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Will science be part of Ramaphosa’s new dawn?

Image: ITU Pictures [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The African National Congress has won the 8 May elections and Cyril Ramaphosa will again be president of South Africa. Will his ‘new dawn’ extend to science?

South Africa’s sixth parliament convened for the first time on 22 May, with Ramaphosa elected for his first full term as president. All attention now moves to Pretoria on 25 May, when he will be sworn in as the country’s fourth democratically elected president.

The ANC has said that Ramaphosa’s cabinet will be announced after the inauguration, as will parliamentary portfolio committee chairs and members. This will be Ramaphosa’s first proper cabinet, the previous one being a hodgepodge of predecessor Jacob Zuma’s team and a few appointments to solidify his “new dawn” narrative.

As the president settles down at the Union Buildings, the foremost questions for scientists will be: Who will be the science minister? Will there even be a dedicated science ministry for her or him to lead?

Reading the runes

Since taking over from Zuma in February 2018, Ramaphosa has made notable changes to the way science is governed.

He moved long-serving minister Naledi Pandor from the Department of Science and Technology to Higher Education and Training, replacing her with Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane. Pandor was popular with scientists and drove many of the DST’s prominent projects, including the recent science White Paper and the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. She strongly backed transformation in science, with a focus on promoting black women scientists.

During her short tenure, Kubayi-Ngubane has overseen a period of uncharacteristic turbulence for the normally smooth-running DST. First there was the obscure issue of spy cameras found in her office. Next came the more serious concern of high-level staff resignations. The DST’s administration has been steady for years under director-general Phil Mjwara. Many scientists will hope to see this continue.

Pandor, on the other hand, moved to the much larger and more contentious DHET. She began by swiftly reining in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which implements the promise of fee-free higher education for the poor.  

Now, scientists might hope that Ramaphosa picks someone with a research background to take charge of science, but this is unlikely. The internal politics of the ANC will probably be the deciding factor for who heads up positions in cabinet. And while it’s difficult to imagine a cabinet without Pandor, a close ally of Ramaphosa, it’s anyone’s guess whether she will stay at DHET or move elsewhere, and who will hold the reins at the DST come next week.

Mergers and factions

Pandor could end up as Ramaphosa’s second-in-command. After all, she was his original choice for ANC deputy president—an office that usually becomes a shoo-in for that of deputy president of the country.

Pandor was replaced by David Mabuza in a compromise at the ANC elective conference in 2017 which saw Ramaphosa beat former African Union Commission head Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the ANC presidency. But with Mabuza falling foul of the ANC internal disciplinary committee, meaning he is not among MPs who will be sworn in on 22 May, the vice-president slot is wide open.

The uncertainties don’t end there. It’s also unclear whether the current ministerial briefs—that currently separate science, basic and higher education—will survive for long in Ramaphosa’s cabinet. A persistent rumour has it that the DST will be merged with another government department, like the DHET.

Ramaphosa will certainly reduce his cabinet: he has hinted at this more than once. The DST is one of the smaller departments in terms of budget, and research is split between various government departments. Doing away with it might make sense. But if the DST is picked for a merger, it’s fair to ask what will happen to its relatively clean audits and good performance scores. Will they survive?

Cutting deputy ministers has also been suggested as a way to slim down the public sector. If the DST survives, its deputy minister probably will not: Zanele Magwaza-Msibi has been absent from government duties for most of her tenure.

As for science…

Ramaphosa’s minister with responsibility for science and research will have plenty to deal with.  The DST budget has been shrinking for years despite partisan support for its work and widespread calls for an increase in science spending.

Ramaphosa has been more vocal about science than Zuma, but the national budget remains tight and economic growth slow. South Africa’s national R&D spend has flatlined, with business R&D fingered as one of the culprits. Ramaphosa, a billionaire businessman, will need to find a way to reignite industry R&D spending.

Meanwhile, racial and gender transformation of the research sector remains a key issue. Black researchers are still not publishing as much as their white counterparts, and the National Research Foundation’s highest rated researchers and celebrity scientists remain white and male. The country’s universities continue to tussle with racism and decolonisation.

Controversy over the DHET’s publication subsidy system has re-emerged in recent months after a report found that some researchers exploit it. No one is particularly happy with the present system. Large sums of money are involved, and careers still depend on publication. Ramaphosa’s ministers will have to take decisive action on how to proceed.

Time to govern

The White Paper on science, voted through in the eleventh hour of the last Parliament, gives government an audacious mandate for science. It highlights many of the problems plaguing science in South Africa and envisions science as a tool to address the country’s many socio-economic problems, including drastic inequality.

The practical implications and implementation of the white paper will be a challenge for Ramaphosa’s government. Many of the document’s themes will be familiar to researchers and they will expect swift action.

One of the themes we will definitely hear more about is the fourth industrial revolution. Ramaphosa is a fan; it has been one of his most mentioned science topics, and he has established a commission to oversee it.

Then there are the country’s troubled state-owned entities. Stalled research at SOEs mired by corruption and mismanagement allegations has been blamed for South Africa’s stagnating R&D spend. Ramaphosa has proposed an overhaul of the SOEs, but has remained mum on research.

On the international front, South Africa’s collaboration with Africa in science has boomed, but collaboration still favours the global North. Will South Africa under Ramaphosa look towards its own continent?

It is clear that South African science needs a firm hand to steer it over the next few years, on its own or as part of a larger, merged department. The question is, can Ramaphosa find the person—and the money—to make it happen?

What is your view? Should South Africa have a separate science ministry? Who would be your choice as science minister? Tell us about it in the comment section below or @ResearchAfrica on Twitter.