|22. June 2015
Naledi Pandor in Vienna: Science for peace, economic development and mutual understanding
South Africa's Minister for Science and Technology, Mrs Naledi Pandor, was one of the opening speakers of the recent Science and Technology 2015 Conference held in Vienna, Austria. Bernhard Bouzek from the Southern Africa Documentation and Co-operation Centre (SADOCC) spoke to the Minister on the role of science in South Africa and beyond.
SADOCC: Your Excellency, you are attending a CTBTO conference here in Vienna. Together with Austria and around 100 other countries, South Africa is working on a strategy to ban nuclear weapons, because of humanitarian reasons. Do you see any progress or willingness at the side of nuclear powers?
Naledi Pandor: Well, South Africa was one of the first countries to get rid of nuclear weapons. And so we were very much an activist group in support in forming such an institution as CTBTO. But we remain concerned, that the early commitment by many counties when the treaty was developed has not been translated into full ratification of the treaty. And we would like to see action by more countries who possess nuclear weapons to ensure that the world is nuclear weapon free. I think this is a political commitment that countries had made and it’s our desire as South Africa that the obligations are honoured.
SADOCC: South Africa has given up voluntarily its nuclear arms program many years ago. From this historic background and experience, are there any „lessons learned“ that you could teach to any other country which is close to acquire nuclear arms, for example Iran?
Naledi Pandor: I think it’s a matter of diplomacy, reaching an agreement on nuclear weapons. I think the world powers should be a leading example of commitment. Often the fact that powerful countries have a large arsenal tends to be a motivation for others to similarly possess such weapons. I think, those most powerful should lead by example. The lessons for us have been that converting the capability that has been developed into powerful energy for peaceful use. We have a nuclear power station and we are focusing much more on new sources of electricity, because it is a scarce resource in our country and so we are going to proceed with the building of another nuclear power station. And we will do this in partnership with the treaty organization and already we work with the IAEA to support us for this nuclear build. Whatever we do in regard to nuclear, we do it under the auspices of the international treaty and South Africa is committed not just formally entering in these treaties but to practically act in response to them.
SADOCC: Your Excellency, you are the Minister for Science and Technology. South Africa is a partner in the Square Kilometre Array Project. This radio-telescope technology will hopefully lead to a better understanding of the creation of the universe. Can you explain why it is important for South Africa to be a partner in this project?
Naledi Pandor: Well, when we were developing our new science, technology and innovation strategy we had as a country to look at what be of value for us to pursue, which will help us to keep innovative capabilities, but also to develop our human capacities in South Africa through research and we decided on two important areas to look at. The first was to look at our geographic advantage. What makes South Africa different? For example, if you look at the issue of climate change we are surrounded by to oceans. In the south we have the conjunction of the Indian and the Atlantic Ocean. When the two meet, they create very interesting weather and with sometimes contradictory elements worth to study. They tell us a lot about the world in the south and what we should to pay attention to climate change. So the geographic advantage came up as an important part of determining our science program. One other geographical advantage of South Africa is, that it has large expands of land which is absolutely pristine in terms of wireless interference and given a large community of astronomers in the country and a long history of astronomy sciences, we decided to invest in astronomy science. We realize that many countries have developed scientific capability through fist class scientific infrastructure. So we began in the early 1990s to with an optical telescope called SALT (Southern African Large Telescope), build in the Northern Cape. You could have that, because in that area, which in actually the coldest part of South Africa, you have the clearest sky and so for optical astronomy it’s the best place to be. So this facility attracted hundreds of researchers as well as post-graduate students to this little town of Sutherland and allowed us to participate in developing world class research papers. So having developed SALT, when we had the opportunity for a large radio telescope came up, we put in a bit, and again it’s the Northern Cape that is the sight, because we have an area there that is wireless free absolutely silent and therefore it’s a key area for astronomy. We were very excited after three to four years of biding, that we were chosen to have the majority of the radio telescope build in South Africa with the counterpart build in Australia. Thirty Percent will be built in Australia and seventy present will be built in Africa. So South Africa was not biding alone, we were biding with eight other African partners, so we will have remote sights in order to form the Square Kilometre Array. The intention of the SKA was the gathering of a large amount of data which we would then combine with the optical pictures at SALT.
