The Minister of Science and Technology briefed the Committee on the proposed board appointments for the National Research Foundation. In his presentation, he elaborated on the importance of the institution and the different factors that were considered in the entire process. Members asked questions about the balance of the board, both in terms of expertise as well as gender. The Committee scrutinised whether the performance and attendance of existing board members were evaluated before they could be considered for reappointment. Most notably, Members complained that were not properly consulted and were therefore reluctant to support the names that were submitted. They resolved that they be given sufficient time to consider the proposal and then debate with the Minister at a later stage on the merits of the different candidates.
Sentech requested an amendment to section 5 (1)(d) of the Bill to ensure that the powers conferred on the Space Agency did not negatively impact upon Sentech's licensed business operations. The propose change would limit the Agency's rights to activities which were not already undertaken by any other party in terms of a licence or similar authorisation and to the acquisition, assimilation and dissemination of space satellite data which was not conveyed or transmitted by any other party in terms of a licence or similar authorisation. The Committee interrogated whether the organisation was consulted during the drafting of the Bill and how it planned to relate to the proposed Space Agency. Members also debated Sentech’s involvement in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project.
The Chairperson welcomed all persons in attendance. In particular, he acknowledged the presence of the Minister of Science and Technology, Mr Mosibudi Mangena, and embraced the opportunity to interact with him. In addition, he thanked all political parties for their positive input as well as constructive criticism during the budget vote. Finally, he reminded Members about the agenda for the meeting.
Briefing by the Minister on the National Research Foundation
The Minister indicated that a new National Research Foundation (NRF) Board needed to be established because the term of office of the current one would cease at the end of that month (June 2008). In light of this development, the Department of Science and Technology (Department) had carried out the different processes (required for the creation of board) outlined in the NRF Act. The legislation directed that the board be comprised of individuals that had the necessary skills and expertise in a variety of fields such as humanities, business and social sciences. To that end, the Department instituted an Advisory panel to sort through the nominations and produce a shortlist of candidates. With that process already finalised, the Minister was confident that the proposed board was properly considered, had the correct gender balance and represented the different disciplines and interests in the country. He indicated that he had consulted with the Minister of Education and the relevant NCOP committee, who were equally happy with the make-up of the board.
The Minister described the NRF as a unique and important institution. It played a pivotal role in the development of human capital through the provision of grants to students and researches. Such investment was necessary if the programmes of the country, namely the Space Agency (Agency) and Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) were to be realised. The NRF was central in managing the Department’s relationship with the private sector, universities, international organizations and foreign countries. The NRF Board also played an important role in overseeing the Department’s ten-year innovation plan and ensuring that it was successful.
The Minister hoped that TIA would be operational before the end of the year. He believed that the establishment of such an agency was necessary to modernise society, the economy and ensure that the country was able to compete with the best in the world. It would also ensure that people had the opportunity and resources that would enable them to explore and express themselves in a manner that would benefit the country.
The Chairperson invited the Committee to engage on the input made by the Minister.
Ms B Ngcobo (ANC) enquired whether all the members of the current board were reaching the end of their terms at the end of the month.
The Minister clarified that all members of the Board were appointed for a term, which expired at the end of the month. Technically, this meant that all members would lose their status at the end of the month even though some were eligible for reappointment. Lastly, he added that in terms of the Act, members that had served for more than one term could not be reappointed.
Mr A Ainsley (ANC) probed two issues. Firstly, he asked whether the performance and attendance of existing board members were evaluated before they could be considered for reappointment.
Secondly, he questioned what kind of assessment was done of nominees for board positions. He assumed that one part of that assessment would include an evaluation of what existing commitments an individual had to other boards and councils. He shared the concern of SCOPA that people were over committed and could not discharge their responsibilities. Finally, he identified that some of the individuals who were nominated were not suitable because they appeared very busy with other boards and councils.
The Minister stated that for the sake of continuity, he had engaged informally with the chairperson of the board to ascertain which members were available for reappointment. Also, he confirmed that the performance and attendance of such members were discussed during this engagement. Lastly, he remarked that the attendance of meetings was very important but it was by no means the only measure to assess the performance of a member.
