“There is nothing wrong with our young people,” Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa told the audience of the Science Forum South Africa. “There is something very wrong with us when we do not give them the opportunity.”

Ramaphosa, who is in the running to head up the African National Congress, has chosen the country’s science minister, Naledi Pandor, as his prospective deputy president.
The two have a particularly pro-intellectual stance, pushing science and technology as a way to drive economic growth and job creation.

The annual Science Forum is the government’s showcase of continental science and technology — something which is inextricably linked to the education of young South Africans. “We should never let the constraints of poverty and underdevelopment extinguish the imagination of our people,” Ramaphosa said.

But youth unemployment in South Africa is a major crisis, with some reports suggesting that two out of every three South Africans under the age of 25 are not working. Government is a major funder of higher education, but the demand for bursaries and scholarships continues to overwhelm the supply. The official unemployment figure is at about 27%, and university graduates are more likely to get a job.

But funding remains an issue for providing these opportunities, as well as building the science and research system. For example, the department of science and technology’s annual budget has not kept up with inflation, impeding its ability to grow science and research in the country.

“We have a responsibility to develop a community of young people that believe there is a future for science in South Africa and the continent,” Ramaphosa said. “They must see themselves as agents of development… They must see themselves as providing solutions on how best to return people to the land and build successful agricultural enterprises.”

Ramaphosa said he had visited research institutions and universities around that country, and spoken to young researchers. “These stories of success—of young people who often come from impoverished backgrounds—demonstrate that indeed young people can reach the pinnacle of their potential if we support and nurture their dreams….

“But we must not just talk—there needs to be a lot more action on our part to allow them to work and play in this fourth industrial revolution. It must be an inclusive revolution,” Ramaphosa said.

But while research and science have been pushed as part of government policy, there is often a disconnect between research and on-the-ground solutions to widespread social problems.

“If, as a continent, we contribute to setting the global science agenda, then the solutions that technology produces will be able to advance our specific business interests,” Ramaphosa said.

The clarion call from politicians addressing the forum opening was that science must respond to the needs of society.

“We need to demonstrate the practical value of science, technology and innovation,” said Sarah Anyang Agbor, the African Union commissioner for human resources, science and technology. “We fail in our duty as government and policy makers if we do not deliver to the people who look up to us.”

Ramaphosa said that, “The word smart should underpin whatever we do. If we work smart, we are working in a clever way, an innovative way, a scientific way.”