Who could argue for a 50m rand telescope when an OAP hasn't received her pension?

September 22, 2000

South Africa's quest for social and political reconstruction is presenting the government with some tough choices. Health and housing for the black majority remain priorities, but the country's economic future also depends on a solid science base. Geoff Watts reports

Entering the Pelindaba site of South Africa's Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa) is, at first, much like visiting a nuclear plant anywhere. At the main gate, half an hour's drive from the centre of Pretoria, the security guards check your name and business, then phone ahead to announce you. Wearing your clip-on visitor badge, you follow the drive towards the cluster of buildings forming the heart of the complex. By this time, though, you will have noticed that something is missing - people. On a workday morning, at a time when you would expect to see a brisk flow of staff coming on duty, the place is oddly deserted.

If this were your sole contact with science and technology in South Africa, you might suspect the worst - that the only major player on the continent is already fading from the scientific map. But you would be wrong. Talking to chief executive officer Waldo Stumpf, the reason for the absence of bodies becomes clear. Until the mid-1970s Necsa - or rather its predecessor - was a research operation, not unlike Britain's Harwell. When the government decided it wanted a weapons programme, the organisation began manufacturing enriched uranium. The country's nuclear power industry also depended on the plant for fuel, supplies from elsewhere being prohibited by trade sanctions.

But with the collapse of apartheid everything changed. Nuclear fuel could be purchased on the world market and nuclear weapons were abandoned. Stumpf was appointed to reshape the organisation.

"The challenge was to take all that high-level multidisciplinary expertise in the 8,000 staff and convert it to industrial use and for the social progress of the country."

But this was no easy conversion. It was the staff who paid the biggest price. Their numbers were reduced by almost four-fifths, which accounts for Necsa's air of desertion.

For decades the economic wealth of South Africa was more than enough to meet the needs of the minority for whose benefit the country was run. Now the rules are different. Black health, housing and employment - formerly matters of peripheral interest to Pretoria - are centre stage. The problems of the black majority are now the problems of the government. In these circumstances, Pretoria might well have decided that science was an unaffordable luxury. Had it done so, research on any significant scale would have almost ceased. To Khotso Mokhele, president of South Africa's National Research Foundation, the thought of such a prospect is appalling.

"If you don't invest in science and technology, you are terminally trapped. It takes a fair bit of political wisdom and commitment to invest in science against the immediate pressures to tackle housing and the rest of it. But unless a society creates a blueprint for getting out of that morass, it gets permanently stuck in it."

Mokhele believes that South Africa is creating such a blueprint. Predictably, investment in research with the potential for commercial or social returns is a major part of the strategy. One of the leading funders of work in the latter category is the South African Medical Research Council. A glance through its in-house magazine reveals a range of activities as wide as that of comparable organisations in Europe or North America. There is research, for example, on malaria and on a special biscuit for delivering micronutrients to children in poor rural communities - but also on medical imaging technology and a dental laser drill.

And of course there is HIV, already beginning to burden the country's economy. South African doctors are trying to ignore their government's peculiarly ambivalent attitude towards its cause and doing what they can to generate new ideas. Salim Abdul Karim, director of HIV vaccine research at the MRC, has developed a genetically engineered vaccine. It is given in two doses: a priming shot based on proteins that form part of the core of the virus and a booster to generate immunity against its surface proteins. "The primer we're using is quite unusual," he says. "It's the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus. The virus's own DNA is taken out and the HIV DNA inserted. We hope to inject the first humans at the beginning of next year."

As far as research and development with a commercial potential is concerned, South Africa is determined to maintain the university and industrial science and technology base inherited from the old government. In this respect, the future of the nuclear industry is something of a test case, not least because weapons development is hardly the ideal starting point for a civil enterprise.

"The weapons programme had at least introduced a high level of technical competence into the organisation," says Stumpf. "But at the changeover, everyone wanted to convert their particular bit of technology to a commercial product." This was clearly impracticable, so they now focus on what they view as their key areas of expertise: radiation-based technology and fluorine and fluoride-based chemical products. "We're also producing bulk nuclear isotopes for the world market. We're about the third largest in terms of exports, and we anticipate growth."

In collaboration with the country's universities, Necsa still does research. Its research reactor, which dates from the mid-1960s, was recently used for the non-destructive testing of some of South Africa's rich store of human fossils. "The government has asked us to contribute toward the cost of operating the reactor for research purposes," says Charles Piani, its senior manager. "So in the past five or six years we've followed a commercial path. These applications now produce 60 per cent of our income."

Bucking the global anti-nuclear trend, the South African power utility, Eskom, is leading an international consortium in the development of a new commercial reactor. "The first prototype is very small, just 100 megawatts," Stumpf says. "But it could be duplicated easily into, say, a group of ten modules.

"Feasibility studies have shown that it could become a fairly big export item for South Africa. This type of technology would be ideally suited to tasks such as desalination."

The less predictable element in all this is the government's interest in basic research. Mokhele claims it has been incredibly supportive, citing plans announced earlier this month for a new telescope costing 50 million rand (Pounds 5 million) to construct over five years, with further running costs. "That decision was taken by a government fully aware of the social challenges it faces," he says. "That signifies a commitment not just to science that can translate into economic activity, but to science of the most fundamental kind."

Mokhele is well aware of how irrelevant astronomy might seem to people living in a decaying township. Indeed, while the telescope negotiations were in progress, he recalls reading that the mother of Chris Hani, one of the heroes of the liberation, had not received her pension for several months. "How do you argue for a telescope when an elderly lady living in rural Transkei hasn't received her monthly 180 rand? It tests your sensibility. Of course, you could take the entire science budget and pay it to people who are deserving. But then what? How do we ensure that children have a future 20 years from now without investing in education and in science and technology?" This raises another of South Africa's problems. Educational investment in the past went mostly into the white schools. Even those black township children who complete their education are not necessarily well-prepared for university. According to Marissa Rollnick, director of the College of Science at Wi****ersrand: "If you go to a township school it is likely your teachers will not be graduates - maybe not even qualified. There's a great shortage of maths and science teachers. The school might not offer maths higher grade, which is a requirement for doing science at university. In a black school, doing practical science means that you watch the teachers demonstrate things."

The College of Science runs courses to overcome this shortfall in knowledge and experience. "We take students who wouldn't normally qualify for entrance into university and try to establish their potential. We then admit up to 200 of them to a two-year course. At the end of their second year, they can enter the second year of the mainstream."

It is not just facts about science that these young people need to know. "We teach them how to study, to do exams and to improve their English. It's a whole new culture they have to adapt to." The scheme appears to work and, with a continuing shortage of science teachers in township schools, is likely to be needed for many years.

At the National Science Foundation, Mokhele is well aware of the hurdles facing young blacks seeking a career in science. But he remains undaunted - by this, or by any other difficulty that might prompt faint hearts to question the survival of South Africa as a player in science. "In my own vocabulary, the term survival does not exist. It is too negative. We are not just in a survival mode. This is a country that wants to say to the world that we have something to contribute."

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