Ghosts of past haunt present

February 24, 1995

Isaac Amuah and Malegapuru W. Makgoba argue that a national assessment of science is needed to start afresh.

The science and technology enterprise in South Africa is a product of a flawed civil society, a society now debunked. Change offers a rare opportunity to get "back to basics".

The old system had neither integrity nor legitimacy. It was marked by waste, fragmentation, personal agendas and limited national agendas, and lack of articulation. It was driven chiefly by the policies of apartheid.

Security and defence drove the development of science and technology. Ventures such as Sasol and Mosgass, designed to forecast and meet the energy needs of apartheid South Africa, as well as the uranium enrichment and nuclear weapons programmes, were inspired by security and defence considerations and not by servicing the basic needs of larger society.

There was little, if any, accountability in the system. Efficiency and effectiveness were given scant regard. The system, in cahoots with its political patrons, defined its outcomes and was the final judge of its performance.

The human resources component of the system did not, and still does not, reflect the nation, a characteristic that renders it illegitimate. At issue is that in the past, admission to the system by way of employment was based on the criteria of race and ideological correctness.

The fact that South Africa today has a First World science and technology system sitting atop a host of unsolved Third World social and economic problems is no accident.

Scientific and technological development in South Africa under apartheid was dictated by political and survival needs: self-sufficiency in energy amid sanctions, defensive and offensive capability in response to threat, real or imagined, from communism or from neighbouring states.

The ghost of the past undoubtedly haunts the present. But what is the present?

Most significantly, the African National Congress-led government of national unity has created a ministry of arts, culture, science and technology. This is the first time that the coordination and administration of science and technology has been elevated to the highest level of government. Equally significant is that the new cabinet portfolio is held by an African.

The creation of a parliamentary select committee on science and technology is also significant. Its mandate includes oversight and advice on the strategic implications of science and technology with respect to national economic and social needs. The committee will be supported by a technical unit to provide expert input in the decision making process.

Within the system itself, changes are taking place slowly. Institutions which were once the enclaves of white privilege have began to re-assess their missions and goals against a new set of criteria.

Institutions which only five years ago operated within the strict confines of their mandates, and could not have cared less about the needs of the larger society, are churning out corporate plans detailing their missions of social justice in line with the broad objectives of the Reconstruction and Development Programme.

Ben Ngubane, the minister of arts, culture, science and technology, has announced three big initiatives. They are the formation of a new national science and technology advisory council, the transformation of the Science and Technology Initiative into the National Science and Technology Forum, and a research foresight exercise.

Although great milestones for science and technology, the way the initiatives will be carried out is important. To transform the Initiative into a national science and technology forum is misguided. What the nation needs is a fresh start. The current environment is dominated by interest groups vying to influence the future of science and technology. One of the interest groups wishes to maintain the status quo for benign reasons. The members of this camp fall into various groups.

On the one hand, are those who have personally helped steer South Africa's science and technology to where it is today. They view any criticism of the system as a personal affront. Their concerns are the need to maintain excellence, quality and academic freedom, held up as sacred cows.

On the other hand there are public servants who view any major reform of the system as a threat to their jobs.

A second interest group comprises individuals occupying key positions in every facet of the science and technology enterprise, and serving on the assortment of advisory committees and associations representing key science and technology institutions. Their central thesis is that the system could be strengthened to accommodate new demands. They see a need for reform, but argue that it must not be imposed.

The third group consists of black academics, scientists and engineers who in the past have been denied the opportunity to participate in the managerial activities of science and technology institutions. They rightly want to participate at the highest level to shape the future of the system.

The fourth group is made up of various elements of organised labour, civic organisations and a whole host of South Africans whose lives have never been touched by the positive results of science and technology. This group believes it has the right to make demands on the capabilities of the science and technology system because of the huge public investment that goes into it.

All these interest groups have spent energy and time wooing the minister and his deputy, Winnie Mandela, with their individual agendas. The result is less talk about a national agenda than about group agendas. Unless checked, this will widen the great divide in the science and technology system.

The ministry of arts, culture, science and technology is a portfolio besieged by internal squabbles and forces competing externally. Its department is non-functional bordering on paralysis. Policy making is ad hoc, policy initiatives are undertaken less on the basis of how they benefit the country than on how they conform to personal agendas, and planning lacks strategic coherence.

We believe science and technology reform will have to play the role of purger and pathfinder. As purger, it will have to root out the old order without harming the system. As pathfinder, it will have to be forward looking and chart a course for national economic and social development.

Reform must begin with a thorough national assessment of all the publicly-funded science and technology institutions in the country. Merely reconstituting boards and appointing new presidents for some institutions may not be the right approach.

We recommend that assessment be undertaken at the cabinet's behest since science and technology is pervasive in all government departments.

Such an exercise would lay the foundation for fundamental restructuring following certain guiding principles. They are:

* The system must be expanded, maximised and made more relevant to serve the economic and social needs;

* Efficiency and effectiveness must be maximised by setting specific goals and outputs for institutions, and matching outputs with appropriate investment.

* More people must be involved in science and technology decision making as a way of broadening the constituent base:

* People are not well informed about science and technology but live in a society of growing complexity and sophistication. They should be enabled to understand and appreciate it;

* The system must begin to reflect the ethnic composition of South Africa;

* Conflicting objectives and interests must be minimised by setting well-defined roles for institutions to avoid duplication and waste. This will also ensure accountability:

* The system must have short and long-term goals.

What the above principles set out to do is to provide the new nation with the opportunity fundamentally to rethink the role of science and technology.

The result should be a new vision on how science and technology can contribute to economic growth, social advancement and national security in the years ahead. South Africa must prosper economically to meet the needs of today and tomorrow. The future lies in innovation.

Isaac Amuah is at the Science and Technology Policy Directorate, Foundation for Research Development.

Malegapuru W. Makgoba is deputy vice chancellor of the University of the Wi****ersrand.

The views expressed in this article do not reflect the institutions of affiliation of the authors.

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