South African National Space Agency Bill [B20-2008]: Briefing

Science and Technology

06 May 2008
Chairperson: Mr G Oliphant (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Department of Science and Technology presented the National Space Agency Bill to the Committee. They made a case for the Agency by explaining the advantages of South Africa having a space program and how space technology could benefit the country. Some of the main issues which arose was the skills in this sector as well as the appointment of the board of the Agency.

Meeting report

The Chair began by informing members that they hoped to complete the process of enactment of the National Space Agency Bill before the June recess, if possible. Since the Bill would be discussed by the Committee, they could now advertise for public hearings to take place. Advertisements would be placed in the coming Sunday newspapers and the public would be given three weeks to respond. It was hoped that public hearings would take place at the beginning of June 2008. He felt that this should be possible as the Bill was a straightforward one.

National Space Agency Bill briefing
Dr Boni Mehlomakulu, Deputy Director General: Research, Development and Implementation (RDI), said that this was the second bill that the Department of Science and Technology (DST) was presenting to the Committee. She added that South Africa had a competitive advantage in space, science and technology.

Pontsho Maruping, General Manager: Space, Science and Technology in the DST, outlined the need for South Africa to have space technology. South Africa was using space technology already, but was buying information from outside. She pointed out how space technology was or could help in different scenarios. She said that by using information from American satellites they were able to monitor the progress of the Mpumalanga fires, in July 2007, and use this information for emergency services.

Information from satellites of urban areas can be used by provinces and municipalities to determine how to use services, roads and emergency services. Information could also be used to observe environmental conditions that pose a risk and could cause disease. The Department of Water Affairs also used satellite information to monitor how farmers were using water on their land. Information from satellites could also be used to gather population information for the census which was done every ten years.

Cabinet had approved the establishment of the Space Agency. The DST had had written consultations with the public. The overall feedback from the public had been positive. It was important however that a co-ordinated effort be made so that maximum advantage could be gained. She explained that sometimes provinces and municipalities paid for the same information as they bought it separately. One of the important issues that would need to be sorted out was the relationship between the Space Council and the Space Agency.

The Chair thanked Ms Maruping for the presentation. He asked if it was possible for the Committee to have a report on the DST's hearings with the public.

Ms Maruping said that the report was being completed and should be available to the Committee by the end of that week.

The Chair commented that Ms Maruping had mentioned that France and the United States of America had satellites which South Africa used. He asked how many satellites South Africa had.

Ms Maruping said there was more than 3000 satellites in space that they were aware of.

The Chair once again inquired about the number that South Africa had.

Ms Maruping replied that South Africa was currently developing a micro satellite which was supposed to be launched in co-operation with Russia. Some problems had however developed with that particular arrangement. It now seemed likely that India would be assisting with this. The satellite was being developed by the University of Stellenbosch's Sunsat project. The DST had done an audit to ascertain which companies were able to help with the development of this technology. It had emerged that there were aerospace companies that had these capabilities. She added that it was relatively easy to get information from other countries’ satellites. Sometimes however they were not keen to sell some information. She said that South Africa would probably not reach the stage where it was completely independent of other countries.

The Chair asked whether there were any United Nations treaties which controlled the pictures that were taken by satellites.

Mr J Blanche (DA) commented that space was being used more and more by different sectors. He added that it be should be used even more. Local government could use it in developing infrastructure. The Department of Public Works could also use it to help with its asset register. He asked what the DST would be doing to propagate its message concerning the use of space.

Ms Maruping replied that propagation would be done by the Agency. They would build awareness and capacity. The DST had invited all government departments to be part of this. Most of the departments had responded. It was also hoped that the Satellite Application Centre would do most of the training.

Ms F Mohamed (ANC) referred to the objectives of the Bill and asked whether it would be conducive to industrial development. She remarked as well that research has also shown that there is an environmental impact through this technology. She wanted to know how South Africa could get the competitive edge in this area. She expressed concern that skills development needed to take place and that there needed to be the development of human capital. It was important that there be a skills base for this technology. She wanted to know how the DST would do this.

Ms Maruping referred to the industrial development and said that South Africa had the capability as the country had had a space program in the past. The DST planned to set up competency centres where they hoped to aggregate the expertise that existed and in this way develop the capabilities. The DST would respond to the needs which arose and also hoped to work with other countries. In Africa, Nigeria and Algeria were using space technology on a huge scale. They however bought information from outside infrastructure. Regarding skills development, she added that they would be promoting post-graduate studies in engineering.

Mr A Ainslie (ANC) said that his constituency in Kwa-Zulu Natal was a rural one and that agriculture was a means of getting out of poverty. They had used information from satellite images to help them in some of their agricultural projects. He wanted to know who controlled the satellites that were in space or whether anyone could launch one. He expressed concern at the way the board of the Space Agency would be appointed. There did not seem to be any uniformity regarding the appointment of these boards. The Bill stated that the board would be appointed by the Minister in consultation with the Cabinet. He expressed concern that Parliament was not involved at all.