In respect of the latter question, the Minister conceded that it was a legitimate concern and mentioned that quiet a few nominations had been rejected precisely because the individuals were over committed. He acknowledged that the “better the quality of the individual, the greater the chances that that person would be overcommitted”. An attempt was being made to address this; however this was not always possible because it was not always easy to find people who had the time and the capacity to fulfil the role.
Mr S Nxumalo (ANC) asked the Minister to shed some light on what the Committee was expected to do with the shortlist of names for the board.
The Minister explained that the NRF Act required the Minister of Science and Technology to appoint the board after consultation with three bodies, namely the Committee, the relevant NCOP committee (Select Committee on Education and Recreation) and the Minister of Education. He clarified that the latter two bodies had already been consulted and that the Department was now seeking the approval of the Committee.
A member examined whether there was a sizeable number of women represented on the proposed board.
The Minister replied that there were an equal number of men and women on the board.
Ms N Madlala-Routeledge (ANC) addressed several issues. To start with, she complained that the Committee was being consulted at the tail end of the process when it could not change anything. Consequently, she advised that the Committee be consulted initially when the positions are advertised. Additionally, she claimed that in some cases, individuals were in the habit of appointing each other and that this should be monitored.
The Minister responded that the Department was guided by the NRF Act, which prescribed the process to be followed. Firstly, the Department was authorised to invite nominations from the public. After nominations had been received, the Department had to constitute an advisory panel, which was tasked with producing a shortlist of nominations to be presented to the Minister of Science and Technology. Thirdly, the Act stipulated that the Minister can only take a decision after he had consulted with the Committee, the relevant NCOP Committee and the Minister of Education.
The Minister conceded that the matter was conceivable in respect of the Member’s latter comment. However, he believed that the necessary checks and balances were in place to reduce such practices.
Mr J Blanche (DA) questioned the balance of the proposed board and why certain people were left out and others included. He argued that Prof Swanepoel (University of Free State Director: Research and Development) ought to have been included because of his background in food production and development of rural people
The Minister replied that it was a difficult to accommodate all areas of expertise on the board. Equally, he stated that it was not easy trying to balance the gender, racial and geographical considerations. Lastly, he gave an assurance that he would investigate and determine in which capacity Prof Swanepoel could be utilised.
Prof I Mohammed (ANC) expressed concern about the process followed in the appointment of the board. He contended that the Committee was placed in a disadvantaged position because it had not had sight of the Curriculum Vitaes (CVs) of the nominees. Furthermore, he asserted that the Committee would only be in a position to engage in a fruitful discussion regarding the suitability of a candidate if it had an opportunity to go through the CVs and conduct interviews with the nominees. He maintained that he could not judge the ability of certain people (on the shortlist) because he did not know them and would have to be swayed to a great extent by what the Minister said.
In the same vein, Mr Nxumalo argued that the advisory panel performed the job that should have been done by the committee.
The Minister reiterated that the Department was guided by the Act, which did not direct that the names of the people who were nominated should be submitted to the committee. Similarly, it did not allow for such individuals be interviewed by the committee. He added that even the advisory panel did not interview the nominees.
The Minister insisted that he was constrained by what the law stated. He affirmed that all inputs and suggestions received from the Committee or any other body would be taken to the panel for consideration before a final proposal was made.
The Chairperson commented that he respected the work done by the advisory panel but nevertheless echoed the concerns raised by his colleagues. He suggested that here needed to be a larger debate about what proper consultation (whether in or after consultation) meant. Finally, he recommended that the Committee support the board appointments to the NRF.
Ms Madladla-Routeledge opposed the suggestion made by the Chairperson. She advanced that Members needed time to reflect on the shortlist so that they could give quality feedback to the Minister. She also felt that the Committee would be rubberstamping the list if it accepted it at this moment.
Mr Blanche, Ms Ngcobo and Mr Nxumalo all endorsed this position.
The Chairperson stated that the Committee would revisit this matter at the earliest opportunity and give the Minister feedback. Also, he thanked the Minister for his time.
