Skills, innovation part of South Africa’s story

Image description South Africa’s story at the World Economic Forum Davos this year will be of the huge strides the country is making in skills development and innovation. (Image: Brand South Africa)


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Shamin Chibba

Brand South Africa’s delegates to World Economic Forum Davos are taking with them a story that could attract foreign investment to our shores, a story that tells of a country that is bent on developing skills for its people and becoming one of the most technologically innovative among the world’s emerging economies.

In the last few years, South Africa has taken great strides towards achieving what the National Development Plan set out: that by 2030 there should be close to full employment with the skills and culture of innovation needed to thrive.

Most of these developments have taken place in the fields of mining and renewable energies, with space science catching up thanks to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

Skills development

In his 2014 budget speech, the then finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, said he had allocated billions of rand towards programmes aimed at ending poverty, joblessness and inequality. One of those programmes involved ramping up skills development and further education and training.

The government took a step towards achieving full employment when it launched the National Integrated Human Resource Development Plan in March 2014. Its goal is increasing the country’s skills base. According to Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande, the plan is designed to increase youth employment by matching education with the demands of the labour market.

A number of tech hubs have also sprung up in Johannesburg and Cape Town that boost skills development, drive innovation and create new digital technology. These include JoziHub and Wits University’s Tshimologong Precinct in Johannesburg, and 88mph in Cape Town.

Renewable energy

Image description The Jeffrey’s Bay Wind Farm takes advantage of the vast amount of wind energy the Eastern Cape produces. (Image: Shamin Chibba)

 

With energy challenges front of mind, South Africa is bumping up its renewable energy sector. In August 2014, construction of the country’s first concentrated solar power tower was completed, and will bring with it a 50MW capacity that can light up almost 4 000 homes.

The 140ha plant known as Khi Solar One, outside Upington in Northern Cape, is a project of Spanish company Abengoa Solar. Just as impressive is that it will reduce South Africa’s carbon dioxide emissions by about 138 000 tons a year.

Image description Construction of Africa’s first concentrated solar power tower was completed in August last year outside Upington, Northern Cape. (Image: Shamin Chibba)

 

Its sister project in Pofadder, KaXu Solar One, utilises a parabolic trough to generate 100MW of power, saving 315 000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Other notable projects include the Kakamas Hydro Electric Power facility on the Orange River in the Northern Cape and the numerous wind farms that stretch from the Eastern Cape to the Western Cape.

Mining

Image description The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research is designing a robot that can inspect mines for any dangers, therefore preventing serious injury or even death for mineworkers. (Image: Shamin Chibba)

 

Robotic engineers at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are working on a robot that can save the lives of miners.

Safety in mines is a concern in South Africa, which has vast mineral resources, and robots present the perfect solution, according to the senior researcher at the agency’s Mobile Intelligence Autonomous Systems (Mias), Natasha Govender. “When they blast in a mine, people can’t go inside until the air settles. So once it is cleared out, then somebody can go [in]. But they have to check if the hanging walls are safe. At the moment that process is done manually, and that can be very dangerous if the rocks are loose.”

The Mias team has built a robot that can go into the mine after blasting and do these checks, thus cutting the very real risks for mine workers. Govender says Mias has relied on government funding since it started in 2009, receiving R15-million a year.

In 2014, the CSIR was instrumental in another project that enhances communication in mines. It produced the AziSA system, which allows for timely communication underground. This provides support for decision-making in the often dangerous conditions, and reduces reliance on sometimes low-skilled workers.

In April of the same year, a National Research Foundation centre of excellence was opened to give fresh direction to South Africa’s minerals and mining industry by guiding policy decisions, bringing more black people into high-level mining jobs, and ensuring smarter exploitation of the country’s cornucopia of underground resources.

Space science

Image description The Square Kilometre Array is one of South Africa’s most ambitious projects. Shared with Australia, the project will study the stars for any activity that takes place. (Image: SKA Africa )

 

Most developments in space science in the country at present are centred on SKA, which is being built in the Karoo. SKA is a series of radio telescopes that will survey the sky for any activity. However, a lesser known project by the South African National Space Agency (Sansa) is also sending ripples through the world of space science. The space weather centre in Hermanus is a research programme Sansa set up to look at space weather in Africa.

The agency explains that solar superstorms can seriously disrupt mobile phones, GPS systems, power grids, satellites, avionics and high-frequency radio communication, and pose huge risks to the world’s economy and society. Its space weather centre will be able to forecast these storms and help the nation avoid the risks they bring.

Changing our mind-set

South Africa may be on the right track when it comes to skills development and innovation but at least one observer thinks that the country lacks the mind-set needed to develop human capital. Chairman of Democracy Works Foundation William Gumede said in an op-ed for the Sunday Independent newspaper that a shift in our collective mind-set was needed if we were to attain real economic freedom.

“Another shift in mind-set that is needed is to recognise that developing human capital – through genuinely and determinedly giving all citizens the best-quality education and training – is not only the greatest economic empowerment policy, but the greatest long-time economic growth accelerator and will give previously disadvantaged individuals real freedom to secure a better life.”

South Africa had a large number of unemployed people who were unskilled, he added, urging the government and business to think practically when looking for solutions. In one scenario, he sought a pragmatic solution pertaining to both skills development and innovation.

“The country has an energy crisis, but has an abundance of sunshine and wind. Pragmatism would determine that it would be better to develop new energy sectors, using solar, polar or wind energy, which are not only readily and cheaply available, but can soak up many of the unskilled.”

According to research by Deloitte and Manufacturing Circle, South Africa does not consider talent-driven innovation as much of a competitiveness driver as the rest of the world does. And this, said the head of the Economic Development Facilitation unit in the city of Johannesburg, Tsholo Mogotsi, would keep South Africa behind the pack.

Mogotsi expressed his concerns at a Brand South Africa seminar on international perceptions of South Africa held in April 2014. “Is this because there is something really special about manufacturing in South Africa that is different to what’s happening in the global environment? I think we’re missing something about innovation,” he pointed out.

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