Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope progress: Department of Science and Technology briefing; Use of Official Languages Bill [B23B-2011]: Department of Arts and Culture briefing

NCOP Education and Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture

15 August 2012
Chairperson: Ms D Rantho (ANC, Eastern Cape) (Acting)
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Meeting Summary

The briefing on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) noted that the project was globally organised, with the UK and 10 countries participating. The preparatory phase would be from 2012/13 to 2015/16, and the construction phase from 2016 to 2024.

The SKA project was coordinated by a working group and a steering committee. There was a local demand for astronomy researchers and technicians. Challenges included deterioration of land-line access that affected local farmers, and the amount of R200 million that still had to be raised in collaboration with other countries.

In discussion, Members were concerned about the number of astronomers who would come from other countries to work on the project. There had to be transfer of skills to local people. There were questions about the contractor for construction. There was general concern about community awareness and education, and how the local communities would benefit. There was concern about the capacity of other countries who had to help raise R200 million in funding. The deterioration of land-line contact aroused interest. There was a question about challenges, which had not been identified at any length in the briefing.

The Department of Arts and Culture briefing on the Use of Official Languages Bill was preceded by an appeal from a DA Member that the Bill be re-tagged as a Section 76 Bill, because it had a bearing on the provinces. Legal advisers countered this by saying that the Bill dealt with language use in national departments, and that provinces had freedom to develop their own language policies.

The briefing stated that the Constitution prescribed that national and provincial government departments had to conduct their business in two official languages, and that their had to be parity of esteem among the official languages. The basic purpose of the Bill was to regulate the use of official languages by national Government for efficient public service. The Bill applied to national departments and public entities. Every national department had to offer three official languages. The Minister had to establish a language unit in the Department to advise the Minister on language matters. All national departments had to establish language units. The Minister could establish intergovernmental language forums. The Minister could exempt departments from establishing language units, provided that a senior employee would be charged with attending to language matters.

In discussion, it was asked if the Bill would add value. There was concern whether the Bill would do justice to the constitutional imperative of promoting parity of esteem among languages, and the plight of people who did not speak any of the three languages offered by a national department. There were questions about the implications of the Bill for teaching. It was felt that exemptions from establishing language units could prove problematic. There was concern about the status of historically diminished indigenous languages. Both the Department and the legal advisers took pains to explain to the Committee that the purpose of the Bill was to regulate the use of official languages in national departments for more efficient public service, and that provinces would retain the freedom to regulate the use of official languages independently.

Meeting report

Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope progress: DST briefing
Dr Tshepo Seekoe, DST Chief Director: Radio Astronomy. said that the intention was to build a radio telescope 100 times more sensitive than any one existing. The project was globally organised, with the UK and 10 countries involved. The preparation phase would be 2012/13 to 2015/16, and the construction phase from 2016 to 2024. There would be the construction of 64 MeerKAT antennae array from 2012, to establish an African Very Large Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) network. One dish antennae would be placed in nine countries. South Africa and Mauritius were involved in low frequency array construction that had started in 2011.

The SKA project was coordinated by two forums, a working group and a steering committee. The African European Radio Astronomy Platform (AERAP) would meet in September. There was a local demand for astronomy researchers to assist with MeerKAT construction. There was an Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act (No. 27 of 2007) to restrict activities in the Northern Cape in order to protect communities. Besides the Act , the DST needed to establish a union with Agri Northern Cape. There were concerns around deterioration of land-line access. MTN and Vodacom had helped 11 farmers to gain cellphone access. A MeerKAT and SKA schools competition had been launched, to promote awareness. An amount of R200 million still had to be raised for funding.

Ms B Ncube (ANC, Gauteng) asked about the number of astronomy researchers that would want to work in South Africa. She wondered what could not be achieved in their own countries, and what made them come to this country. There had to be restrictions, and transfer of skills, so that the country would not become dependent on them.

