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Africa celebrates at World Science Forum but SA’s electricity woes dampen mood

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Picture: Supplied – Former University of Johannesburg Vice Chancellor and newly appointed Rector of the United Nations University Tshilidzi Marwala.

By Edwin Naidu

Bafana Bafana failed to make it to the football World Cup, but South Africa still scored an own goal when Cape Town played host to the world cup of sciences last week. It’s not acceptable when more than 900 global citizens descend on our doorstep to celebrate innovation; our country subjects them to load-shedding. For better or worse, the relationship between Eskom and its citizens is a marriage in a dark hell.

The challenges facing the planet were stark. Africa was well-represented at the World Science Forum (WSF) celebratory showpiece featuring 118 nations, prompting a surprise welcome from the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, followed by Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, Science, and Innovation, under the theme Science for Social Justice.

We glibly talk about human rights; indeed, access to electricity to prepare a meal or carry out a basic task like searching the internet is not easily doable when the lights are off.

Politicians and scientists from Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, eSwatini, Botswana, Senegal, and other nations were present at the event held for the first time on African soil, celebrating innovation – and acknowledging the many challenges. Technology solutions were discussed against the backdrop of the current realities in South Africa: load-shedding as part of the ongoing energy crisis, which cast doubts on the ability of a nation to host such a mega-celebration when it cannot keep the lights on.

But South Africa, as hosts, did exceptionally well.

However, it was embarrassing in the presence of the world science brains celebrating science achievements, yet Eskom always seems to steal the limelight. The reputational damage caused by this hopeless parastatal cannot be overstated. Nzimande stressed that this event was about tackling significant societal challenges. Stage six load shedding rubbished efforts somewhat to achieve these lofty goals.

One cannot help but wonder how you realistically plan to solve the world’s problems when you cannot keep the lights on.

Many pressing challenges were noted during the event, including food security, poverty, and inequalities. Science may hold some of the answers. But it also requires political will.

Ramaphosa, the king of inaction, made a call for action in his opening address, a day after Nzimande took delegates, including the Chair of the SKAO, Professor Catherine Cesarksy, to the Square Kilometre Array in Carnarvon in the Northern Cape. Opening the forum, Ramaphosa called for fair and equal access to scientific innovations and discoveries to close the gap between rich countries and developing economies.

Forget about Eskom at your peril; we will always be in the dark. But the brightness around the SKA is evident. Nzimande said the construction, which has only just begun, would take several years to complete but will result in a revolutionary new radio telescope array that could lead to breakthrough discoveries in modern cosmology.

“What struck me about the project was not only the tantalizing prospects of pioneering discoveries in fundamental questions about the nature, origins, and evolution of our universe but also how the SKA team has begun to involve local indigenous communities in not only the development of the facility but also through training next generation of radio astronomers, engineers, technicians and other skilled workers driving a truly international scientific experiment. It gives me great hope that we do not have to make false choices between knowing the world and taking people with us to pursue that knowledge. After all, such knowledge belongs to all humanity.”

Nzimande was clear that it was incumbent on all to provide governments with the best scientific advice to guide policy-making. He said the delegates are responsible for inspiring, training, and empowering the next generation of African scientists, who will follow in your footsteps. You will continue to be responsible for expanding the frontiers of knowledge and ensuring that learning is applied to benefit society. One hopes, however, that Nzimande and government leaders are receptive to the advice of scientists.

Bigwigs, like the African Academy of Sciences, and its President, Prof Felix Dakora, were part of the proceedings. Professor Tamas Freund, Nzimande’s co-chair of the World Science Forum Steering Committee, and the Steering Committee members, were also in attendance. Dr. Alondra Nelson, Deputy Assistant to President Biden for Science, was a keynote speaker. Other speakers included Professors Roula Inglesi-Lotz, Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy; Sir Peter Gluckman, President of the International Science Council; South African-born Dr. Shamila Nair-Bedouelle, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences at UNESCO, and Princess Sumaya bint El Hassan, President of Jordan’s Royal Scientific Society. These were the heavyweights of science. Would they have given us some insight on Eskom – and whether our government would be prepared to listen?

The forum, which ended with a braai on Friday, featured 28 thematic sessions exploring how science could improve lives for all in the 21st century.  More than 900 leading scientists, decision-makers from politics and industry, and civil society representatives attended the event.

One for the future, referenced by Ramaphosa in his address, relates to opportunities in the hydrogen sector as South Africa transitions to the green economy. He did say previously that green could become the new gold, and this was lapped up swiftly by the enterprising Chemical Industry Education and Training Authority (CHIETA), which held high-powered discussions around the skills required to drive South Africa’s transition to a green economy at a Pan-African Hydrogen Skills Conference on the sidelines of the science indaba.

“Understanding the skills required for sustainable, green economic growth and development is essential. In its efforts to create an integrated post-school education and training sector, the government acknowledges the centrality of industry in skills development, and I am glad that the Chemical Industries Education and Training Authority’s Pan-African Hydrogen Economy Skills Conference is focused on the industry perspectives, experiences, and skills required for the hydrogen economy,” said Nzimande.

CHIETA has partnered with Impact Hydrogen, the South African National Energy Institute (SANEDI), the Centre for Renewable “Sustainable Energy Studies at Stellenbosch University, and, recently, the National Business Institute (NBI) to unpack the opportunities of the hydrogen economy.

Nzimande reckons that TVET colleges should be at the heart of green economy initiatives, producing skilled young people who will play a vital role in meeting the goals of the green hydrogen economy.

The British High Commissioner Antony Phillipson said hydrogen was not “a fuel for the future but of now” and that the country’s just energy transition enjoyed the full support of Britain.

CHIETA CEO Yershen Pillay said they were keen to get industry perspectives on hydrogen manufacturing to understand the skills development perspectives from the supply and demand sectors to gain better insights. Jointly hosted by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the CHIETA, the conference featured speakers from Ghana and Namibia and looked at how hydrogen can be used as a lever for social justice in the context of South Africa’s transition to cleaner energy sources. Watch this space.

In a declaration accepted by all delegates, participants of the 10th World Science Forum agreed to be guided by the values of Ubuntu in respecting the universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity and working together to harness the power of science to achieve the ambitions of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) underpinning social justice.

No one doubts that science can change the world – for the better. If only they could shed some light on what to do about the miserable Eskom.

Naidu is the Impact Editor of SciDev.Net and heads Higher Education Media Services – a social enterprise start-up involved in education in South Africa and the African Continent.

This article was exclusively written for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.