South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa left scientists out of his ‘new dawn’ rhetoric last week, scarcely mentioning research or science in his State of the Nation Address on 7 February.
Speaking before an uncharacteristically sedate parliament, Ramaphosa announced a presidential commission on the fourth industrial revolution, a leitmotif since his days as deputy president.
The commission “will identify and recommend policies, strategies and plans that will position South Africa as a global competitive player within the digital revolution space”, he said.
He also promised that new scientific subjects would be introduced in schools, including technical mathematics, maritime science, aviation studies, mining, robotics and artificial intelligence, and aquaponics.
Ramaphosa said South Africa faces the “stark choice” of using technology for development or being overtaken by technological change. He did not explicitly mention science or research, except for touting the government’s achievements in supporting the former, especially in astronomy.
Parliament speaks out
In contrast, the state of the nation debate on 12 February made more mention of science, technology and university-related business.
MPs heard higher education minister Naledi Pandor say the government is working to resolve the protests at the country’s universities. “It is imperative that we don’t allow any person to hijack legitimate protests for political mischief,” she said.
Pandor, while championing the advances in science and research made by the ruling African National Congress (she was previously science minister), said that the country still needs more young people in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, as well as more postgraduate students.
Speakers for opposition party the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) echoed their recently published manifesto, and placed more emphasis on science and research during the debate than the ANC or the other opposition parties.
The EFF’s Delisile Ngwenya said that the country will be “condemned to self-immolation” if it does not invest more in research. “We must, as a matter urgency, prioritise our research and development, and science and technology to ensure that our young people are equipped at an early age to deal with requirements in the era of the fourth industrial revolution,“ she said.
EFF leader Julius Malema said that the government should do away with deputy ministers and reduce the cabinet. “Why can’t we merge education and science and technology together?” he asked.
He also criticised Pandor for failing to engage with university protests: “People are being killed, universities are burning and she is nowhere.”
The largest opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, made almost no mention of science, research or innovation during its responses to Ramaphosa’s address. Much of the DA’s intervention focused on issues of corruption, crime, service delivery and the 2019 elections. Only Yusuf Cassim mentioned that university education is in crisis and that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme “is a complete shamble”.