SADOCC: In a press release you said recently, that science and innovation can be driving forces for future growth. Many people simply say, that science needs huge funding, that the outcomes are sometimes unclear or have little economic value. What would you answer those critics?
Naledi Pandor: I find that a very strange comment. Because it we didn’t have science we wouldn’t have the internet. For example wireless technology developed from early astronomy, so we believe that in fact science can help you to prepare for a better future. We in Africa have a problem with a number of diseases and these diseases are often neglected an ignored by the rest of the world. We are investing in new treatments, new diagnostic tools in order to be more efficient in addressing these diseases. We are focusing on HIV/AIDS, we have a large vaccine program, looking at a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, and also to develop a second line the treatment of antiretroviral drugs. So we do believe that science can build a better future. One of the things we are looking at out of our work in AIDS is to develop a drug production facility in South Africa, because we believe that if we discover new drugs or new types of prevention we want to put it commercially in the pharmacological sector through manufacturing plants in South Africa. So that is an economical potential. In addition we invest in innovation in supporting knowledge works to convert their knowledge into products. It’s a very weak area in the scientific system in Africa, we tend to loose intellectual property to the West, because the minute our scientist present a paper at a conference, some else gains the profit. So we have created institutions together with our universities to create start-ups and also to make sure they follow the law and convert their knowledge into intellectual property which can be then commercialised and put in a product that can be produced in South Africa or elsewhere in the world. I firmly believe that science is a driving force for the future in a range of sectors like energy, water, health and even indigenous knowledge, which is an area we are developing. Millions of our people are going to these traditional healers and now we have begun to use our universities to study these traditional herbs and find out what is the active property that leads to the cure of flue etc. Once we have the scientific understanding, than we can quality assure them and put them in a commercial pharmacy as a drug that is certified and actually provides the treatment which only a few people know of previously. This is a huge area of growth in South Africa. At the moment we are looking at two candidate drugs. One for HIV, which increases immunity and the second drug is for tuberculosis. Both of these are traditional herbs that come out of a traditional community and if we hadn’t invested in a science program focused on traditional African medicine we would never be aware of these drugs.
SADOCC: Education experts are telling us, that a successful society has to invest in its youth, teach science in an attractive way and strengthen skills like mathematics. Under Apartheid rule the majority of the population was excluded from science and until recently black students showed weaker results in mathematic exams. What must be done to achieve more equality in science and create more equal opportunities?
Naledi Pandor: I think that educational change takes many years and we are not going to easily overcome the effects of Apartheid, but I believe we have taken the right steps as South Africa. Firstly we have made education compulsory for ten years for all children. And we offer maths and science to all children in the country. We are also investing in a school infrastructure program to ensure all schools have science laboratories, libraries and technology rooms. There has been an enormous investment in the quality of our student. In addition we have to train our teachers better, because teachers were discouraged from pursuing mathematics and we have to build up their competences so that they are confident in teaching the subject. We must also introduce children to science early. My department runs a very vibrant “Youth into science” program, where we have annual “Olympias”, we have a “National week for science”, we open up science centres and we open up universities. We also have “Science weeks” in the private sector, where we again focus on schools. In cooperation with the department of education we promote science in schools and therefore strengthen mathematics skills. We won’t see fast results, but over time I have no doubt that our students will do very well in maths and science.
SADOCC: Can the Sci Bono Discovery Centre in Newton, Johannesburg, be helpful in this approach?
Naledi Pandor: Certainly yes, I support Sci Bono. It’s large and expensive though, but what we do is, we establish science centres in rural areas. We usually create them next to a university, so that the university can help us with running the science centre or we build them next to community facilities like the city hall or a local school. We have built thirty-six nation-wide and I would like to see one in every municipality ward. They are very expensive, my department is not the best funded, but it’s something that we are expanding.