Dr Seekoe responded that the criteria used by South Africa for astronomers in the SKA programme required that they be the best in the world. Local conditions had to be satisfied. Astronomers would be selected who published research and who could train students. They would not be permitted to do research and leave. There would have to be knowledge sharing and skills transfer.

Ms Ncube referred to the stealing of copper cables. Awareness had to be developed in communities, so that it would not be taken and sold for personal advantage.

Dr Seekoe replied that the theft of copper started before SKA activities. The SKA project would not use copper, only optical fibre. But the DST was aware of the challenge.

The Acting Chairperson agreed that things could not just be opened up without conditions. Parliament had to know. She asked who the donors would be for the R200 million that still had to be raised. There was a challenge in the shortage of local astronomers.

Dr Seekoe responded that options were being explored, linked to the Afro-Euro platform. Leverage funding from Europe was expected, because there would be benefits to Europe also if an African VLBI network was operational. The African and European networks would work together to create a bigger platform. It was beneficial to have telescopes far apart. South Africa was situated at great distance from Europe, which would make for a good network.

Dr Seekoe said with regard to developing astronomers locally, that a human capital development programme for SKA had been running since 2005. Bursaries for university study had been established, with more than 400 already issued. Technical experts needed technical support, hence a technician support programme had been launched. Any technician who would work on the telescope would gain years of technical understanding in that field.

The Acting Chairperson advised that not only farmers be attended to in relation to telephone network disturbance, but also other stakeholders. She asked if the public were being educated about SKA. She asked how the public would benefit.

Dr Seekoe responded that there was a SKA stakeholder manager based in Carnarvon who understood community issues. Updates were provided to the community. There was a stakeholder forum in Carnarvon that met once a month. Information was provided on progress with SKA, and the Act. The community could ask questions. The DST had improved communications nationally since the previous year. Newspapers helped. There was a campaign to distribute leaflets. There were simple explanations of astronomy, and what a telescope was. The DST had assumed that people knew, but they did not. Leaflets were in all languages, especially those used close to the site.

Mr M de Villiers (DA, Western Cape) asked for information about the contractor who would construct the SKA. He asked if there was a tender out, and whether money was available.

Dr Seekoe replied that the SKA tender contract had not been drafted yet. There were as yet no terms of reference. The process of configuration of the dish would be finalised from 2012 to 2016. No design had as yet been 'locked on'. Engineers had to decide. Astronomers could not build the technology required.

Mr De Villiers mentioned that the other countries responsible for raising the outstanding R200 million, were Botswana, Mauritius, Namibia and Mozambique. He asked what their responsibilities were. Some of them had financial problems.

Dr Seekoe replied that other countries provided the costing, and South Africa provided the dish.

Mr De Villiers advised with regard to stolen telephone lines, that the provincial government be helped to make use of fibre. He asked how the DST could assist with that.

Mr De Villiers remarked that it was a big problem if farmers could not make contact by telephone. He asked what the current situation was, and what percentage of farmers still had problems.

Dr Seekoe responded that through the understanding reached by the stakeholder manager, all communication problems had been resolved, with help from MTN and Vodacom.

Mr De Villiers asked if the prizes of laptops and digital cameras in the schools competition went to schools or individuals.

Mr W Faber (DA, Northern Cape) said that it was unfortunate that only himself and Mr K Sinclair (COPE, Northern Cape) had been on an oversight visit to the SKA site. The way it had been explained to them simply, was that science used microscopes to trace what was very small, and with the SKA telescope wanted to see what is biggest out there.

Mr Faber asked about the tarring of roads to the site. He asked about the effectiveness of the telescope. The use of it would be divided between South Africa and Australia.

Mr Faber asked if there were schools and educational institutions close to the SKA area. Further Education and Training (FET) colleges could be brought close to the area.

Ms M Moshodi (ANC, Free State) asked about challenges related to the SKA project.

