On site briefing at iThemba LABS South African Isotope Facility (SAIF); Committee Legacy Report on Science and Innovation

Higher Education, Science and Innovation

13 March 2024
Chairperson: Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC)
Share this page:

Meeting Summary


The Committee convened for an on-site briefing on its Legacy Report on Science and Innovation 2019-2024 at the iThemba LABS South African Isotope Facility. The Committee was joined by the Deputy Minister of Science and Innovation, Director-General, and agencies in the science and innovation sector.

The Chairperson said that the Committee was proud of the work done by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in the Sixth Term. If the national system of science, technology and innovation is solving problems for the whole country including water, safety and security, housing, and health, this means it must be funded so that it can solve these problems. It must not solve the problems of a select few. If the people in this sector cannot relate to not having water, housing, healthcare, it means they will not be driven to find solutions to those problems.

Four National Research Foundation beneficiaries ("Tintswalos") gave testimonials about the impact of NRF funding on their lives.

The Director General of Science and Innovation said that the Committee Legacy Report on Science and Innovation was a true reflection of the work done over the Sixth Term 2019 - 2024. He described government policies in this sector over time and warned against impatience by the Committee to see results. He urged it to look at the reality within which they are working and set expectations accordingly. If the Legacy Report is contextualised within that timeframe, it will be better consumed in understanding the evolution of government policies over time.

The Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation said the Legacy Report helps compress the work done in the last five years and the important interventions. It should not be forgotten that the Decadal Plan was launched in the Sixth Term and the importance of research and development was raised in government as the key to unlocking potential. He hoped that in the Seventh Term, the incoming Committee will continue with the current legacy. It must be anchored on the lessons learnt during COVID-19 and taking forward the Decadal Plan and hammering on the need for research and development.

The Committee adopted its Legacy Report on Science and Innovation with no objections. 

Meeting report

Chairperson's opening remarks
The Chairperson thanked the National Research Foundation (NFR) for facilitating the walkabout at the iThemba LABS South African Isotope Facility (SAIF). The Committee would consider its Legacy Report on the Science and Innovation portfolio. She noted that the Legacy Report does not speak to what she felt the Committee would have wanted to share as its legacy, as the report spoke to what the Committee did and not to the impact of the Committee work. She requested the support of the Department and its entities in attaching an addendum to Legacy Report that gives light to the impact of the Committee work so that it could push Parliament towards doing meaningful oversight and meaningfully hold government to account.

NRF CEO welcoming remarks
Dr Fulufelo Nelwamondo, CEO: NRF, acknowledged the Deputy Minister, Director General and the chairpersons and CEOs of the science and innovation entities present at the facility. He was pleased that the Portfolio Committee had done several oversight visits at NRF facilities and that the Committee felt it appropriate to launch its Legacy Report in one of the NRF facilities.

The acquisition of the 70MeV Cyclotron at iThemba LABS that the Committee saw during its walkabout is the largest accelerator in the Southern Hemisphere and the only one on the African continent, so the NRF was pleased that the Committee got to see where some of the investments went and what they have done for the science ecosystem and for the public.

The NRF wants to use the Cyclotron to increase the research time available in South Africa and that will assist the country in developing new research applications including research into innovative solutions for cancer treatment and early diagnosis. It will also allow research into subatomic physics and other components that will harness testing for space science and many other applications in nanoscience and other emerging technologies. The NRF also aims to double the number of postgraduate students that are supported in nuclear science and in increasing radioisotope supplies for local and international markets, which will allow foreign investment to flow into South Africa.

As the Committee hands to the next Portfolio Committee, they hoped that it will be as excited as this one was in advancing and helping the NRF to be an ambassador for science and innovation and ensuring they find better ways of investing in science.

Mr Philip Hughes from the NRF provided a safety briefing to the Committee.

Chairperson's overview of Committee Legacy Report on Science and Innovation
The Chairperson said the Committee is proud of the work of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) but they want it to be on a bigger scale and to be more meaningful and inclusive. She still felt uncomfortable going to the NRF Awards because a lot of the award recipients do not look like her, hence the importance of a funding framework for postgraduate studies.

If the national system of science, technology and innovation is solving problems for the whole country including water, safety and security, housing, and health, this means it must be funded so that it can solve these problems. It must not only solve the problems of a select few. If the people in this sector cannot relate to not having water, housing, healthcare, then it means they will not be driven to find solutions to those problems.

The only way that women, young people, young black women, young black proletariat women who are in the majority will have their problems solved is if they are in the problem-solving space, which is science and innovation. There must be a deliberate effort to fund young black proletariat women and those living with disabilities to be part of the problem-solving spaces, and these they should be the benchmark of whose problems are being solved because they are the most disadvantaged.

