Remarks by DR GNM Pandor, Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, at the World Science Forum Plenary on Science Diplomacy, Cape Town International Convention Centre, 8 December 2022

“Science for Diplomacy - how science can reboot multilateralism and global solidarity”

Programme Director,
Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister for Higher Education, Science and Innovation,
Professor Tamas Freund, President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences,
Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, President of the International Science Council Professor Motoko Kotani, Science and Technology Advisor to the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Distinguished Guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to address you today at the first World Science Forum (WSF) to be held on African soil, and we are very pleased that South Africa is the first African country to host this Forum. It is particularly relevant that we converge under the theme “Science for Social Justice”, and we look forward to the deliberations that will look at science for human dignity, climate change, and science for multilateralism.

We hope that these discussions will shape the global science policy agenda in support of our national priorities and the Sustainable Development Goals. We would also like to see the Forum enhance the role Africa plays on the global science stage. South Africa, as well as other developing countries, need to forge meaningful global science partnerships and attract foreign direct investment with a science and technology focus. We increasingly view science diplomacy as an instrument of our foreign policy.

Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) need to feature prominently in development cooperation, including through multilateral processes and trilateral and plurilateral partnerships because they are key cross-cutting enablers for sustainable development. Multilateralism can help reboot Science in Africa and the developing world by providing an international platform for highlighting opportunities and addressing challenges.

To do this developed and developing countries need to create an enabling domestic environment for innovation and to have inclusive, coherent, and coordinated National Systems of Innovation. South Africa’s White Paper on STI and its Decadal implementation plan seek to do this and make South Africa an attractive STI destination. The White Paper and Decadal Plan address the importance of STI in advancing sustainable development and the implementation of the National Development Plan, the UN 2030 Agenda, and that AU Agenda 2063. As such they speak directly to South Africa’s national priorities, including addressing the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment, and inequality, and therefore are also central to our foreign policy priorities.

The South African Inter-Ministerial Committee on Science, Technology and Innovation seeks to move South Africa towards achieving a target of 1.5% expenditure of GDP on research and development, and increase funding for STI initiatives, in line with the White Paper. As South Africa, we also plan to more effectively leverage our bilateral and plurilateral partnerships in the AU, SADC, IBSA, BRICS, the G20, and the UN to bridge the digital divide and secure access to technology, in order to create decent jobs and attract investment.

As the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, both our Head Office and our Missions intend to provide strategic support to the Department of Science and Innovation. Our Missions will initiate and foster key strategic relations, and we will market South Africa’s STI capacities, and profile the country as an international partner.

It is also essential to have an enabling international environment that allows STI to flourish in developing and African countries. Too often we see barriers placed in the way of our development such as restrictions on access to key technologies, unfair and discriminatory trade regimes, limited representation in multilateral decision-making structures, and problems of not having markets of sufficient scale to allow new processes to become profitable. The African Continental Free Trade Agreement helps to unlock the African market to make it globally competitive.

Examples of how international cooperation has helped reboot science in Africa include the Square Kilometre Array and Artemis Program, which will see some of the world’s leading radio telescopes and deep space monitoring capacities possibly locate in South Africa. The Artemis Program is a human and robotic Moon exploration program led by NASA, involving the EU, Japanese and Canadian space programs. The program’s long-term goal is to establish a permanent human base on the Moon and thereafter potentially on Mars.

NASA is exploring the possibility of constructing a Deep Space complex in Matjiesfontein, South Africa as the Southern Hemisphere capacity for space vehicle tracking and communications. NASA and the South African National Space Agency signed an agreement in 2020 to evaluate the feasibility of constructing three ground stations in Matjiesfontein. Cabinet has approved the project and negotiations on the funding of the first phase of construction are underway. These international projects to further our human understanding of space, the Moon and Mars, are already providing an enormous boost to higher education and science in South Africa and have provided other key benefits such as the generation of quality jobs and socio-economic development.

Science can in turn help to reboot multilateralism by reminding everyone in these difficult and divisive times of the enormous progress humanity has secured by working together to address shared challenges and maximising opportunities.

There is currently a real danger that the international system of technical cooperation, which we have all benefited from, could fragment into rival spheres of STI influence as the major powers compete with each other. This would be a disaster for everyone, especially for Africa, which needs the support of all the major powers.

There are numerous examples of how technical and scientific cooperation has helped improve the human condition. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide have been lifted out of poverty and can communicate, trade, and cooperate with each other thanks to STI. There have also been massive breakthroughs in medicines and responses to diseases and health challenges. The development of multiple effective vaccines for COVID-19 across the world in record breaking time, and the ability of scientists in South Africa to identify two new variants is a major accomplishment.

South Africa has also been part of launching of the World Health Organisation mRNA Hub led by Afrigen, and the NantSA laboratory will collaborate with the mRNA hub by providing RNA enzymes required to produce vaccines. This is a tremendous contribution towards ensuring that Africa is not left behind if the world is faced with other debilitating pandemics in the future.

International scientific cooperation has also led to a greater understanding of complex global crises such as climate change, the loss of biological diversity, and pollution. Understanding these crises is the first step towards addressing them. We are pleased with the outcomes secured at the recent COP27 Summit on the shared threat to our environment which was informed by science. We cannot understate the importance of such multilateral agreements being forged even in times of geopolitical tension. The multilateral agreements reached on regions of the planet such as Antarctica, and Outer space being set aside for peaceful scientific research is also significant.

Going forward we need a fundamental transformation and modernisation of the global financial architecture, and reform of the multilateral Development Banks to make them fit-for-purpose to assist developing countries with their Sustainable Development and Just Transition efforts. By addressing issues such as debt, risk aversion to investing in developing countries, and creating markets in developing regions for new technologies such as green hydrogen, the full potential of STI can be unleashed.

The possibilities of science are limitless, and as we forge ahead with ground-breaking research and innovation, it is inevitable that multilateralism will be strengthened as countries break through frontiers with far greater speed and effectiveness when working together. Our hope is that in rebooting multilateralism, science will also fortify the bonds of global solidarity on many of the pressing issues of our times.

Thank you.

ISSUED BY THE DEPARTMENT OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AND COOPERATION

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