SA National Space Agency Board: Shortlisting of candidates, Department's briefing

Science and Technology

20 October 2009
Chairperson: Ms M Dunjwa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology reported back to the Portfolio Committee on the long process undertaken for selection of suitably experienced and qualified candidates for appointment to the Board of the South African National Space Agency. He outlined briefly that South Africa, through the Agency, had recently launched a satellite that was in the correct position and should be sending back valuable information for a number of different purposes. He then set out what the legislative requirements were for appointment of the Board members, and confirmed that each of these had been fulfilled and a shortlist of nominees had been drawn by the advisory committee nominated by the Minister. Many of the applicants did not have the relevant experience and qualifications and a shortlist of 25 (later on amended to 24, as one candidate had just withdrawn) was presented.

Members questioned the mix of nominees, pointing out that the majority were from government service, followed by 7 from civil society and 6 from the military, and asked whether there were astronomers amongst those nominated. Members also questioned that none of the nominees were disabled, and some questioned whether the disabled groups should be specifically approached to nominate someone, and whether the process should be held over for this purpose, whilst other members believed that this would not be appropriate, and would overstep the powers of the Committee. One Member suggested that perhaps the Minister could be asked whether she may wish to coopt someone from the disabled community. It was generally agreed that more attention should be paid by this and other Committees to inclusion of the disabled at all levels in future. The Committee did not discuss the list of nominees further. The Department was congratulated on having achieved an unqualified audit.

Meeting report

Briefing on SA National Space Agency Board nominations: Department of Science and Technology (DST) briefing
The Committee Secretary noted that the Chairperson was abroad.

Ms M Dunjwa was elected as Acting Chairperson by Members and assumed the Chair.

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director General, Department of Science and Technology, reminded the members that there is a Space Programme in South Africa. Recently a satellite had been launched, contact had been established with it, and it was confirmed that it was correctly in place, with cameras in the correct position. Although South Africa had been one of the last countries to enter the “space race” it was now successfully part of it.

He outlined the mandate of the SA National Space Agency (SANSA or the Agency), and the functions and composition of the Board. SANSA’s main mandate was the promotion of the peaceful use of space, the support of the creation of an environment conducive to industrial development of space technology, and the fostering of research in space science, communications navigation and space physics, which would advance scientific, engineering and technological competencies, and the fostering of international co-operation in space related activities.

SANSA had a Board who was to oversee the Agency, monitor the research priorities and programmes of the Agency, give effect to the strategy of the Agency, and the performance of its functions. The Board was to notify the Minister immediately of any matter that may prevent or materially affect the achievement of the objects of the Agency. The Board comprised a Chairperson, appointed by the Minister, and no less than 10 and no more than 15 members, together with a Chief Executive Officer, who was an ex officio member of the Board. Section 7 of the S A National Space Agency Act, Act 36 of 2008, required the Minister to publish, in the Gazette and two national newspapers, a notice of intention to appoint members to the Board. The Minister must also appoint a panel of experts to compile a short list of suitable candidates. The short list of the candidates and their curriculum vitae must be forwarded to the National Assembly for approval. The shortlist must have no more than 30 nominees. From that, the National Assembly would select a further short list to be forwarded to the Minister, from which the Minister would choose the final appointees. The nominees must be South African citizens or have right of permanent residence.

A notice was placed in the Government Gazette, the Sowetan, the Mail & Guardian, City Press and Sunday Times calling for nominations. Six members were appointed by the Minister to act as the advisory panel, based on their expertise in space and technology, whom he named. The Department had received 94 applications or nominations from the public and national departments.

He submitted that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) had complied with the requirements of the Act regarding the appointments, that the process had been transparent and fair, and that all curriculum vitae received had been submitted to the advisory panel. A short list of not more than 30 had been complied by the panel of experts, and they had been screened for security purposes. These names were then forwarded to the National Assembly. He therefore recommended that the Committee should consider and approve the short list.

Ms M Shinn (DA) questioned whether the Committee would be given the names on the list that day.

The Acting Chairperson stated that the Department had acted in accordance with the Act and she was confident that everything was done properly. She added that science and technology was for the benefit of the people on the ground. She also asked when the short list would be made available, and whether this included the experts. She remarked upon the  preponderance of military skills and asked whether this was acceptable as being in the best interests of everyone

Ms P Mocumi (ANC) expressed concern that there were no representatives of the disabled community on the list, noting that this then did not reflect the demographics of the country.

