Science has been an area of continuity for South Africa during its myriad of political changes. But its role has not been problem-free, as highlighted by two articles published by TWAS, The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, prior to its 2009 general conference in Durban.
South Africa's apartheid years meant that science and technology was heavily biased towards the needs of the white ruling classes.
A big challenge for the country has been to realign its scientific capacity to serve its black majority, by providing opportunities for black students to enrol in the nation's best universities — a move that makes improvements in primary and secondary education for black students even more urgent.
Another issue is brain drain. While political turbulence in other Sub-Saharan African countries has attracted talent to South Africa, job prospects in the developed world have also lured doctors, engineers and other skilled workers to the West. To combat this, around 72 research chairs of excellence have been created in fields including indigenous knowledge and nanotechnology.
The country has made significant strides. As well as 12 reputable universities, South Africa has a strong network of government-backed science councils and an engaged private sector. Investment in research and development has also increased — a sign of the government's commitment to long-term science-based development and a recovery from plunging science spending in the 1990s.
In an interview with TWAS, Naledi Pandor, South Africa's minister of science and technology, says that South Africa's scientists must ensure that their research benefits the poor. She says that over the next five years, the Department of Science and Technology's top priority will be improving healthcare and education.
Regarding the current economic climate, she says: "This is not the time to cut back on South Africa's investment … it is the time to invest in key sectors where South Africa is well-placed to lead".
"We know that science creates wealth and jobs. We do not want to remain consumers of science and technology from other countries. We have to invest in science for ourselves."