SA’s science & technology decade

24 January 2005

From mosquito-repellent candles to the Southern African Large Telescope, developments in science and technology in South Africa’s first decade of democracy have put the country on the international map, according to a new book.

The book, a high-quality coffee table edition entitled “Science and Technology in South Africa: Progress and Achievements in the First Decade of Democracy, 1994-2004”, was written and compiled by Graeme Addison, a veteran journalist and author of a three-part compendium of science books.

Sponsored by the Department of Science and Technology, the book is bristling with achievements in science and technology over the past 10 years, bursting with fascinating photographs, and written in an easy-to-read-and-absorb style.

After the obligatory foreword and introduction from the politicians and bureaucrats, this A4 landscape publication is easy to tackle – sidebars focus on researchers and their projects, while the main text moves through the country’s exciting technology developments in a style not bogged down by jargon.

The book considers SA’s inventiveness – typified by Pratley’s Putty, the glue that was sent to the moon – and the country’s leadership on the continent, typified by “Africa’s giant eye” or SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope, the largest and most powerful optical/infrared telescope in the southern hemisphere, capable of seeing objects a billion times too faint to be seen with the naked eye.

The book consists of five parts: assessing South Africa’s achievements in science and technology; looking at old and new generations in the field; new frontiers; science and technology for sustainable development; and finally, stepping stones to the future in science and technology.

Driver of change
According to Addison, science and technology is a crucial driver of change in South Africa: “[T]he momentum for change, with science and technology as a leading component, is not only sustainable, it is accelerating.”

At the same time, the book acknowledges that the legacy of apartheid is still felt in the dominance of ageing white male scientists, a situation that is changing at an appreciable pace.

In a 2001/02 survey of SA’s science councils, research and development staff from disadvantaged groups had increased from a low base of 7.3% in 1994 to an impressive 45.6% of the total.

The book profiles several emerging young scientists, and it’s heartening to see quite a few black women scientists featured.

The range of projects the Department of Science and Technology is involved in is impressive and wide-ranging: biotechnology, information technology, technology for manufacturing, natural resource technology, and technology for poverty reduction.

The chapter on science and technology for sustainable development looks at traditional medicine research, mosquito-repellent candles (based on an indigenous plant used by traditional healers), HIV vaccine research, and agricultural research – including rural business initiatives like beekeeping technologies and essential oils processing.

SA takes the lead in Africa
The final chapter in this 171-page publication focuses on South Africa’s lead in Africa as the “powerhouse of the south”, with the message that the country will work “for all the countries to its north if we approach them with an attitude of humility and the objective of achieving mutual benefits”.

In 2003 the African Laser Centre (ALC) was established in Pretoria, bringing together scientists from Senegal, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Ghana, acting as a catalyst for the transfer of laser technologies into Africa.

Laser technology affects a number of fields relevant to Africans: cataract surgery, glaucoma and cancer treatment, and the detection of TB. Lasers also monitor plant stress levels, an important factor in improving crop harvests and pollutants.

Another project the department is actively backing is South Africa’s bid to host the Square Kilometre Array, which will be the world’s biggest and most costly telescope, at a billion dollars.

The project, involving some 34 institutions in 15 countries, will unfold in two phases: the demonstrator phase until 2007, and the final construction phase beginning in 2011, with final completion set for 2020. Final selection of the site is due to take place in 2006

‘We were living in a desert for science’
The book concludes: “South Africa’s international profile in science and technology has grown remarkably in the first the years of democracy.”

Previously, science and technology was used in “wrong ways” – equipping South Africa to become a nuclear power and military hardware exporter. Now it is on a different course, working for the benefit of the whole country.

In the words of scientist Mike Wingfied, director of the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria: “We live in the most wonderful place to do science, and the Department of Science and Technology needs a huge compliment as well as our support.

“We were living in a desert for science. Obviously not everything is yet in place – more must be done to cultivate black graduate students – but science is being well promoted, and the results are showing in recruitment to the sciences.”

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