INTERVIEW for Bucharest Journal/Jurnalul Bucurestiului
HE Mr. Jabu Mbalula, Ambassador of South Africa in Romania
25 July 2019, Thursday, 11.00 hours
Journalist: Geo Scripcariu
- What is the significance of National Day of SA?
The first thing to say about the significance is that it is a day of remembrance for us. We remember what we’ve gone through, from the time of colonization in 1652 to the time of our freedom in 1994. And in between those it was a time full of oppression, repression, pain, blood, death, struggle and resilience. So, we remember that. But it is also a day of commemoration and paying tribute to all those who fought and sometimes paid with death for our freedom. It is a day of celebration as well because, for instance, Nelson Mandela, our icon, who spent 27 years in jail for that freedom, voted for the first time when he was 76 years old instead of the internationally accepted 18 years.
We celebrate through workshops, conferences, talk shows, sharing what freedom, democracy means to all of us and how these were achieved. And most importantly we recommit ourselves to enhance and defend democracy and freedom as we are aware that these gains can be reversed. We recommit to make sure that never again should our country find itself a pariah in the world. On 27 April, our President addresses the whole nation on our achievements, challenges, gaps and what still needs to be done and the responsibilities. The whole nation takes a moment to reflect on our achievements, which are many, but also on our shortcomings, the challenges and the road still to be traversed to reach the completely free, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous South Africa.
2.What are the strategic objectives of SA?
South Africa joined the community of nations in 1994 having emerged from the cruel darkness of Apartheid system. Since then it adapted its foreign policy and domestic policies around the central issue of protection and promotion of human rights.
This objective gets impetus from South Africa’s collaboration with like-minded regional and international institutions like the Non-Aligned Movement, United Nations and others.
SA aspires for peace, security and development of all countries with particular focus on Africa. We, as a country, abhor use of military interventions as means of resolving conflicts and favour peaceful resolution of conflicts. We are staunch supporters of multilateralism as opposed to unipolar systems.
- What is the role of innovation in the context of these strategic objectives?
Innovation is indispensable driver of our economic progress.
The push for greater innovation is happening throughout the country, and the Department of Science and Technology is leading the charge. “Even during our economic difficulties, we must continue to invest in research, development and innovation, as an indispensable driver of social and economic progress.”, our Minister of Science and Technology stated.
The Nine- Point Plan is being implemented across various sectors of the economy, and has highlighted the important role of science, technology and innovation in growing our economy. Our investment in science, technology and innovation ensures that we give our country a competitive edge and leads to greater prosperity, more entrepreneurs and jobs.
Through projects such as the Square Kilometre Array, which is an international partnership to build the world’s largest radio telescope, South Africa is fast emerging as a premier destination for science, technology and innovation. The potential economic benefits from the SKA are enormous and R134million has already been spent on local suppliers for the construction of MeerKAT and other related projects. The MeerKAT is the precursor to SKA, and is by its own right a mega radio telescope.
We are further leveraging the important impact of science, technology and innovation by forming strategic partnerships on the continent and with our BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa business communities) partners. South Africa is also leading the development of an ambitious BRICS big data programme. These developments will ensure that South African science, technology and innovation remains at the cutting edge
A crucial part is ensuring that SADC (Southern Africa Development Community) nations partner with and benefit from the ICT and digital technology dividend. Although there has been progress in building government-business collaboration – for example, through increased support for industry via the R&D tax incentive and the sector innovation funds – the level of collaboration between all NSI actors needs to increase. In particular, civil society has to be brought into the formal NSI structures and networks, and support for and collaboration with business must be enhanced. A nuanced approach is required to address the unique needs of business sectors, and small and large firms, as well as to create linkages with state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Relationships between STI (Science, Technology and Innovation) -intensive departments have been strengthened. For example, the DST (Department for Science and Technology) is working closely with the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) on human capital development, and with the Department of Trade and Industry on the inclusion of STI in government’s plans to re-industrialise the South African economy. However, there is room for improving the incorporation of STI in the strategies of lead departments. A quadruple helix model of innovation will be encouraged to facilitate interactions and partnerships among business, government (including public research institutions), higher education institutions and civil society.
In further pursuit of an inclusive NSI, and to build on the progress of the past 20 years, improving the representation of black people and women, as well as people with disabilities, will remain a priority at all levels – among undergraduates, in management positions in research programmes, in new technology-based firms, and in the professoriate.
- What is the role of innovation in the context of the African continent?
Necessity is the mother of invention, and in Africa it has been the mother of innovation. While the continent is vastly different, the level of innovation has been interesting to watch, largely fuelled by the equalizing nature of technology and mobile telephony.
Over the last 15 years, African economies have enjoyed growth above the global average. This has largely been fuelled by mineral agriculture, with growth linked to China’s demand for raw materials. While this demand from China is now slowing down, the rise of African countries is a new story.