Tintswalo Testimonials - NFR beneficiaries
Ms Lukhanyo Somlota said she was born and raised in Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape where she did her primary and high school studies, exposing herself to the Mathematics and Science space from a young age. This led her to her career path in Civil Engineering. She studied at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where she was humbled by how difficult university is, and what was meant to be a four-year degree, ended up being seven years. In the second year of her degree, she received funding from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which was a rollercoaster for her as she kept failing some of her modules, but because of the patience from the institution, they kept her as a beneficiary, and she graduated and now works for the CSIR. After completing her undergraduate degree, she was immediately placed at the CSIR in Stellenbosch, where she got introduced to coastal engineering where she does 3D physical models of ports and harbours.

She is the key researcher and the only black woman in her team, which plays a role in optimising the development of South African ports. She appreciated the work done by the Portfolio Committee for the work it does behind the scenes. More such engagements were needed for students to understand the gravity of the investments made to bursary students. She is currently doing her Master’s degree to become a Ports and Coastal Engineer.

Ms Zama Mtshali from Umlazi in Durban South grew up in a traditional home where her mother was a housewife and her father worked and supported everyone at home. She did her undergraduate studies in Computer Science and then started as an NRF Intern placed at CSIR at the Centre for High Performance Computing, funded by DSI. They provide computing provisions for academia in South Africa, and her position is to build those systems and support academia to use those system to do their scientific work.

After her NRF internship, she did her Honours Degree in Information Systems and Technology at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Thereafter she was absorbed by CSIR, where she started to build the fastest supercomputer in Africa, which is now used by researchers to do their computations and simulation in their scientific research. She then moved to cloud computing, where she built the first cloud computing system in the CSIR, which was used to provide computing resources to solve some of the COVID-19 problems. She won the Young Disruptor Award for her innovation. She is currently the Cloud Lead at the Centre for High Performance Computing. The CSIR allows her to give back to the community as she travels locally to run training workshops for young university students. She also does university science exhibitions and conferences in high schools to show the younger generation the support provided by CSIR and DSI.

Ms Ruvimbo Mhari is a Master’s student at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) who is funded by the NRF. Her research focus for her Master’s is to identify bacteria that have beneficial characteristics that can improve growth of cereal crops under drought stress. The NRF funding made a great impact in her life as she did not have any funding for her undergraduate studies, and that was a difficult time for her as she was living hand-to-mouth. For her Honours Degree, she was fortunate to receive a bursary from the UWC Biotechnology Department as part of the top eight undergraduate students to graduate. The NRF funding made her life easier as she had recently moved into a university residence as she could not afford to live in one before. She had thus been able to take on an extra-curricular activity which she did not have time for previously.

Dr Ali Elbasheir Ali said he co-supervises Ruvimbo for her Master’s, and since she got accepted into student accommodation, he is now able to ask her to spend more time in the labs as previously she had to leave early to catch her bus home. He was born and raised in Sudan, where he did his undergraduate studies and Honours Degree. He paid for his own studies as his parents could not afford to pay which meant he worked as he studied to be able to pay for this. When he finished his Honours Degree, he knew he had to leave Sudan because there were no opportunities for postgraduate studies and research opportunities, and his Department head, advised him to move to South Africa if he was interested in research.

He was funded by the NRF in 2017 until he completed his Master’s in Biotechnology at UWC, where he graduated Cum Laude and his thesis was the 3rd best written at UWC, which got him an opportunity to go to Italy to study for six months. On his return he began his PhD studies at UWC. During his PhD, he had the opportunity to do a two-month study in the United States, with his co-supervisor, where he got a lot of exposure and attended several conferences. This year he also received NRF funding for his Postdoctoral studies. He is also lecturing at UWC and co-supervising students. He got his South African permanent residence in 2020 when he came back from Italy. He plans to stay in South Africa, which is also where he met his wife whom he married last year.

The Chairperson noted how the funding received by the beneficiaries was not once off, and emphasised the need for it to be continuous as it impacted on the certainty of their futures. She appreciated the relationship the DG had with the Committee over the years and how he was always willing to assist the Committee.

Director-General’s remarks
Dr Phil Mjwara, DSI Director General, appreciated the interest the Committee showed over the years in the sector, which usually involve a quiet set of activities that happen behind the scenes to make the society to continue to flourish, and if there are challenges, the sector finds solutions to those problems. The Science and Innovation sector tends to be undervalued in South Africa and because of that, the Department was deliberate in ensuring that it built relationships with the entities that it worked with. He thanked the Chairpersons and CEOs of the entities present.

Having looked at the Committee Legacy Report, he made a few suggestions. First, he suggested that the trajectory of the national system of innovation would be important. In the first part of policy development in South Africa, government wanted to ensure that it kept the science agenda as part of the government agenda because in 1994 it was very easy to question the need for a focus on science when housing needed to be built. Credit should be given to the science sector for consistently demonstrating what it could do to support government.

