Department of Science and Technology

6 December 2017

University College, Dublin, Ireland

 

Chancellor, Chairman of Council Members of Council, Senate members, academic staff, graduates, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen good morning to you all.

 

I am deeply honored at the privilege of being awarded an honorary doctorate from the University College Dublin. It is an honor that gives recognition to the research community of South Africa, and the able officials and researchers who lead our science sector. This University has distinguished itself on many fronts. It is an institution of excellence with a well established record of quality in the key purposes of universities, teaching, research, and community engagement. I feel fortunate in being associated with such a University.

 

Major performers of research in South Africa are in the university system and we have seven universities that rank among the best globally but we need to do much more if we are to reach the stature of this institution.

 

Universities in South Africa have been essential partners in our national project of building a new South Africa. It is a project, a social experiment that we began twenty three years ago. We were fortunate as we began this journey of transition led by visionary leaders who understood the critical role higher education and knowledge generation should play in supporting change.

 

Our founding president Nelson Mandela laid the foundation for a new society in South Africa and profoundly shaped the key policy choices made by South Africa's first democratic government, and nowhere was this more evident than in his determination to tackle the exclusion of black people and women from higher education. He clearly articulated his views during a conference at one of our formerly whites only universities

 

"Universities must continue to be leading institutions for specialized high level scientific knowledge. In our own country where we spend lots of time and energy contemplating issues of transformation also in higher education, that demand  must remain non- negotiable. What one expects of University in the changed circumstances is that it should utilize its expertise to find ways of greater sharing of knowledge." (26th International Conference on improving universities, Rand Afrikaans University, July 2001)

 

In setting out this socially connected vision of universities Mandela challenged universities in South Africa to move out of the shell of apartheid racist policy that had imposed a fossilising patriarchal racist and ethnic ethos in many of our institutions.

 

Many of our universities came into intellectual maturity in the face of such aspirations for higher education in South Africa.

 

Due to having cut his political teeth in educational establishments and grown into a full sense of justice in the university sector President Mandela and his comrades had a firm conviction that from universities comes access to knowledge and new knowledge, from universities comes resistance to tyranny, from universities come the lessons of democracy, appreciation for diversity and the full intellectual flowering of young scholars and future leaders. It has been intriguing to watch our universities and perhaps universities worldwide stumble on this agenda or pursue it with precision.

 

Our science system was similarly challenged by our new democracy. There were several tasks we had to pursue.

 

First, we had to ensure the entry of young black people to science, we had to significantly expand post graduate numbers, and develop mechanisms and instruments to retain young post graduates as full time researchers in the research sector. We have made progress but so much more needs to be done not just in South Africa but on the entire African continent. I am hoping my visit to Dublin will lead to firm partnerships in this aspect of our challenges.

Second, we had to develop and implement a new science policy agenda and invest in disciplines that would support pursuit of our key development goals while also allowing all our researchers the freedom to be wildly creative and imaginative. We selected several grand challenge focus areas. They are global change with a strong focus on climate change. Second, the development of a bioeconomy through research and development support to the biotechnology sectors particularly pharmaceuticals and developing new products from our indigenous knowledge sector and our immense biodiversity. Third, renewable energy resources and development of technology solutions in this sector, fourth, space science and astronomy, and fifthly human and social dynamics.

 

Astronomy research has proven to be an inspired choice given an active cohort of researchers, our wonderful geographic advantage and our successful hosting of SALT (Southern Africa’s Largest Telescope) and the outcome of our bid to host the Square Kilometre Array which will be the worlds largest radio telescope once built and the first global research infrastructure to be located in Africa and Australia. Nine African partners countries will host part of the SKA. Students and universities from these countries and global partner countries have been beneficiaries of SKA scholarships, engineering design initiatives and participated in planning for high performance computing solutions.

 

Astronomy has proven to be a discipline that can advance science development in a range of fields and has also shown that young people's curiosity about the university is an enduring curiosity that can be used to attract young people to scientific research.

 

Our proudest moments however, have emerged from solutions oriented clinical and health sciences research. Our scientists are doing leading research into providing new treatments and diagnostic tools in HIV AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

 

We have been thrilled at supporting research in democratic South Africa as it develops solutions to often intractable problems of disease, lack of energy, poor water quality and declining agricultural yields. Universities have been the most important institution in translating universities from mere knowledge generation into knowledge generated for change and development. Of course given twenty three years of democracy these are beginnings I hope our universities will draw on institutions such as university College Dublin and enhance their capacity to support innovation and increase the training of thousands of young researchers who will advance South Africa's transition to a full knowledge economy.

 

Finally, allow to express my deep gratitude to everyone person present for the honourable of being a recipient of such a prestigious honorary degree.

 

Thank you very much.