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Don’t comment on Ukraine, South African science bodies told


Government urges science organisations not to discuss war and says it will maintain Russian ties

The South African government has told its science agencies not to make public comments about the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, as it insisted ties with Russia should be maintained despite the nation’s attack on its neighbour.

The demand for silence—made by a senior Department of Science and Innovation official—is in stark contrast to many of South Africa’s close scientific cooperation partners, such as the European Union, which is rolling back support for science in Russia in protest at that country’s military actions in Ukraine

Research Professional News understands that some scientists in South Africa are deeply unhappy with the country’s stance. A scientist employed at a South African government research entity, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that while the government had previously warned entities against making policy-critical statements, none have been “so targeted”. 

“They seem to be concerned their subsidiaries might join the global outcry against Russia and support for Ukraine that other academic institutions around the world have rallied around,” the employee said.

‘No implications’ for partnerships

South Africa has several science partnerships with Russia, including as a southern hemisphere node of Master-Net, a global network of small robotic telescopes operated from Russia. South Africa also engages scientifically with Russia through the BRICS bloc of emerging global economies, which includes Brazil, India, and China. 

The South African government told Research Professional News that its science cooperation with Russia is not affected by the ongoing crisis. “There are no implications for our bilateral science and innovation relations with Russia, and no bilateral engagements are being cancelled or delayed,” it said in a statement.

But public science organisations are being told not to comment publicly about the matter. In an email dated 1 March, a senior official from the Department of Science and Innovation official instructed colleagues at the department, the National Research Foundation and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory that DSI entities “should not engage in any action of any kind, which could be construed as a political commentary or political reaction to the developments in Ukraine”.

Asked to comment on the email, which Research Professional News has seen, the department said: “The Department of Science and Innovation and its entities will not be commenting on this matter. The competent government department which represents South Africa on international relations is the Department of International Relations and Cooperation.”

Diplomatic solution

The DSI’s response lines up with South Africa’s broader policy on the Russia-Ukraine conflict. A South African government statement on 1 March said peace was best built through “diplomacy and dialogue”. It noted “with concern” that other long-standing conflicts have not received the same attention from the UN security council as that in Ukraine, and highlighted the reported ill-treatment of Africans trying to flee the country. 

On 2 March, South Africa abstained from a United Nations resolution “deploring” Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Many international and regional research organisations have expressed support for their colleagues in Ukraine. One of them is the African Astronomical Society, which is based at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Cape Town, but which operates independently of the country’s government. 

On 28 February, in a joint statement with sister organisations in Europe and America, Afas expressed “great concern” at events unfolding in Ukraine. “The current events jeopardise the scientific cooperation within our European community and with the rest of the world,” said the statement, signed by Afas’ Algerian president Jamal Mimouni.