Message from NSTF Executive Director

Transformation: demographic profile of science and technology

South Africa’s racial problems persist in society and have currently come to the fore vociferously once again, driven by political parties in the run-up to the 2019 elections. The injustice of oppression of the majority by the minority under apartheid continues to hound us, and the anger about it frequently boils over in communities as well. Currently transformation is quantified in terms of proportions of race groups that are represented. The ANC Government and all companies or institutions who have to comply with quotas or proportions of particular groups, therefore find themselves in a conundrum. They must monitor progress (and it should be quantified), but the monitoring takes place within a framework created by the Nationalists from 1948 to 1994 – who built on the racist structures and processes of the previous fifty years particularly (as well as the previous three-hundred years of colonialism). This white supremacist political group ran the apartheid government, introducing and maintaining formal race classifications.

Transformation in science, engineering and technology (SET) should be understood within the context of the broader society and against the background of our history. From this background of ‘race classifications’ and the need for transformation, I will touch on the following topics:

  • * Transformation and the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF) Awards over 20 years
  • * Apartheid’s legacy in education and research
  • * The length of time it takes to become an experienced researcher or engineer
  • * Role models and the role of self-confidence
  • * Apartheid’s elephant in the room


Transformation and the NSTF Awards
From the beginning, part of the NSTF Awards’ rationale was the inclusion of all population groups and that public recognition of scientists will allow them to emerge as role models for the youth. In this way, the NSTF has been striving for twenty years, to inspire young people to take up scientific studies and follow science-related careers. Over the years, particular youth projects were nurtured that would make this aim explicit and provide opportunities for direct contact between the Awards Winners, and young people. There have been more than 200 NSTF Award winners over the past twenty years. The programme of bringing these role models into contact with the youth has been running for about half of this time. Now called ‘Share ‘n Dare’, it has reached thousands of young people. As the proportion of black Award Winners and women Award Winners increase there is greater variety in role models for the youth. A good example is Prof Refilwe Nancy Phaswana-Mafuya, who won an NSTF-South32 Award last year – the TW Kambule-NSTF Award for research and its outputs (for an experienced researcher). She happened to be the only black woman award winner last year.

Prof Phaswana-Mafuya participated in the Share ‘n Dare programme and she truly inspired the youth. Following are some audience comments on what they learnt from her:

  • * “That women can also do it and reach big/top careers. Also that you must take opportunities and education is the key to better life.”
  • * “I benefited a lot from this and got to understand that the biggest adventure you could take is to live the life of your dreams.”
  • * “I understand that no matter how poor or disadvantaged you are you can achieve your goals.”
  • * “She is a science award winner and I learned that women can achieve in science field.”
  • * “I realised that your background is not there to determine your future.”


The NSTF’s vision is of a transformed country where SET and innovation contribute to a high quality of life for all who live in SA, where the profile of SET professionals is representative of the population’s profile and where the education system is effective, particularly in terms of performance in SET subjects and promoting innovation.

In the context of the NSTF’s history, its structures have always been  sensitive to the need for transformation of our society and of the SET community’s demographic profile . The top echelons of research and other SET professions are, alas, still dominated by white male researchers and managers. This is a well-documented phenomenon worldwide.

Demographics of Awards Winners from 19982018
Over the past nineteen years, about 49% of the 148 individual award winners were black, with 24% of these being African. The first African winner – Ms S Motsuenyane of the CSIR – -was awarded in the 2000/2001 Awards year (the third year of the Awards). After that, Africans have featured every year, except for the 2001 and 2002 rounds.

Apartheid legacy
Although opportunities for black South Africans have opened up since 1994, it is discouraging that progress is not happening faster. After 24 years, the population expects that we should have had greater success. Yet 24 years is not a long time, certainly not in the world of research and technical skills.

In addition to the challenge of overcoming barriers relating to social structures and opportunities, we are also severely disadvantaged by the history of our education system. Under Hendrik Verwoerd (Prime Minister from 1958 to 1966, and before that, Minister of ‘Native Affairs’, 1950–1958) various pieces of legislation were promulgated which ensured that black people would be held back in terms of education. For example:

  • * In 1953, the ‘Bantu’ Education Act was passed
  • * In 1958, the Department of ‘Bantu Education’ was established as a separate department. This ensured that much less resources would be allocated to black schools and, in all aspects, black education would be the stepchild of South African education. Education was only compulsory for white children and not for black children.
  • * The Extension of University Education Act (1959) was legislation putting an end to black students attending white universities and creating separate tertiary institutions for the different races.      


In 1950, Verwoerd infamously said:

There is no place for him [the Bantu] in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour … What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice? That is quite absurd. Education must train people in accordance with their opportunities in life, according to the sphere in which they live.
(Apartheid: A History by Brian Lapping, 1986)

Two other quotations clearly illustrate the legacy that we have to overcome:

We should not give the Natives any academic education. If we do, who is going to do the manual labour in the community?
(JN le Roux, National Party politician, 1945)

I have seen very few countries in the world that have such inadequate educational conditions. I was shocked at what I saw in some of the rural areas and homelands. Education is of fundamental importance. There is no social, political, or economic problem you can solve without adequate education.
(Robert McNamara, ex-president of the World Bank (where he served for 13 years, retiring in 1981), during a visit to South Africa in 1982).

It will take a long time to overcome this debilitating legacy. South Africa continues to suffer from problems in its school education system, notably in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. University graduation in STEM related courses is only about 18% in our country, with Physical Science, Life Sciences, and Mathematics/Statistics accounting for only 3% altogether. This contributes to a dire need for high level skills in STEM areas in both the economy and academia. All along the education ‘pipeline’ there are problems affecting the next level.