Briefing by Sentech on the South African National Space Agency
To begin with, Mr Dingane Dube, Executive: Regulatory and Government Affairs, Sentech, explained that the organisation was a broadband network business, which supplied communication solutions to wholesale and retail customers in South Africa and the rest of the continent. Sentech also owned and operated the digital satellite transmission systems (Intelsat and PanAmSat) and other capacity, which provided a link for terrestrial transmitter networks and direct satellite broadcasting services. It was also noted that Sentech was a commercially run, 100% State Owned Enterprise (SOE), which was established in terms of the Sentech Act No. 63 of 1996, as amended.
Mr Dube highlighted that one of the objects of the South African National Space Agency (Agency), recorded in section 4(c) of the Space Agency Bill (Bill), was to "foster research in astronomy, earth observation, communications, navigation and space physics". He contended that the object of fostering research in astronomy appeared to mirror one of the objects of the Astronomy Geographic Advantage Bill (AGA Bill). Whilst there was fundamentally no difficulty in the objects of the Agency being aligned with the objects of the AGA Bill, the overlap between the two legislations raised queries regarding the scope of the Agency's responsibility in respect of the advancement of astronomy in South Africa. In addition, he believed that it could result in an unnecessary duplication of administrative skills, costs and resources as well as divergent or disparate policies pertaining to the advancement of astronomy.
Sentech noted that one of the functions of the proposed Agency, set out in section 5(1)(d) of the Space Agency Bill was to- "acquire, assimilate and disseminate space satellite data for any organ of state". As a provider of broadcasting signal distribution services, Sentech provided identical services which fell within the ambit the ambit of the functions of the Agency. As a result, Sentech proposed that the Agency should not be entitled to restrict, infringe upon or in any manner regulate Sentech's broadcasting signal distribution services or multimedia services which were regulated by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa.
Moreover, Sentech discerned that the Bill conferred a mandatory obligation on the Agency, to acquire, assimilate and disseminate space satellite data for any organ of state. In light of this, Sentech was a concerned that as an organ of state, it would be required to approach the Agency in order for the Agency to act on its behalf in respect of, inter alia, the conclusion of any agreements in respect of the leasing of transponder capacity or in respect of the conveyance of any satellite data.
Finally, Sentech proposed an amendment to section 5 (1)(d) of the Bill to ensure that the powers conferred on the Agency (in that provision) did not negatively impact upon Sentech's licensed business operations. The propose change would limit the Agency's rights to activities which were not already undertaken by any other party in terms of a licence or similar authorisation and to the acquisition, assimilation and dissemination of space satellite data which was not conveyed or transmitted by any other party in terms of a licence or similar authorisation
The Chairperson enquired whether the term public entity, in the proposed section 5(1)(d), referred to Sentech specifically.
Mr Dube clarified that the term was designed at all public entities as defined by the Public Finance Management Act.
Mr Blanche posed whether the legislation also applied to banks.
Mr Dube explained that the legislation only applied to organs of states, and did not include banks because they did not fall within that ambit.
Mr C Morkel (ANC) sought clarity on whether the organisation’s contractual obligations would be impacted by the Agency.
Mr Dube emphasised that Sentech’s contractual agreements- to provide broadcasting signals to the public broadcaster and to certain commercial broadcasters- would continue to exist. Additionally, he acknowledged the importance of the Agency but maintained that it should not infringe on the public entities, which also dealt with the socio economic objectives of the country.
Prof Mohamed examined whether Sentech had disadvantaged the country’s bid for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) by refusing to grant access to certain frequencies.
Mr Dube denied this charge and stressed that Sentech could not object with a decision (to bid for the SKA) made by Cabinet. He also indicated that that the organization was working with the Department of Science and Technology on the different committees they had established for the SKA project.
A member questioned as to how Sentech would relate with the Agency.
Mr Dube suggested that a memorandum of understanding would be the best route to take.
The Chairperson asked whether Sentech had been consulted during the drafting of the Bill.
Mr Dube replied in the negative.
The Chairperson thanked Sentech for bringing the fundamental issues to the fore. He commented that the Committee would deliberate further on the Bill and on the NRF board appointments in the next meeting.
The meeting was adjourned.
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