Naledi Pandor is South Africa's minister of science and technology.
She spoke to EurActiv's Jeremy Fleming at the South African embassy in Brussels.
To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.
What are the key areas where South Africa is seeking cooperation with the EU?
There are a range of investments across many sectors but the premier one is the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a telescope system which promises to revolutionise science by answering some of the most fundamental questions that remain about the origin, nature and evolution of the universe.
We are competing with the Australians over this project, and we have invested an outlay of 500 million South African Rand to build the demonstrator telescope. There's a lot more we can do together, especially in the field of climate science. I believe the EU, through established and emerging research, can play an important role in influencing action by countries. The stand of the EU has been a far better one than many countries in the negotiations.
I am also keen to have young people from our country go to universities all over the world, including Europe, and to return and train our post-doctoral students to improve international cooperation. We do not have decent enough exposure for our post-doctoral work, and we need to develop this.
In Africa generally we need to develop our good universities into a more effective network for the exchange of research and we can use the EU as a model here, since this is an area where there has been a lot of attention focused in Europe.
Is the SKA part of a broader space strategy?
In the newly established South African Space Agency we have a number of astronomy resources, but the agency also has responsibility for implementing a space science strategy. One of the key aims of this strategy is to establish a mini satellite industry, because in South Africa – and in Africa as a whole – we rely too much on others for this technology.
South Africa may develop a mini-satellite programme, but would you have to launch your satellites elsewhere?
We did launch Sumbandila [the first South African satellite] in Russia two years ago and I am hoping that we will move to produce a second satellite – called Sumbandila Two – if the minister of finance agrees with me. We do have the capabilities to launch satellites from South Africa and my department is investigating the current calibre of our potential here, and to see if we could try and do this without too much further investment.
Are you committed to the Galileo project to address GPS needs in South Africa?
We are a party to Galileo – amongst other international projects – but we are looking at what form of African constellation we can be part of. With Kenya, Algeria, Nigeria and Kenya we are looking to develop satellite coverage that would together give us the chance to monitor effectively the environment, climate change and all those aspects in which we are currently under-served as a region. And if we pull this one off we will actually have a fairly sophisticated satellite monitoring facility that can serve the African continent.
What can satellites do for Africa?
One of the things that we have been discussing in the past few years is developing a global earth observation system. In order to put this in place we need to have capabilities in base technologies and these satellite programmes will allow us to become an equal partner as we build up our positioning systems.
Climate change monitoring is very important and using satellite technology enables us to share our responses to the challenges and threats to agriculture and disease. It is something of great benefit to help farming communities. We are able to advise farmers when to irrigate and carry out better planting and movement of cattle.
For me what is important is not just the technology but the ability this will afford us to decide matters for ourselves. Because Africa cannot keep relying on someone else to give it information, to provide it with technology: we want to become an equal partner.
Does the changeover from FP7 to the Common Strategic Framework pose a challenge for those applying for EU investment funds from overseas?
I hope the new framework will not be too different because we have benefited hugely from the framework programmes – especially under FP7 we believe we have done well – and we hope to build on that history. I hope that what emerges [from the change to the Common Strategic Framework] will allow us to continue to make advances.
What has been great is that the EU has appreciated South African scientists as part of the framework programme, so I think the new strategy will integrate partnerships in research much more.
Where does South Africa look principally for its science and research partnerships?
I do not believe in closing off any partner but we have a traditional relationship with Europe that we must maintain and build on. We understand one another well, have worked together for several decades, and the EU has been a good friend to South Africa and to Africa more generally through the African Union.
We also have strong links with Brazil, India, China and Russia, and we wouldn't want to erode those links. In some sectors the relationships relate to specific expertise. For example we find Brazil's developments on biotechnology exciting and India is a world leader on indigenous knowledge. I don't think that we would ever cut out one partner. We have an inclusive diplomacy and the EU is a huge and growing partner.
What are the areas of excellence in the field of science and research that you would like to see associated with South Africa?
Space is one area of excellence we are looking to develop along with climate change monitoring. Where we are situated geographically, at the deepest point of Africa, we can provide interesting material on global climate change. Another area we are looking to develop is biotechnology, and especially associated biotech in conjunction with indigenous knowledge. This means looking at traditional African healers and their methods, which are not well understood, and we have now begun working in that domain.
Energy is another core interest, and here we see massive knowledge exchange possibilities with Europe. Germany has interesting lessons for us in expanding energy access on the African continent, where there is a supply shortage. Traditional fossil-fuel based solutions will not work in the future and we are looking at renewable and biomass solutions.
It is a sore point for us that Germany has more solar power development than the whole of Africa, where there is so much more scope to capture solar power. Finally South Africa, and the continent of Africa as a whole, is full of social experiments in societies, so social sciences and humanities are a strong point.
Can South Africa take a leadership role in Africa on science and technology issues?
Our approach in South Africa is not to play to unattainable visions but to look at how we can work with partners. For example with the SKA we involved a number of partner countries. You must not think that the whole of Africa can move together at the same time. Cooperation has to be organised carefully. It is only over time that the continent will become research competent and technology rich.
There are excellent medical and health research programmes emerging in several countries – such as Egypt – and some of the national solutions to local diseases and industry developed around these are exemplary. So clearly there are pockets of excellence that we need to expand and to make more known and bring into spaces like the EU in order to improve our existing technologies to make them globally impactful.
But you cannot be a lone ranger. You must work with the rest of the world and work in a manner that develops your abilities and your competencies.
There has been very active investment in Africa from the Chinese these past few years. Do you have the impression that they are more dynamic in seeking investment and research partnerships in Africa than Europe?
China has been very active, and if you are active you are listened to. If a person does not knock on your door you won't offer them a seat in your house, you know. I think in international relations you should not be so confident of relationships that you would neglect them.