The second timeframe was the start to consolidate knowledge generation and targeting investments where socio-economic impact could be made, hence the establishment of the National Research and Development Strategy and the 10-year Innovation plan in the 2000s up to 2018 and onwards. The work timeframes of the Science and Innovation sector may be different from the work of the other sectors but to build a science system requires patience, understanding of the nuancing and that some things take time.

The third timeframe is the deepening of the investments from the second part of policy development to try and have impact and scale. If the Committee expected impact and scale during its tenure, it would not be because the sector is beginning the third phase of increasing its impact. Expectations should be scaled to the reality of how long something like this happens. The nuance is that with the Decadal Plan and the Inter-Ministerial Committee (IMC) set up to have other ministries involved to upscale, impact is likely to be seen from now on. He warned against impatience for results and urged Members to look at the reality within which they are working and set expectations accordingly. If the Report is contextualised within this timeframe, then it will be better consumed in understanding the evolution of government policies over time.

Dr Mjwara's second comment about Legacy Report was to note that the science system has knowledge generation capabilities which are predominantly led by the NRF, which has an infrastructure component and the capacity of researchers and students, but the NRF also manages facilities. If there is anything that should be nuanced between the DSI and the NRF it is the decline in infrastructure investment for DSI to ensure that the science system is replenished accordingly, because all of the successes that the science system has had over the years and during the COVID-19 pandemic were not due to investments made the year before, but investments made over a period of 15 to 20 years.

The second aspect of the science system is to convert knowledge for socio-economic impact. There are two areas that could be strengthened in the Report. Part of this work was DSI started in the mid 2000s to rebuild the space industry which it had inherited for developing satellites in the previous era to look at what is happening in neighbouring states. The previous science system worried about what it wanted to do as government was converted to assist South Africa to respond to today’s challenges. The satellite programme was rebuilt and now the country is in a better position to strengthen its launch capabilities.

Since 2014, when the Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development (IPR) Act was promulgated and DSI started supporting the establishment of offices of technology transfer (OTTs), there were about 100 start-up companies, and 73 of those are still alive. The concern is why they remain in the start-up phase as they should be grown. The jobs in the traditional sector are going disappear in the next five years, so unless people with ideas are supported and businesses are built and grown, South Africa will be in trouble. The Seventh Parliament should hold DSI to account on how it grows those businesses.

The other part that could be enhance in the report is how science has been used to help government make decisions. At the time when the country was buying vaccines, there was a big possibility that it could buy vaccines that were not going to be for the variants that were in South Africa, and genomics surveillance provided that decision to government, and this must be enhanced so that the sector is appreciated. It also needs to be enhanced in the report on how science, technology and innovation can be embedded into government and society.

The Chairperson thanked the DG for his remarks and said the Committee would appreciate the Department and the entities to enhance the aspects mentioned. She allowed some of the CEOs and chairpersons of the agencies present to comment.

Ms Matsi Modise, Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) chairperson, said the DG provided a great reflection of what transpired over the past few years, and the investments that were made. She admired the Chairperson’s statement about being intentional about empowering young black women, embracing diversity and transformation, and ensure that the Department, Ministry and agencies ensure that the platforms do that.

That impact is our legacy, what they invest in and the people they invest in. They are where they are because of scientists and innovators are competent, capable, and world class, and want to compete with the rest of the world and contribute to the country they live in. The system must work together to enable and empower them and ensure that impact is measured. TIA had to ensure that it enables innovators and scientists for the country, and to be able to do that, it needed capacity in human form or finances, and through harnessing public-private partnerships.

Mr Patrick Ndlovu, South African National Space Agency (SANSA) chairperson, said the Legacy Report was eye-opening on the work done over the years. He liked the Tintswalo initiative and noted that as scientists and engineers, they are programmed to sit in laboratories minding their own business without paying mind to what the public thinks. This is one of the weaknesses in science and innovation advocacy and hoped the agencies learn from it.

The Space Infrastructure Hub programme is one of the great initiatives begun at the beginning of the Sixth Administration. For SANSA, the programme chartered a new direction for the agency and the amount of support received from DSI and the Portfolio Committee to implement the programme was commendable. There was a lot of emphasis in the Legacy Report for the programme to get support from National Treasury and it was important to note the successes of the programme. Since the start of 2023/24 there were great strides to ensure the programme was funded as SANSA received close to half-a-billion rands. This was part of the legacy DSI and the Committee were leaving in the space sector. This needed to be acknowledged.