SADOCC: Another scientific hotspot is Sterkfontein cave. New archeologic findings are just spectacular. Do we have to rewrite human history?
Naledi Pandor: Not really rewrite, but what we are doing is using the work of the palaeontologists to understand our origin better and I think Africa has to claim its place in being the continent we all came from. It tells us a different story about Africa, because we tend to say Africa is a wild place out there and we don’t associate ourselves with the continent, but the oldest fossil discoveries are from Sterkfontein and other parts of the African continent, like Kenia and Ethiopia. So I hope that the whole story of human origin needs to be told much better to the world in order to build a new consciousness about how we are related whatever our colour is. In fact our DNA is absolutely complementary and it’s just the features that differ, so in fact we are the same people. If we want to fight discrimination, these are some of the messages we should convey. I think the fossil findings must be used for building understanding, for respect and diversity and for reducing our superior attitude towards each other.
SADOCC: Let me change the topic from human history to human rights. The South African constitution guarantees rights for LGBTI-persons. The South African Academy recently published a report, saying that homosexuality is evident in all populations, that you cannot change someone’s sexual orientation and that there is no “cure” of homosexuality and so on. What is the relevance of this report regarding the ongoing discussion in Kwa Zulu-Natal, Zimbabwe and even in Uganda?
Naledi Pandor: Well, there is no debate in Kwa Zulu-Natal, I mean the constitution in South Africa is law, it’s not just some document. No one can discriminate against any person on the basis of sexual orientation. But of course people in South Africa have the right of freedom of speech to say what they want, but they cannot promote hate-speech. Whatever someone in Kwa Zulu-Natal says, the law says, that people are protected. Our interest is, how we can protect our national context and how we articulate human rights on the continent as well as internationally. Because it’s not just Zimbabwe that is negative, there are many countries in the world. We tend to focus on Africa when it comes to the exclusion of others, but there are many others. We are very progressive in our country, and we are committed to that as parliament. We recognize civil union, marriage of persons of the same sex is in our law and we respect sexual orientation. What individuals say in their thought, it doesn’t influence the law of our country.
SADOCC: And towards other African countries, do you have a strategy? Would you address this topic?
Naledi Pandor: If it comes up in an appropriate way, we would state our position and we would indicate, that we regard it as very peculiar to discriminate against a person on the basis of sexual orientation, gender, race or other dimensions that are mentioned in our constitution. So we always articulate our perspective, but in the end it is the decision of the countries what they do. I think we are very fortunate to have a very strong NGO sector that stands as almost a watch dog to ensure that there is no preach in terms of this particular sets of rights and I think those NGOs are working with other organizations on the African continent and perhaps together they would confront these issues. I must say in Uganda the parliament and government had to retreat, because their court ruled very differently from the way the parliament was trying. So there are hopeful signals even in Uganda and we would hope, that in the end everybody would realise that all persons are equal and must be treated equally by law.
SADOCC: Finally let me ask you: “Have you met any high-ranking Austrian politicians and do you see areas of cooperation that can be improved?
Naledi Pandor: I met briefly the Foreign Secretary and this afternoon I meet my colleague, Minister for Business, and we will be entering into a memorandum of understanding which our countries had been discussing for a year or two and finally we will sign it later this year. It will provide a formal basis for collaboration in science between South Africa and Austria. I must say that our scientists are well ahead of us, because across the universities they are working together. So we are just formalising our relationship as government departments, but the scientists have long being collaborating and now they will have a framework where government will be able to support. I think we will create a joint pool of funds with specified areas in science. We also have strong links with the International Institute for Systems Analysis (IIASA) and we have copied their program - a summer training - for postgraduate students in South Africa. So we partner with IIASA to host a program, where young graduates from the whole world are invited. I met some of the successful postgraduate students here in Vienna serving an internship after doing very well in the South African summer program. So this is a very good collaboration and we intend to grow it.
SADOCC: Thank you for the interview.