Mr S Plaatjie (COPE, North West) said that there was a need for SKA, but the question was how ordinary people were going to benefit from it, and how the people in the area understood it. He asked if there was any connection between SKA and the digital technology used in TV boxes.

Dr Seekoe responded that an artisan programme had been started the previous year for people from the local towns of Carnarvon and Williston. There were 15 students in the current year. It had been noticed that when they qualified, they got 'hooked up'. The communities of Carnarvon and Williston were involved in knowledge capital development. The local community would be engaged.

The Acting Chairperson remarked that the briefing had been important and interesting. She requested that the Department supply information about the artisan programme.

Mr De Villiers asked for a written response about the involvement of other countries in funding the R200 million still needed.

Ms Moshodi asked for a written response about challenges related to the SKA project.

Use of Official languages Bill [B23B-2011]
Preliminary discussion on tagging
Before the Department of Arts and Culture commenced with the briefing, Mr Faber said that the Bill was not a national Bill but applied to the provinces. He had asked if re-tagging was possible. He asked how legal advisers had handled that issue.

Mr Mulusi Ncolo, Senior State Law Adviser, said that arguments about tagging had been looked at during the drafting stage. Many issues had been looked at before the Bill was tabled. It had been considered whether the Bill affected the provinces. A judgement by the Constitutional Court was considered to inform the issue of tagging. In the initial stages advisers had thought it to be a Section 76 Bill, but after applying the judge’s comments, the conclusion reached was that it was a Section 75 Bill.

The Acting Chairperson asked a legal adviser from Parliament to comment.

Dr Barbara Loots, Parliamentary Legal Adviser, said that her office had considered the judgement of the Constitutional Court. Provincial legislators had legislative competence. The provinces would have the freedom to adopt their own policies. It remained a Section 75 Bill.

Department of Arts and Culture (DAC) briefing
Mr Sibusiso Xaba, DAC Director-General, noted that the Constitution provided for the establishment of 11 official languages, and obliged national and provincial departments to use at least two official languages for government purposes. All official languages had to enjoy parity of esteem.

The Use of Official Languages Bill had to regulate the use of official languages by national Government for efficient public service. The Act would apply to national departments and public entities. Every national department or entity had to adopt a language policy within 18 months of the commencement of the Act. It had to comply with Section 6(3) of the Constitution, and had to identify at least three official languages to be used for Government purposes. It had to describe how members of the public could access the language policy and provide a complaints mechanism.

The Minister had to establish a National Language Unit in the Department. The language unit had to advise the Minister to regulate and monitor the use of official languages by national Government. Every national department had to establish a language unit to monitor and assess the use of official languages. It had to promote parity of esteem and equitable treatment of official languages. Every national department had to submit a report to the Minister and the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) on the activities of its language unit. The Minister had to table an annual report on the status of the use of official languages. The Minister could establish intergovernmental forums to promote general coordination.

The Minister could exempt, wholly or in part, a national public entity or enterprise form establishing a language unit. In case of exemption, the national entity or enterprise had to assign a senior employee to perform the functions of a language unit.

Ms Ncube asked if the Department would be able to monitor language policy in the various departments in the provinces. She asked if the Bill was adding value and opening up opportunities.

The Acting Chairperson noted that exemptions had not been related to the Public Finance Management Act (No. 1 of 1999) (PFMA). She asked for an explanation of what the PFMA said.

Mr De Villiers remarked that he was concerned about the legislative context. If the Bill obligated Government to use only two or three official languages, it did not promote the parity and equitable treatment of languages referred to on page 3. There was no marriage between the constitution and the Bill. If the Western Cape, for instance, used only Afrikaans, English and Xhosa, the question was what speakers of other languages had to do to read communications from Government or apply for work. He asked what would compel the Western Cape provincial government to grant information in other languages.

Mr Xaba responded that if things were ideal, Government business would be conducted in all languages. But there were serious issues. There was no investment available for the development of certain languages. There was a lack of technical skills and development. The Constitution advised that practicality in language use be considered. The Constitution also placed an obligation to develop languages, also the historically diminished languages. But there was no investment in some of those languages. The development of languages was important for its own sake, but not so much for Government. There were choices in the Bill about doing business with Government.