Mr Vuyani Jarana, CSIR Chairperson, said the science and innovation investment spoke to the limited resources South Africa is currently facing, and it was important to look at how to leverage science and coordination to unlock resources already in the system. The biggest guzzlers of the state budget are education, healthcare, and if the view is taken that the mode for curriculum delivery over the next decade will be spent on Higher Education, the trend could change materially. If that view is taken, spaces would be open in the existing spend areas to create investment in forward-thinking technology innovation. It would need a well-coordinated plan because a digital university cannot exist when broadband accessibility challenges have not been addressed.

A young person living in a remote area must be able to access resources and naturally learn wherever they are. Until this is coordinated, the budget challenges will still exist. While science is there, coordination is key because there must be an intentional drive to ensure that health, education, and policy can leverage technology. Ground localisation is also important because if everything that is consumed through technology is imported, then there is huge exposure to exploitation.

Dr Nompumelelo Obokoh, CEO: South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP) appreciated the Portfolio Committee for its exemplary leadership and its inputs that ensured that SACNASP shapes its strategy on the impact in the areas of transformation and science engagement, ensuring that the 17 000 scientists that it has in its database can contribute to the socio-economic fabric of South Africa. When SACNASP commemorated its 20th aniversary last year, the dedication and commitment of the Portfolio Committee was instrumental in ensuring that the Council continues to provide the services and showcases its value add in the national system of innovation as the registration and regulatory body.

She appreciated the Legacy Report and the coordination of the engagement. It was key in ensuring that as a collective, the agencies contribute to the development of the country. SACNASP had a pivotal role of the registration body for the national scientific profession. The directive from the President in his State of the Nation Address (SONA 2024) was to look at how to professionalise the public sector. This is the role that SACNASP sees itself playing in this space through its professional development programmes and science engagements which help shape especially the public sector, understanding some of the key service delivery challenges.

Deputy Minister’s remarks
Mr Buti Manamela, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, acknowledged the Committee Legacy Report for Science and Innovation, noting that it was not only the legacy of the Committee, but also about the future for the incoming Portfolio Committee of the Seventh Parliament. The report did a fair job in highlighting the work done by the Committee over the years and he hoped that the next Committee would consider the key issues in the report going forward.

For the Sixth Term 2019-2024, one of the big issues was COVID-19. What many people did not know was the role DSI played because many things done by DSI happened in the background to impact big things that happened in the eye of the public and so it is often taken for granted. Almost every arm of the Science and Innovation portfolio came in to help South Africa through the pandemic, such as the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) helped with research which guided a lot of government decisions during the time. Communication was also one of the big challenges during COVID-19, and the CSIR helped with the development of applications that helped medical practitioners with their patients among other interventions.

The whole world was dependent on the development of diagnostic testing kits and vaccines, and DSI started taking leadership in those areas. These happened in the background during that period. The public-facing departments were the Department of Health and various other Departments, but the core work was done by DSI.

There was a period where the Department of Science was combined with the Department of Arts and Culture, which was surprising until the Deputy Minister recognised that there was an important connection between science and arts and culture, with science being about exploration and how that knowledge that is discovered is turned by engineering into utilities and products that are tangible and can be used daily and converted into technologies of consumption and design, and how ultimately this influences behaviour through arts and culture. In most instances, because the role of science moves in the background, its impact is not realised, and in most instances, it must beg for resources which ultimately could help reduce the costs of many services.

The Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation said the Legacy Report helps compress the work done in the last five years and the important interventions. It should not be forgotten that the Decadal Plan was launched in the Sixth Term and the importance of research and development was raised in government as the key to unlocking potential. He hoped that in the Seventh Term, the incoming Committee will continue with the current legacy. It must be anchored on the lessons learnt during COVID-19 and taking forward the Decadal Plan and hammering on the need for research and development.

He noted that it was a great pleasure working with the Portfolio Committee on matters relating to science and innovation and hoped that this spirit will continue when they do the Legacy Report for Higher Education.

Committee’s Legacy Report on Science and Innovation: adoption
Ms J Mananiso (ANC) moved for the adoption of the Legacy Report if there is an addition that for overseas trips, the Department must ensure it includes Portfolio Committee Members.

Mr K Pillay (ANC) seconded the adoption, noting that the Report was of a high standard and reflected the work done by the Committee over the years.

Chairperson’s concluding remarks
The Chairperson appreciated the NRF CEO always being supportive and making it easy for the Committee to do its work. She thanked the CEOs and Chairpersons of the Agencies present at the meeting and the work they did over the years in support of the work of the Committee. She also thanked the beneficiaries who shared their stories and wished them all the best for the future. She thanked the Ministry, DG and DSI delegation, as well as the NRF for hosting the Committee. She also thanked the Committee support staff and secretariat for ensuring the success and efficiency of the Committee.

The meeting was adjourned.


No related


No related documents

Download as PDF

You can download this page as a PDF using your browser's print functionality. Click on the "Print" button below and select the "PDF" option under destinations/printers.

See detailed instructions for your browser here.

Share this page: