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[CAPE TOWN] South Africa has appointed a former deputy minister of education with a strong reputation for promoting mathematics and science education in schools as its first dedicated minister of science and technology.

Mosibudi Mangena, who holds a degree in mathematics, succeeds Ben Ngubane, who was South Africa's science minister (with a two year break) from 1994. Ngubane, a member of the opposition Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP), resigned in February to take up an ambassadorial post to Japan (see Science African science minister quits).

Unlike Ngubane, however, who was also responsible for arts and culture, Mangena will have only science and technology in his portfolio, following a decision by the government to split the ministry headed by Ngubane into two separate parts.

Insiders say that, as a deputy minister of education, Mangena brought great flair to his job of promoting maths and science education. They say that this grasp of the problems of under-performing pupils will prove useful in tackling the severe shortage of skilled engineers and scientists in South Africa.

Increasingly frosty relations between the IFP and ruling African National Congress meant that no cabinet posts were awarded to the IFP in the reshuffle following the country's elections last month.

Like his predecessor, however, the soft-spoken Mangena hails from outside the ruling African National Congress (ANC). He is the president of the Azanian People's Organisation (Azapo) and led the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania — an alternative name for South Africa — in exile before it merged with Azapo.

At the launch of National Science week in Johannesburg this week, Mangena said that South Africa needed to make science and technology accessible to all races.

"The continued challenge of our national science system remains the frozen demographics in the science and technology workforce, both with respect to age and gender," he said. He added that the low proportion of women studying science at doctoral level, and the ageing workforce in the public sector were of particular concern.

President Thabo Mbeki's announcement of separate leaders for the department of science and technology and the department of arts and culture came as a surprise to many. According to Rob Adam, director-general of the science and technology department, the move will help the two ministries — which were separated in August 2002 — to create their own identities, and therefore be taken more seriously.

Tamar Kahn is Science and Health Correspondent for Business Day newspaper.