Nelson Mandela Foundation


The panel experts Minister Naledi Pandor, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, Professor Ismail Serageldin and Professor Mamokgethi Setati begin the discussion

22 July, 2011 – Friday evening’s panel discussion and dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation grappled with the topic, “The Challenge of Science in Building Democracy”.

Following a brief welcome by Mr Achmat Dangor, Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the moderator, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, introduced guests to a theme he said was “not a usual topic”: the discourse of science and the extent to which it interacts with society.

He started by referring to an editorial by the evening’s keynote speaker, Professor Ismail Serageldin, the director of the Library of Alexandria, in which he postulates that “Science advances by overthrowing an existing paradigm, or at least substantially expanding or modifying it and that a “constructive subversiveness” is built into the scientific enterprise, as a new generation of scientists makes its own contribution.”

One of the visibly strong developments on the African continent, said Ndebele, is the increasing legitimacy of elected governments. Africa as a continent is on an experimental journey, in a phase of “trial and error”. He was intrigued as to what these developments can learn from the trial and error of science.


Professor Serageldin speaks on the relationship between science and democracy

Prof Serageldin started his talk by saying that science and democracy are more closely linked than people think.

“Today democracy is adopted as slogan by almost every group, everywhere,” he said. But few are willing to practise it.

He said that democracy is largely about protection of the minority, listening to contrarian views of a minority.

He referred to the Arab Spring of North Africa and the Middle East, and said that this surge for freedom is reminiscent of the struggle for democracy in South Africa; and that it will experience setbacks.

He asked the audience: What is democracy? What are the values of science? And why are these values so important?

He then answered this by saying that the values of science form an important basis for democracy.

Democracy is a political system that includes the legitimacy of a government; a Bill of Rights that must guarantee freedoms; democratic governments that rely on the rule of law; checks and balances against abuse of power; and a strong independent press.

“Democracy is a system that should guarantee that the minority view is heard before decisions are made.” The hearing of the contrarian view is the essence of democracy.

But, he said there are obstacles to the advance of democracy: competing ideologies, uncertain loyalties, corruption. Some people feel they have god-given rights to impose their views on others, trample others’ civil liberties.

And here the values of science have much to say, he told guests. He then listed some of these values: honour (a scientist accused of plagiarism will be ostracised by his community); teamwork (engagement with the contrarian view); and the freedom to enquire, challenge and think.

He said that these are also societal values worth protecting.

“The promotion of all these values is the culture of promoting humanism,” he said. Science is a big part of this. And so is democracy.

Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor then spoke of Africa’s strengths, of its growing economies and increasing influence.

But what of Africa and science? If we believe in the value of science, and the value that it holds for democracy, she said, then the following statistic is worrying: science in Africa is dominated by only three countries, South Africa, Egypt and Nigeria. And no African country spends more than 2% of its GDP on science.

She acknowledged the intersection between science and democracy and noted the value and potential that science has for change, and for challenging the marginalisation of Africa and its people.

“Democracy and science interact to assist us with the emergence of an informed and participating citizenry.”

She said Africa needs to reflect more deeply on higher education, which has experienced a severe lack of reinvestment for decades. And if this doesn’t happen, the notion of science and democracy being interlinked will not find life.


Professor Mamogkethi Setati says access to science in education must be improved.

Professor Mamokgethi Setati, Executive Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at the University of South Africa (Unisa), followed Pandor and said that where democracy is strong in the world today, science occupies a respected space.

Science also has a much bigger challenge in strengthening education in South Africa. Access to science must be improved and if not it would have dire consequences for democracy.

Prof Ndebele asked Prof Serageldin how we reveal the workings of science to the general public – he used the example of cell phones, and how we take such products for granted

Prof Serageldin said that people use phones without understanding quantum physics. What is important is that no question should be beyond limits. “In democracy, as in science, there should be the right to question.”

He also raised the point of the scientific community transcending political borders – and this behoves us, he said, to rethink how we bring the two together.

Minister Pandor was asked how we can achieve a situation where everyone can engage with science. She conceded that it is “a difficult challenge”. We need to do something that’s a complexity for South Africa: investing in excellence while continuing to erode poverty.

She also spoke of the interaction of ethics and science. She was troubled by the way some of our young people use technology (bullying school friends, sexual violence). We need to ensure that we don’t deflect traditional values from use of new technology (truth, honour, manners, discipline), she said.

Prof Ndebele then opened the floor to questions,

In response to a concern that the humanities were suffering at the expense of a focus on science, Prof Serageldin said that the liberal arts should never be underestimated; that they should be supported as they bring us new visions and understandings.

Advocate George Bizos was concerned with sloganeering by politicians who say that Africa’s problems must be solved in an African way. How do we deal with these “slogans”. How would scientists approach this?

Prof Serageldin said that we shouldn’t “fight phoney battles based on emotion” but that we should rather address reality.

Mr Dangor closed off the evening with thanks to the guests, and then invited guests for food and drinks – “all of which have been scientifically manufactured.”

This lecture has been made possible through the support of SAP as primary donor with supporting contributions of the Swedish Postcode Lottery and the Coca-Cola Foundation.


Professor Ismail Serageldin delivers his address on the relationship between science and democracy.


Minister Naledi Pandor: Science can challenge the marginalisation of Africa and its people.


Advocate George Bizos was one of the members in the audience who posed the panel with some interesting questions


Corporate Affairs Executive of SAP Africa Sunil Geness listens intently to the arguments put forth by the panel