Ms Shinn questioned the number and role of astronomers in the process.

Dr Mjwara noted that the DST had approached other departments, such as Agriculture, and Water Affairs, and Forestry and Fishing, to make a contribution, since the satellite would reveal a wide range of information that was vital and essential for decision making. The advisory committee had made an effort not to have over-inclusion of military interests. He assured the Committee that the DST had also attempted to persuade the Departments of Communication and Trade and Industry to participate, but their response had been lukewarm.

Dr Val Munsami, Chief Director: Space, Department of Science and Technology, explained that because the panel had attempted to nominate a Board that would cover a wide range of interests, and be as coordinated as possible, there had been no concerted attempt to single out astronomers as a specialised group to be represented. There were persons with an interest in astronomy in the shortlist.

Dr Mjwara added that prospective candidates had not disclosed whether or not they were disabled.

Mr George Kgarum, Chief Director, Department of Science and Technology, added that people either nominated or applying were even reluctant to proffer their identity numbers.

The Acting Chairperson said that this posed a challenge.

Ms M Nyama (ANC) pointed out that the disabled community was very organised and she was surprised by the lack of participation. She felt that disabled candidates should be included, and suggested that the Department had been remiss in not adopting a more stringent approach to this.

Ms Shinn repeated her earlier observation about the participation of persons with expertise. She noted that there were 11 Government employees, 7 from civil society and 6 military persons on the list of nominees. She considered this not to be balanced.

Dr Mjwara reminded the Committee that the DST only recommended the list. The DST did what it could to try to achieve wide representivity. If nobody from special groups volunteered or caused themselves to be nominated there was little more that the Department could do. It was no longer considered acceptable to dragoon people into accepting.

Dr W James (DA) expressed the opinion that the DST now possessed an extremely valuable resource in the new satellite. This was able to submit pictorial views and information about what was happening not only within South Africa but externally, including the massing of any troops on any borders in neighbouring countries. Dr James enquired whether Dr Mjwara was satisfied that the satellite and the information being received was satisfactory, and was meeting requirements. He also requested confirmation that the nominees for the Board had both the expertise and the temperament to handle the demands of the position.

Dr Mjwara replied that the satellite and the information were satisfactory. The information being obtained was being used for a variety of reasons and purposes, such a agricultural yield, water supply, climate change, mapping and observation.

Dr Mjwara stated that the nominees had a wide variety of expertise, but whether they had the temperament for the position was not foreseeable, and only time would tell.

The Acting Chairperson mused whether it would not be appropriate and possible to hold over the submission of the nominees in order to add a representative from the disabled community to the nominations.

Dr James felt that this would be capricious. The stipulated procedure had been closely followed. No additional nominee could be brought forward, nor the process delayed, without compelling reasons.

The Acting Chairperson replied that this was not a formal proposal, but she had been expressing a concern. She did not think that it would be correct to extend the process.

Ms Mocumi wondered if, without delaying the process, there should be an approach to the associations for the disabled.

Ms S Kalyan (DA) felt, as a disabled person herself, that the Committee was being very patronising about the disabled community,

The Chairperson stated that the process should be closed, and it should be accepted that there was no representative from the disabled community. However, this Committee, like all others, should move the question of disabled participation higher up the agenda.

Dr Mjwara informed the Committee that he had just received notification that one of the nominees had withdrawn, leaving 24 nominees.

Ms Mocumi repeated her suggestion that the process be held over until a representative of the disabled was included.

Dr James repeated his view that to do so would be capricious and exceeding the legal powers of the Committee.

Dr Mjwara noted the concerns, but reiterated that if no volunteers from the disabled community had come forward, he did not think that much more could be done.

Ms Shinn stated that since this question had been raised so forcefully, perhaps the Minister would use her powers of discretion to co-opt a disable person when making the appointments.

The Acting Chairperson felt that progress had been made. She pleaded for a more proactive approach towards inclusion of the disabled.

Ms Shinn felt that the DST should be congratulated on having recently received an unqualified audit report from the Auditor-General. She felt that Dr Mjwara and his staff deserved recognition for this, and congratulations on their achievement.

The meeting was adjourned.


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