10-year strategy, which was developed in 2008. He intends to stick with the five R&D priorities that were identified at that time. They are human and social dynamics, energy security, bioeconomy, global change, and space science.

The current administration sees those five areas as critically important, but priorities could shift after the next general election in 2014.

In one of his first moves since taking the helm, Hanekom approved an extra $90 million over three years to train graduate students and interns, increase funding for emerging researchers—particularly women and black scientists—and create six new centers of excellence. The centers, first established in 2004, attract highly skilled scientists and enable researchers to collaborate across disciplines in areas deemed locally important and internationally competitive.

Hanekom is no stranger to the Department of Science & Technology. He served as its deputy minister for eight years before assuming the top post. He has strong ties with the African National Congress (ANC), the current national governing party in South Africa. He spent more than two years in prison during the 1980s for working with the then-banned ANC during apartheid. He also served as the minister of agriculture and land affairs during former president Nelson Mandela’s term in office, from 1994 to 1999.

For the past two-and-a-half months, Hanekom has been jet-setting across South Africa to various speaking engagements and flying regularly between offices in Pretoria and Cape Town. C&EN had a brief opportunity to meet with him last month during one of his stops in Cape Town.

In a spacious office overlooking Table Mountain, in the high-security Parliament building downtown, Hanekom sipped a cup of rooibos tea—a popular tea grown only in South Africa—and candidly spoke about where he thinks science in South Africa is headed.

The biggest challenge is getting South Africa to spend more money on R&D, he told C&EN. The South African government is struggling to spend close to 1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) on R&D, and private-sector R&D is declining, he noted.

Credit: Mike Hutchings/Reuters/Newscom
South Africa’s growing wine industry is being threatened by rising social tensions in the Western Cape. Farmworkers seen here went on strike earlier this month, demanding a daily wage of 150 rand, about $17, or about twice as much as they currently receive.
Photo shows farmworkers marching for higher wages during a strike called by the Confederation of South African Trade Unions in Franschoek, near Cape Town, December 4, 2012.
Credit: Mike Hutchings/Reuters/Newscom
South Africa’s growing wine industry is being threatened by rising social tensions in the Western Cape. Farmworkers seen here went on strike earlier this month, demanding a daily wage of 150 rand, about $17, or about twice as much as they currently receive.

South Africa gradually increased how much it spent on R&D from 0.67% of its GDP when the country was democratized in 1994 to a peak of 0.95% in 2007. But the latest figures show that number has slipped to 0.92%. “Our target at the moment is to get to 1.50%, hopefully by 2016,” Hanekom said, acknowledging that meeting this goal is going to be “tough.”

In line with the 10-year strategy, Hanekom intends to move South Africa toward a knowledge-based economy. To achieve that outcome “you need an institutional framework in place that will encourage both the generation and the transfer of knowledge,” he said.

Hanekom pointed to the mining sector as an example of where earnings could be optimized through the transfer of cutting-edge technologies from the research sector to industry. South Africa has about 80% of the world’s titanium, he said. The department has set up a pilot plant to develop a cost-effective, novel way of producing titanium powder using laser technology. The titanium powder will ultimately be converted into aerospace components using three-dimensional manufacturing technologies.

The goal is to transform the mining sector from an exporter of raw resources into an exporter of value-added products. “We want to optimize potential earnings through value addition,” Hanekom said.

Of the five areas identified in the 10-year strategy, Hanekom is most passionate about human and social dynamics. “In a country coming from an apartheid system, we have major social challenges that need to be understood,” he said. Research is needed on the effects of poverty and responses to poverty, on education and the education system, and on cultural diversity, he stressed. Such research is important because it “helps us target our government programs and understand the extent to which they are having the desired impact.”

In terms of energy security, South Africa plans to invest in research on renewables, such as solar and wind, and clean energy technologies, Hanekom noted. South Africa currently gets about 90% of its electricity from coal, about 5% from a nuclear reactor in Cape Town, and about 5% from hydroelectric plants. Nonhydroelectric renewables contribute an insignificant amount to the country’s electricity production.

South Africa At A Glance

Key economic sectors: Agriculture, energy, manufacturing, mining services, tourism, transport

R&D priorities: Bioeconomy, energy security, global change, human and social dynamics, space science

Unemployment rate: 25.5% (third quarter 2012)

Population: 50.6 million (2011)

Number of universities: 23

Share of global research output: 0.4%

Amount of gross domestic product spent on R&D: 0.92%

South Africa is considering more nuclear power, but after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan in March 2011, the government will “have to do some careful reflection,” Hanekom said. “We do have uranium in South Africa, and we do have coal,” he noted, adding that the cost of coal is rising every year. But the cost of running a coal-fired plant is still less expensive than the cost of constructing a new nuclear power plant.

Boosting South Africa’s bioeconomy has become a top R&D priority for the country. In the next few months, the Department of Science & Technology plans to release a broad bioeconomy strategy, Hanekom said. From farmer to pharma, the strategy will focus on biotechnology and realizing the potential of South Africa’s biological resources and rich biodiversity. The main areas of funding will be in agriculture, health, and industrial applications.

The goal of the bioeconomy strategy is to make biotechnology a useful tool in agriculture, to get better results from the agricultural sector, and to address health-related challenges. A particular emphasis of the strategy will be on getting new drugs to market, Hanekom said.

About 5.5 million people are infected with HIV in South Africa, the largest number in any single country, representing approximately 18% of the population aged 15 to 49. Many of those HIV-infected people also have tuberculosis.