Mr Faber remarked that the Committee represented the provinces. It was stated on page 5 that language policy had to comply with Section 6 (3) of the Constitution. Schedule 4 prescribed regulation and development of official languages in the provinces. That made it a Section 76 issue.

Mr Plaatjie asked about the implications of the Bill for teaching. At school he had to do two languages besides his first language. In affluent areas only English and Afrikaans would be used. The Bill suggested maintenance of the status quo for indigenous people. The Schools Act gave school governing bodies power to decide school languages. Affluent schools would offer an European language like German instead of Xhosa. He objected to the exemption clause that could exempt an entity from offering a second or third language.

Mr Xaba replied that exemption from establishing a language unit in an entity was the only Section from which the Minister could grant exemption.

A Member asked for clarity about language units in departments and entities. He asked if provinces could decide about languages in schools, and whether for instance three indigenous languages and two others could be offered in schools.

Mr Xaba responded that language of instruction was governed by another law in the Department of Basic Education. The Bill also applied to that Department, but it applied to their business as part of Government, not to language of instruction.

Dr Mbulelo Jokweni, DAC Acting Deputy Director-General: Arts, Culture, Promotional Development and Chief Director: National Language Service, added that the question was how a Government department did business with everyone. National departments had their own way of doing business, and the same applied to provincial departments. The two were not inconsistent. Provincial departments had been approached to work on their language legislation. Once the Bill had been passed, they would be in a better position to finalise their own policies.

Dr Jokweni continued that Cabinet had approved a policy for language instruction. The Bill did not interfere with that. In terms of Clauses 4(c) and 4(d) national departments had to describe how to deal with persons who did not speak any one of the three languages.

Dr Jokweni continued that there was a relationship between the language unit in the DAC and that of other departments. The DAC language unit advised the Minister, and the same applied to language units in other departments. Business with the public was monitored. Diminished languages, like any of the 11 official languages, were not considered unimportant.

A Member asked if language units in other departments would liaise with the DAC language unit.

Mr Plaatjie added that the language units were department specific. It seemed that the Minister could not insist that other departments establish language units. It was up to the discretion of the department to establish a language unit or not. He asked for clarification.

Mr Xaba responded that in the DAC the language unit would have a broader advisory capacity to the Minister. The DAC was responsible to regulate the Act, and had a primary responsibility for language. In other departments the role of the language units would be more specific. The DAC language unit would also have a coordinating role. The Minister wanted an intergovernmental forum on language, through the language unit.

Ms Ncube remarked that national and municipal libraries differed in terms of languages. Provincial libraries offered all languages.

Mr Xaba replied that it was because there were no constitutional powers to legislate over provincial entities.

The Acting Chairperson asked the Parliamentary Legal Adviser for a legal opinion on why the Bill was tagged as a Section 75 Bill.

Dr Loots said that the conclusion that it was a Section 75 Bill had not been reached lightly. There had been in depth discussion. The decision of the Constitutional Court had to be read elastically. The purpose of the Bill looked like that of a Section 76 Bill, but its content declared it to be a Section 75 Bill. The Constitutional Court had asked if it affected the provinces. The content of the proposed Act was concerned with how national departments did their business. It was technical and focused on Government business, and it took nothing away from the provinces. On the national level the Act prescribed three languages, but that was not inconsistent with providing a language of choice. There were mechanisms to deal with complaints about language of choice.

Mr Faber asked that the legal advisers provide an explanation in writing. It was not in accord with the Committee's stance on the Constitution.

The Acting Chairperson asked if the Bill made provision for helping people in their own language if no one in an office spoke that language.

Mr Xaba replied that the language policy as set out would indicate how people would be served in other languages.

The Acting Chairperson adjourned the meeting.


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