Africa boasts a total population of 1.2 billion, the majority of whom are under 30. Africa has the highest rates of urbanisation; its poor infrastructure, which has previously hampered growth and development, is now a catalyst for innovation. The mobile phone in Africa has become a game-changer for the continent. According to Ericsson, the technology company, by 2019 there will be 930 million mobile phones in Africa, almost one for every person on the continent. There is greater mobile penetration than electricity penetration. Now, people are able to connect, get news, trade, get access to healthcare and even transfer money.
For the first time in Africa, we are seeing a trend of being technology generators rather than just adopters.
One of the biggest innovations to come out of Africa is mobile money transfer, which has disrupted traditional financial models. The continent is starting to see the rise of e-healthcare solutions and online education solutions, two of the biggest challenges on the continent. These include new drone technology for the delivery of goods to leapfrog the infrastructure divide.
Across the continent, despite continued hurdles, e-commerce has largely thrived with the number of online shoppers growing 18% yearly since 2014 – higher than the global average.
Naspers, Africa’s most valuable company, is looking to profit from that growth and is investing over $200 million in its existing stakes in e-commerce companies as well as a further $92 million in new tech startups. Naspers will likely be hoping for much better luck given its unconvincing track record of tech bets in Africa.
The continent is driving growth in global internet connections with connection rates now up to 28% – up from 2.1% in 2005. Overall, there seems to be good news for the continent, as Africa looks to technology to catalyse new areas of growth, a good example being East Africa, with Rwanda and Kenya in particular championing the need for an enabling environment.
- Some examples of major impact innovation in the last 3 years in SA.
Success stories include a local technology start-up in Philippi, which has successfully developed and piloted a nutrient recycling technology, which converts organic waste to animal feed.
Another innovation is in the agricultural sector where a revolutionary wheat breeding platform is assisting South African wheat producers to increase their production and enhance food security for our people. Through its focus on increased drought and heat tolerance there will be potential for higher yielding cultivars. New technology is also shaking up the health sector and ensuring greater health outcomes for people in poor and marginalised communities.
South African researchers from the CSIR, the MRC and the University of Pretoria have developed a low-cost Doppler ultrasound device, known as Umbiflow, which improves primary health care services for pregnant women.
A vital part of this drive for innovation is to ensure support to emerging SMMEs. These enterprises offer an important vehicle for sustainable social and economic inclusion, and their sustained success will ensure that we address poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Notable success stories include Elvema Nutrition, a black-owned SMME that offers clinical trial services and manufacturing of its in-house products. Its moringa fortified products are being produced on a large scale and sold at major South African outlets. Mamoa, a Midrand-based company, has developed a body care range of products, which is stocked by 17 pharmacies; the company is also in talks with Pick * Pay to stock its products.
Another company making waves in this market is Ardhi, which has developed a skin nutrition body care range, and is part of the Tsogo Sun supplier development programme for spa and hotel amenities. These successes, together with numerous other innovations are shaking up the South African market.
- What are the bilateral opportunities in the innovation sector?
South Africa is known for the commercialisation and marketing of products, especially in the area of mining. An ideal situation would be if we could merge the innovative capabilities of Romania with the marketing excellence of South Africa. Such a situation would enhance our bilateral relations, but the importance lies in creating a mechanism whereby both counties can interact with one another on a regular and sustainable basis to the benefit of one another.
The Department of Science and Technology (DST) visited Romania in Aug 2013 and discussed possible cooperation to, amongst others, develop a super computer to process all the data of the Square Kilometre Array Project. The meeting further agreed that the next Joint Commission (JC) meeting will be held in South Africa, to incorporate the outcomes in the Ministerial agenda. IT and skills exchange will form a big part of the areas of cooperation in the upcoming meeting.
The two countries intend to convene the Joint Commission on Science and Technology, in order to identify innovation opportunities. Some dates were proposed by the SA Department of Science and Technology and conveyed by the Embassy to the Romanian Ministry of Research and Innovation. The final decision is still awaited from the Ministry of Research and Innovation.
- What do you know about innovation in Romania?
Romania excels in well-known innovations, the development of intellectual properties and especially in the areas of science, mathematics and IT infrastructure development. Romania once again illustrated its innovation capabilities by developing Bit Defender, one of the world’s fastest Anti-virus software programmes that scored three perfect stars in eight out of nine of the Comparatives tests throughout 2012.
Also, Romania developed Extreme Light Infrastructure – Nuclear Physics, (ELI-NP): The most powerful laser on the planet, called Extreme Light Infrastructure – Nuclear Physics, (ELI-NP), is being installed in Magurele (South West of Bucharest). The super-laser will help develop research in medicine, nuclear waste management, prevention of terrorism, etc. The scientific centre was inaugurated in 2018. Magurele laser has reached the highest power, 10 PetaWats, in 2019. The South African Department of Science and Technology already visited Magurele in 2013 and was very interested in this laser especially its macro data analysis section for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope.