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Linda Nordling reflects on what the future holds for South African researchers following the resignation of former president Thabo Mbeki.

The past few weeks have been turbulent for South African politics. The ousting of Thabo Mbeki in controversial circumstances, leaving the country in the hands of a caretaker president, sparked an avalanche of speculation about the country's future.

But if, as many expect, his left-leaning adversary Jacob Zuma is sworn in after the 2009 General Election, how would this affect South African science?

Growing spending

There is certainly room for things to get worse. Mbeki had many flaws, but under his reign the science budget almost doubled, once inflation is taken into account. Mbeki's technocratic policies may have failed to redistribute South Africa's riches more fairly among its people, but they highlighted how important science and innovation are for driving the economy.

Fresh evidence has emerged of South Africa's growing outlay on research and development (R&D). Last month the Department for Science and Technology (DST) released figures for 2006–07 showing that the total investment in R&D by all sectors amounted to 16.5 billion South African rand, an increase of 8.7 per cent in real terms from 2005–06.

Spending on R&D is also growing faster than the country's gross domestic product (GDP). In 2006–07, it was the equivalent of 0.95 per cent of GDP, up from 0.92 per cent the year before. This is a marked increase from 1997, when R&D spending hit a low of 0.6 per cent of GDP after the apartheid regime's military R&D projects were dismantled.

Among other things, the increases have funded research chairs to entice top researchers to stay in the country, the Innovation Fund to take science findings closer to the market place, and the building of the South African Large Telescope — the largest optical telescope in the Southern hemisphere. The investments are also helping South Africa compete against Australia to host the Square Kilometre Array of radio telescopes, which will be able to survey the sky 10,000 times faster than any imaging radio array telescope.

Phil Mjwara, the DST's director-general, says an R&D tax credit introduced in 2006 will catapult the country's R&D investment beyond its target of one per cent of GDP this financial year, although his department is refusing to divulge any concrete information to support this assertion.

Mangena praised

But, if South Africa does reach the goal, it would be wrong to give all the credit to the fallen president. Ask a handful of the country's top scientists and you will hear them praise not Mbeki but his science minister since 2004, Mosibudi Mangena.

"Under another minister in the same cabinet, the story would have been very different," a senior South African scientist told me under condition of anonymity.

Mangena — a softly spoken man with a Master's degree in applied mathematics — has impressed the science community with his integrity and interest in his portfolio. The former education minister has repeatedly scored high ratings in performance polls carried out by the national Mail & Guardian newspaper.

But perhaps his main strength has been his independence from the ruling African National Congress (ANC). As the president of a socialist black consciousness movement, the Azanian People's Organisation (AZAPO), he has been able to stay out of the dogfights that regularly rack the ANC.

However, Mangena's political affiliation came close to being science's loss last month. AZAPO's steering committee ruled that the circumstances of Mbeki's resignation constituted a "crisis of government" that would taint their president by association — especially as Mangena is a plausible candidate to stand for office in next year's presidential election.

But a conciliatory meeting between the ANC and AZAPO resulted in the minister staying put, with rumours that he is safe in this seat until the election.

Although 'Mangena for president' is a cry that might rally many academics, the next six months would need to be full of surprises for that eventuality to come to pass.

Zuma's agenda

Zuma is "almost certain" to win the election if he runs, says The Economist, but what kind of science policies would a Zuma government produce?

As history shows, a lot would hinge on whom he chooses as his science minister. Some fear a 'leftward lurch' in the ANC might halt the science budget's recent growth. Unstable or leaky budgets harm any government department, but long-term funding stability is essential for research to thrive.

However, this fear may be unfounded, since all political parties in parliament supported the move to increase the fraction of GDP spent on R&D.

Nevertheless, although a funding hiatus is unlikely, the priorities of R&D investments could change under a more left-wing government. The focus on innovation and the moneymaking side of research might give way to policies improving employment conditions for researchers and widening access to higher education — although Mbeki also considered the latter a priority.

Jostling for position

Certainly, the next government needs to raise the bar on the international front. In particular, it needs to re-forge strong relationships with continental Africa. The political turmoil in the months since Zuma wrested the ANC crown from Mbeki has weakened the country's bargaining power in institutions like the African Union (AU). "Nobody wants to listen to somebody representing a 'lame duck' president," a South African government official told me in March earlier this year.

Other countries are eager to usurp the country's leading role in African science. The main threat comes from the far north. Countries like Egypt and Libya are marching on Addis Ababa, the seat of the AU Commission, intent on taking the lead in projects boosting science and technology capacity on the continent.

These include the Science, Information Society and Space partnership agreed between the European Union and the AU, which supports initiatives such as the Nile Basin pilot project, on food production and land and water management, and the Kopernicus-Africa space project, focusing on remote sensing satellites for environmental and security tasks.

This is not just altruism on their part, but a way of capitalising on the increasing willingness of donor agencies and rich countries to fund 'science for development' in Africa. If the new president and his science minister don't throw themselves back into the scrum of continental science policy, they might wake up one day to find South Africa has lost pole position.

Linda Nordling is former editor of ResearchAfrica.