Department of Science and Technology

Wednesday, 18 October 2017


LEAD cafe, University of Cape Town, Cape Town


The past two years have experienced a re-awakening of the desire for fundamental change that was articulated robustly during the course of the anti-apartheid struggle.


In the field of engineering decolonisation should mean three critical outcomes. First, schools should produce larger numbers of learners competent in Maths and Science. Second, there must be a dramatic increase in graduate numbers in Mathematics and Science. And third graduates in engineering should build long term professional careers in engineering and support South Africa in achieving infrastructure development.


The progress in higher education made since 1994 indicates that we can achieve the three outcomes I have referred to. We have had a remarkable increase in black participation, black enrolment, and gender equity. There has also been considerable investment in institutional recapitalisation and in new infrastructure across the system including student accommodation and two new universities.


Despite this noticeable progress, we remain short of engineers in South Africa especially black people and women. A recent SAICE report indicated that South Africa lacks the engineering skills needed for water, sanitation, solid waste, roads, airports, railways, and electricity infrastructure. Much of the existing infrastructure is in need of extensive maintenance.


Lack of numbers is exacerbated by the fact that most engineers do not work as engineers. Many end up working in banks or go into other finance sectors. There has been a growth in university student numbers but the numbers in engineering remain low.


Colleagues in higher education often point to their observations of graduation ceremonies in higher education and the particularly small number of black and women engineering graduates.


We are pleased that we have taken critical steps to build a set of institutions that can absorb young engineers.


The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research offers innovative research opportunities for young engineers and technologists.


The CSIR is our oldest and best-known science council. It was built in the immediate post-war period to promote the development and assimilation of new technologies. It is still, as it was in the 1950s, the biggest and best-resourced science laboratory complex in the country. It accounts for 15% of government expenditure on research and development.


Recently the CSIR adopted water sustainability, health, and safety and security as areas of integrated research and innovation. This is a new development with its emphasis on integration from research through to innovation. These three integrated research and innovation areas are in addition to the six already established research-impact fields of industry, built environment, health, natural environment, defence and security, and energy.


In these areas the CSIR is following promising lines of research and development. Let me highlight a few.


Titanium is a sought-after metal in especially the aerospace industry where aircraft and satellites need to be lighter in weight to consume less fuel. The CSIR and Aerosud is developing a novel high speed process for manufacturing aerospace parts using direct laser sintering of titanium powder (additive manufacturing or 3D printing). This will position South Africa to produce high value components for global aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus and expand the country’s participation in the global aerospace supply chains.


These efforts mean that by 2020 South Africa will have a new industry built around titanium. This translates to thousands of job opportunities and economic growth due to the new businesses that will be created – all based on the local production of titanium metal, turned into aircraft and satellite components.


South Africa is battling to cope with the growing TB epidemic. The CSIR has set out to address the lack of appropriate infrastructure for curbing drug-resistant TB infection and cross-infection, a key constraint in the effective treatment and rehabilitation of patients. The CSIR has been instrumental in supporting the design, development and construction of dedicated, long-term accommodation units for drug-resistant TB patients. In addition, the CSIR provides technical advice and training to the teams at the hospitals to ensure the successful roll-out of the new TB units.


The CSIR is at the frontier of research in the renewable energy sector. For example, it played a key role in developing lithium-iron batteries used in cell phones and electric cars. This research changed the world. All major manufacturers of lithium-ion batteries have licensed CSIR intellectual property.


We haven’t rested on our laurels. Only last week I was at the university of Limpopo to launch a manganese beneficiation plant. Manganese is a key element in lithium-ion batteries, and the R30-million pilot plant was built as a research facility. China appears to have a monopoly on lithium, but we have a lot of manganese. Better to beneficiate rather than to let the Chinese beneficiate and totally dominate the battery market for electric cars.


We also host global research initiatives, which offer exciting project work for young engineers in a range of fields.


The Square Kilometre Array is one of the great scientific projects of the 21st century, developed by scientists in 17 countries.


SKA is not only a ‘big science’ project.


It’s also a ‘big engineering’ project.


We have used our collaboration with the international SKA consortium to best advantage - to develop expertise, to attract young people into science and engineering careers and to develop expertise in industry.


The SA National Space Agency, a fairly new science agency is poised to make a significant contribution to the development of space science industry in South Africa.


Our young scientists and engineers have been able to play to a leading role in many of the areas of development of the SKA, because of the excellent skills imparted by our universities and the expertise and experience that they have picked up from our partners.


These positive indicators of success must not result in the neglect of a number of important tasks in achieving transformed engineering capacity in South Africa.

One of the challenges is to increase innovation by both the public and private sectors. We need engineers that are skilled in developing new ideas and new products. We need professionals with postgraduate research training able to lead innovation, to lead research teams and research institutions. This requires black and women academics in all universities and engineering faculties.

These professionals will serve as strategic mentors and agents of radical change.

If you lead changes of this kind you will achieve decolonization.


Thank you.