Some people blame the country’s former president, Thabo M. Mbeki, who served two terms from 1999 to 2008, for South Africa’s high incidence of HIV. Mbeki, and his minister of health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, questioned the link between HIV and AIDS. Mbeki banned anti­retrovirals from use in public state hospitals.

The current president, Jacob G. Zuma, reversed the ban when he took office in 2009 and pledged to ramp up HIV prevention and treatment programs for children and high-risk groups. Zuma launched a campaign in 2010 to promote HIV testing and counseling, publicly disclosing that the results of his own HIV test were negative. Zuma was acquitted in a 2006 rape trial, in which he told the court that he had unprotected sex with his HIV-positive accuser.

South Africa’s HIV testing campaign appears to be making a difference. “People who are HIV positive are living longer,” Hanekom said. Antiretrovirals are available, and more and more HIV-infected people are taking them. In addition, pills are now available to help prevent the transmission of HIV to people who have not yet acquired the virus.

The challenge is to reach as many people as possible and make treatments as affordable as possible. Pharmaceuticals are one of South Africa’s biggest imports, Hanekom pointed out. Importing the active ingredient in HIV/AIDS drugs remains a major cost, he said.

In an effort to cut import costs, the South African government is partnering with South Africa-based fluorochemical company Pelchem and Switzerland-based pharmaceutical company Lonza to build a $200 million pharmaceutical plant about 21 miles west of Pretoria that will produce the active ingredients in HIV/AIDS drugs.

In terms of agriculture, South Africa is focusing its efforts on biotechnology research that could improve crop yields. South Africa is a net exporter of agricultural products, and as in most developing countries that are industrializing, agriculture’s percentage of GDP is declining. Nonetheless agriculture remains an important employer in South Africa.

The three main crops in South Africa are maize, soy, and cotton, but the country grows a variety of different crops because of its diverse climatic zones and conditions. For example, the country is known for its deciduous and citrus fruits, tropical fruits, kiwi, and avocados. However, much of the country is semiarid and only suitable for raising livestock. In these regions, wool is a relatively large export product.

Wine is also a fairly large export product (see page 16). “New grape cultivars are doing better with a greater degree of climatic divergence,” Hanekom pointed out. “We are seeing production in areas that were a couple of decades ago deemed not suitable for wine production, especially for white wines.”

The growth of the wine industry is a result of research funded by the wine industry, although the government does provide some money, particularly for human capital development and laboratory equipment. In some cases, the government’s Agricultural Research Council contributes 49% of the funding for a research project, and the wine industry pays the rest, said Gerard Martin, executive manager of Winetech, a group that serves as a liaison between wine researchers and the South African wine industry.

Another R&D priority for South Africa is global change, particularly research on the effects of climate change and how human activity alters the environment. Earlier this month, South Africa’s National Space Agency signed an agreement with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre to leverage resources in the area of remote-sensing technologies for monitoring atmospheric, terrestrial, and marine environments. The goal of the partnership is to better understand the dynamics of the environment and to develop technologies to support agricultural monitoring and disaster risk reduction.

A final R&D priority is space science. With vast amounts of land devoid of people, the Northern Cape has become a popular site for radio astronomy. Earlier this year, the Department of Science & Technology made a successful bid for South Africa to cohost the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an ambitious project involving multiple countries, to build the world’s largest radio telescope.

The core SKA site, in the Karoo region of South Africa where sheep outnumber people, is expected to host 2,000 telescope dishes, each about 40-50 feet in diameter, by 2024. An additional 1,000 dishes will be spread across South Africa and eight other African countries by the same target date. Seven prototype dishes called the KAT-7 are already in place at the core site.

“A few years ago South Africans knew very little about radio astronomy. Now we are playing a leading role in the biggest scientific project the world has ever seen,” said SKA Project Director Bernie Fanaroff.

“SKA is reversing the brain drain. It is creating a critical mass of young engineers and scientists with expertise in next-generation technologies,” Fanaroff noted.

The Department of Science & Technology sees SKA as a way to expand South Africa’s high-tech industry and build science capacity. South African engineers are playing a leading role in the design and manufacturing of the SKA precursor dishes, as well as in developing technologies for handling the massive amounts of data SKA will receive.

It is unclear how much the project will ultimately cost, but “from a scientist’s perspective, there’s a little bit of anxiety about how much of the science budget SKA will take,” said Neil Coville, a materials chemistry professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg. Nonetheless, “it will create jobs for physicists for years to come,” he acknowledged.

Hanekom believes that free access to the scientific literature will be essential for SKA and other South African research endeavors to succeed. “Information will need to be shared around the clock between Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Americas,” he told attendees at a gala dinner last month held in conjunction with the Berlin 10 Open Access Conference, in Stellenbosch. Unfortunately, not all African institutions can afford pricey journal subscriptions, he stressed.


Hanekom encouraged researchers to publish in open-access journals. Open access will put South African research in the spotlight and help boost the country’s research output, he said. The trick is to find the right balance between adequate intellectual property protection, which provides incentive for researchers to develop new products, and the right to access knowledge, he noted. “Knowledge should not be the domain of the few, but knowledge should be made available to the many in the public interest.”

As South Africa moves toward a more knowledge-based economy and tries to increase its research output, it faces what some people are calling hangover issues, or the enduring effects of colonization and apartheid. “We have to get real about the context we are operating in,” said Michelle Willmers, manager of the Scholarly Communication in Africa Programme at the University of Cape Town. Inequality in health care and education, the digital divide, extreme gender disparity, and problems of corruption—those, she said, are the challenges confronting South Africa today.