Ms Maruping replied that the UN had a committee that looked at the peaceful use of outer space. They helped to control satellites. There were also different UN treaties which controlled the use of satellites. There was an international body to which countries had to register satellites. An international telecommunication union registered the frequency that would be used to communicate with the satellite. She added that they would supply the Committee with a list of the treaties that South Africa has signed or ratified.

Dr Mehlomakulu added that there was no uniform way in which boards were appointed. When the HSRC Bill
was considered last year, the President was asked to wait before enacting the Bill since there was also a question around the appointment of the board. At the moment they were still awaiting legal opinion.

The Chair stressed that boards needed to be accountable and the Department needed to consult with Parliament.

Mr Ainslie (ANC) added that by adding Cabinet in the process, the matter became more complicated.

The Chair said that this matter would have to be flagged and dealt with later. Referring to the issue of skills development, he said that the Houtech facility in Grabouw now seemed to be a white elephant since training there had been halted.

Ms Maruping said that there were plans to reacapitalise Houtech and develop the capacity of the facility.

Mr Blanche (DA) added that technology was developing very rapidly. The DST should therefore have a program to make people aware of developments. As an example, he wondered whether the Department of Public Works knew that they could use satellite technology to help them with their asset register.

Ms Maruping said that a strategy would need to be developed to propagate the Department's message. She did add that the DST was offering bursaries in post-graduate studies at the University of Fort Hare which was the only university which was offering the relevant post-graduate courses.

Prof I Mohamed (ANC) said that he could not understand what was being conveyed in the pictures in the presentation. He asked whether more experience was needed. He added that the public could therefore not tell who was telling the truth and who was telling lies.

Ms Maruping replied that satellites only provided part of the observation. The picture that was obtained then had to be interpreted. There were different sensors on satellites. These sensors took particular measurements. She explained that the DST paid for a license to obtain information from satellites that were over South Africa. This information was in the form of raw data obtained by the Satellite Application Centre. She added that South Africa had paid France R60 million to obtain information from their satellites over three years.

Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) referred to the development of human capital, and asked whether the DST was considering offering bursaries for further study. She also wanted to know whether the DST had the capacity for the competency centres that they wanted to establish. She was also concerned about the information that was being sold. She suggested that the Committee pay a visit to Sunspace. She wanted to know from the DST whether space technology would form part of Science Week.

Ms Maruping replied that the DST had started offering bursaries two years ago for students to study at Sunspace at the University of Stellenbosch. These bursaries were going to young black students. Sunspace was working with the DST on a micro satellite. It was not part of the DST, but was a private company. They were still trying to determine what would be the optimal way of engaging with them. There would not be a focus on space technology in Science Week. Instead there would be a Space Week in October 2008.

Dr Mehlomakulu added that propagation needed to be done, but that the DST was limited by its budget. She agreed that more people needed to be made aware of the use of space technology. She explained that Marine and Coastal Management at the moment was checking the coastline physically whereas they could use satellite information. She added that the National Advisory Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI) was under review to determine its role. The institutional arrangement was being investigated.

Mr B Mnyandu (ANC) expressed concern about the use of space as there was a need for security as well. He asked if there was a code of conduct since the information gathered could be used in a time of war.

Ms Maruping replied that it was a reality that there were satellites watching and that other countries had more information about South Africa than what South Africa had about itself. Any country could get the information but would have to pay for the information. The issue was not necessarily spying. The issue was rather if “we were comfortable with satellites watching us” and just accept it or South Africa develop its own technology.

The Chair added that security was an unresolved question. There were lots of rules but also many opportunities. The reality of the situation had to be accepted.

Ms Maruping said that the positives outweighed the negatives.

The Chair added that the use was for peaceful means. Originally however this technology was for military means.

Ms Mohamed (ANC) complemented the DST for the fact that they had empowered women. She added that the mandate of the DST was big and therefore it was important that they co-operated with other departments regarding industrial development. If there was a working relationship, the work would be easier. She wanted to know if the technology could be used to help with crime and the power crisis in South Africa.

Ms Maruping said that the interaction with other departments was improving. There were regular one on one meetings. There was also consultation with the DTI regarding industrial developments. The Agency had to be seen as a national one that will support all department work. It was possible to use information from satellites in fighting crime and the power crisis. There was some information though that was not available. 

Mr Blanche (DA) pointed out that the flood line in towns had changed over the years. Local governments therefore had to be aware that they could use the technology to determine this.

The Chair thanked the DST for their presentation. He reminded them that they needed to supply the Committee with the report on their interaction with the public. He also felt that the co-ordination with SADC or the AU needed to be spelt out. The different treaties that South Africa had signed also had to be supplied to the Committee. He wanted to know what program the DST envisaged for the Bill.

Dr Mehlomakulu that they hoped that the Bill would be passed before the end of 2008. It was hoped that the governance structure of the Space Agency would be sorted out by April 2009.

The Chair adjourned the meeting.


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