How long does it take to become an experienced researcher or engineer?
Transformation in the SET fields takes a very long time, regardless of the quality of school education.

The ‘basic’ training for researchers is to study towards a PhD, which can take up to ten years or more post-matric. In the United States, allegedly only “57 percent of doctoral students will get their PhD within 10 years of starting graduate school [university].” (CBS News) Once the PhD is achieved, it takes several years of hard work for a researcher to gain the recognition of his/her peers.

Thus, the deliberate deprivations of apartheid education have had decades of destructive effects on the cohort of esteemed researchers in our country. Where there is a shortage of PhDs in South Africa, compared to countries with a similar phase of economic development, there is an even greater problem in terms of the representativity of all the researchers with substantial experience.

Likewise, other professionals in SET take a long time to train and become sufficiently experienced. Engineers, for example, not only need years of study, but have to have several years of experience before they can be registered with the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA).

ECSA’s requirements are demanding – See, for example, the ECSA’s Competency Standard for Professional Engineers. This is as it should be, because practical skills are thoroughly acquired only through practice. Furthermore, engineers need a growing range of skills as technology advances. The serious consequences of mistakes in engineering work mean that one cannot take shortcuts when it comes to the training of these professionals. Meanwhile, the shortage of engineers in SA means that there is a shortage of supervisors and trainers of engineers, further delaying the process of transformation.

Role models and the role of self-confidence
Some of the top performers in matric maths and physical science (scoring more than 90%) in the NSTF’s annual recognition programme, the Brilliants Programme, (which includes students of all races) say that they have always wanted to enter the professions for which they are now studying. Others say that they are lucky that their parents allowed them to choose for themselves. What is evident in many of their stories is their confidence in themselves and in their aspirations. They all had enough confidence to persevere against all odds, and follow the path to becoming science-related professionals.

These young people deserve our great respect. This  is, however, a small group of very determined youngsters. The qualities needed for success are not present in all of their peers. Besides confidence, perseverance and determination, they are characterised by their hard work and discipline, and the ability to envisage a particular future for themselves.

This is where positive role models come in. A child cannot dream of becoming a particular type of professional he/she doesn’t know about and has never encountered. Although the internet, if one has access to it, can provide most of the information about particular career paths and academic disciplines, how do you know if you are suited for those careers and studies? How do you know you can enjoy a particular career enough to devote many years of your life to it?

Role models, like the NSTF award winners, are people whose example young people aspire to follow. Following a role model’s example requires that you can envisage yourself becoming similar to that person. Consequently, it is easier if you identify directly with the role model. For example, where female students identify with female role models.,  Likewise, it is easier to identify with a role model that looks like yourself, particularly if that person comes from a similar background, and has had to overcome similar obstacles experienced by the young person. Aspirations are a matter of identity. “Who do I want to be” is as important a question as is “Who am I?”

Apartheid’s elephant in the room
When addressing issues of race in South Africa, there are usually the elephant-in-the-room questions – What exactly is black? What is African? Or more explicitly, how do you count coloured people? The options are usually ‘black’, ‘coloured’, ‘Indian’, and ‘white’. I prefer the non-racial anti-apartheid struggle understanding that all people who were oppressed are black, no matter the ‘degree’ of oppression, which was calibrated in fine detail by the apartheid government. To this day, statistics show the so-called coloured community to be only slightly better off than the African community. All bear the heavy weight of the apartheid – and colonial – legacy.

The Population Registration Act of 1950 was the first apartheid law to define and codify the race groups of South Africa’s population.

“Under the act, as amended, Coloureds and Indians were formally classified into various subgroups, including Cape Coloured, Malay, Griqua, Chinese, Indian, Other Asian and Other Coloured”.

  • * Sue Valentine and Graham Leach


The apartheid classification of ‘coloured’ was poorly defined. It was a catch-all category for anyone who was not obviously white, Indian or African. It included anyone who was the offspring of ‘mixed race’ parents (the so-called “Other Coloured[s]” referred to above). Being the result of relationships that were outlawed, the apartheid government judged part of the group known as ‘coloured’ people as deserving of oppression. It created separate townships with poor infrastructure and amenities, poor schooling and healthcare.  As in the cases of African and Indian communities, the townships are still at a considerable distance from work places and institutions of tertiary education.

Are people still aware of how much movement there was among race groups over the years under the apartheid regime? There are no official statistics about these movements because they had to be done in secret. Some ‘coloured’ people became assimilated into white or Indian communities. It was physical appearance that made it possible for some people to do this. (The Government classified people mainly according to physical characteristics). Some African people would likewise be assimilated into ‘coloured’ communities, in order to benefit from slightly better opportunities. In all our communities, there is never 100% ‘racial purity’. Nor should there be. Why then, do we insist on continuing to make a distinction between African, coloured and Indian people?

However, making a distinction between all ‘black’ peoples (including coloured and Indian) and white people makes sense, given the deliberate way in which the apartheid government advanced white privilege. Progress in shrugging off this shameful and harmful legacy should continue to be monitored. How else will we know how we are growing and healing as a country? But we cannot continue to view our communities through apartheid lenses.

For the NSTF and the broader SET community, indications are that progress has been made in terms of the demographic representivity of this broadly defined community, but that it is not yet far enough. However, the NSTF will continue to strive for due acknowledgement of all those who have made outstanding contributions to SET and innovation, in a deliberately inclusive way while awarding work of excellence.

Side by side with organisations such as Black Science, Technology and Engineering Professionals (BSTEP) and Black Women in Science (BWIS), the NSTF is committed to promoting the skills, knowledge, confidence, pride and achievements of those from all groups who were denied  these things in the past.