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March 31, 2015

Meetings Africa 2015: Behind South Africa’s Knowledge Development

The City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality (also known as the City of Tshwane) is the metropolitan municipality that forms the local government of northern Gauteng Province, South Africa, and includes the administrative capital city of Pretoria. Following Meetings Africa last month, IMR visited the Municipality to learn about how it is leveraging its educational strengths to bring in top-tier conferences.
Arrival in the capital, a half-hour drive from Johannesburg, begins with sight of the enormous UNISA (The University of South Africa) buildings. As a dedicated education institution, UNISA is the largest university on the African continent and attracts a third of all higher education students in South Africa. The university has more than 300,000 students, including African and international students in 130 countries worldwide, making it one of the world's “mega-universities.”

Unisa, Pretoria Campus © Gauteng Tourism Authority

“Open distance learning” (ODL) entails a student-centered approach that gives students flexibility and choice over what, when, where, and how they learn, and provides them with extensive student support. In Africa, this is particularly significant because it enables students to work while simultaneously pursuing further education remotely. Currently, more than 80 percent of potential students in South Africa are denied further education because of social and economic demands from the home--and this, in turn, is restricting access to potential post-graduate research and development. (South Africa’s Ph.D. community still remains largely white and male.)
Center of Research Policy
Tshwane City is dwarfed in scale by Johannesburg – nearby South Africa and Gauteng province’s commercial and financial engine room. But in terms of the innovation and the development of South Africa's human intellectual capital, Tshwane is massive. As a hub from which much of South Africa's knowledge economy and policy is developing, Pretoria is home to the Department of Science & Technology for the Republic of South Africa, the Centre for Scientific and Industrial Research and its Convention Centre (CSIR), the recently constructed Innovation Hub, the University of Pretoria, the Africa Institute of South Africa, and the National Research Foundation (the NRF).

The NRF administers approximately 1.5 percent of South Africa's GDP across a series of research programs designed to drive human resource development and facilities, such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) reported last week in IMR. Its executive director for human & institutional capacity development, Dr. Romilla Maharaj, explained that “under the NRF Act of 1998, it is mandated to promote and support research through funding human resource development in order to facilitate the creation of knowledge, innovation and development in all fields of science and technology.” That’s approximately R8bn.
Developing Research Capability
Born out of the CSIR, Maharaj's organization is focused on providing funding for strategic research and facilities within priority sectors identified by the Ministry – in fields of science, biodiversity, medicine and technology including biotech, nanotech, ICT, energy security, healthcare, advanced automotive manufacturing, and space technology.  And the efforts are paying off, as South Africa is gaining a strong reputation for its investments in Geographical Sciences. Its Geographic Advantage Programme is one of five key pillars to its scientific development strategy with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and Gravity Wave Astronomy (GWA) projects at the forefront of South Africa's escalating reputation for research.
However, while South Africa has emerged as excellent value for money when developing international research, it still has much to do to increase its capacity for scientific development and retention of intellectual property. (Even the SKA project is 25 percent funded by Australia, with the other seven African countries also contributing.)

Dr. Romilla Maharaj, Executive Director: Human & Institutional Capacity Development

The NRF funds approximately 15 percent of post-graduate research but Romilla is eager for the NRF's contribution to the 5-year rise from 27 Ph.D.s per million head of population to 35, to increase further to 100 per million head of population by 2030. Securing additional funds through regional and international research projects will be key for securing funding for this growth in indigenous capability and the role that events will play in connecting to such investment was not lost on Maharaj. “Science requires collaboration to realize mutual gain,” she said, acknowledging the success that South African cities have seen in attracting international conferences and events in key sectors such as the 2016 International Geosciences Congress in Cape Town.

As South Africa’s capacity for research grows, so it can secure more patents of its own rather than seeing patents being lodged by international partners. “We've had a longstanding history of intellectual property leaving with individuals,” Maharaj said, adding, “we don't have enough angel investors because our tax system doesn’t encourage philanthropy as it does in America and Australia.” 

But as the South African government looks to increase funding in research capability to 2 percent of its GDP, Maharaj's wishes for greater research capability, and autonomous access to intellectual property, are likely to come in time. As she pointed out, the transformation of South Africa's human intellectual capital is going to be a long-term project, but while the NRF has the political will and funding to support such a transformation, a great opportunity for international research and inward investment resides in the country. It presents the same for international associations to use their events to connect with an expanding Ph.D. base of scientific professionals in South Africa and the continent as a whole.
It would be no surprise, in coming years, to see Meetings Africa relocate to Tshwane City and getting closer to the heart of South Africa’s scientific and research  transformation.

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About the Author: James Latham

James Latham





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