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Africa: 2023 year in review

Some bright spots illuminate year in which campus unrest persisted and fossil spaceflight sparked outrage

As 2022 drew to a close, South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa stood up in front of the World Science Forum, the first held in Africa, and called for a fresh pact between science and society.

“What matters is not the fact that we have participated in the World Science Forum here in Cape Town, but rather what we will do as a consequence to improve the lives of others, making our world a more just one,” he told the gathering.

Twelve months on, there are glimmers of hope. In July, an Africa-led charter for equitable research collaborations was launched at a meeting in Namibia of vice-chancellors from universities around the world.

The year also saw progress in Africa’s quest to produce its own vaccines, in the wake of Covid-19 exposing inequities of access. Training and equipment funding for African vaccine manufacturing was followed this month by a financing mechanism that could add US$1 billion to the industry over a decade.

And at the African Academy of Sciences, the election of a new executive board—the first led by a woman since the academy’s creation in 1985—raised hopes of an end to the infighting that saw the body stripped of donor funding in 2021.

South Africa’s campus unrest continued

In South Africa, universities continued to experience unrest. The year started with a tragedy, when a murder attempt on University of Free State vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu claimed the life of his bodyguard, Mboneli Vesele, on 6 January.

Discontent focused on South Africa’s embattled National Student Financial Aid Scheme. The introduction of a direct payment system for student financial aid was attacked for its unreliability and high fees. When NSFAS defunded nearly 46,000 students that it said had lied on their applications, it added fuel to protests.

The unrest threatened university finances, umbrella group Universities South Africa warned in August. It welcomed the decision by NSFAS in October to terminate the contracts with the new payment contractors after an independent investigation found irregularities with the awarding of the deals.

Mudslinging and court battles

At the University of Cape Town, the early departure in March of vice-chancellor Mamokgethi Phakeng amid allegations—dismissed by Phakeng—that she had misled leadership structures and bullied colleagues elicited mixed reactions. Phakeng’s backers saw traces of racism in the circumstances that saw Phakeng take early retirement, while her detractors celebrated.

In November, a long-awaited independent investigation into UCT’s governance problems found in favour of Phakeng’s critics, saying the former vice-chancellor and former council chair Babalwa Ngonyama “mendaciously misled” the university about the resignation of a senior figure at the institution, and that her leadership style had influenced a spate of resignations. UCT took the report to heart, promising to do better, while Phakeng rejected its content.

Meanwhile, the University of South Africa spent the second half of the year in a protracted court battle with the department of higher education over the latter’s efforts to replace the university’s board with a government-appointed administrator.

In May, a report found mismanagement, financial irregularities and academic malpractice at the institution. The university asked to take the report on review, and legal challenges saw universities minister Blade Nzimande forced to back down on the appointment of Ihron Rensburg to lead the university.

Bones of contention

The launch of a pair of hominin South African fossils into space inside a foreign billionaire’s pocket was arguably the most talked-about African science story of the past year.

While the scientist behind the September feat defended it as a bold way of showcasing South African science prowess, the scientific community at large branded it a “publicity stunt” with neocolonial overtones.

The acrimony sparked by the fossil spaceflight was not exactly in line with the “fresh pact” between science and society that Ramaphosa had called for nine months earlier. As a new year beckons, there are plenty of things that African science could do better.