National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF)

Dr Philemon Mjwara – Director-General: Department of Science and Innovation (DSI)

For his significant contribution to the South African National System of Innovation and for the role he played in building strong relations between the DSI (as DST and later as DSI) and the NSTF.


South Africa’s national science, technology and innovation (STI) trajectory has been in the charge of Dr Philemon Mjwara since 2006.

He was appointed as Director-General (DG) of the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in April that year. He’s helped drive the idea that STI should be a key national priority alongside South Africa’s many pressing socioeconomic challenges, since we can’t fix one without the other. As DG of the Department, Mjwara has been supportive of the NSTF as the STI stakeholder body since his appointment. 

He is awarded the special NSTF Ukhozi trophy. ‘Ukhozi’ means ‘eagle’ in isiZulu, and here especially refers to the Black Eagle, or Verreaux’s Eagle. This eagle is indigenous to South Africa and the continent, and symbolises flying high and seeing the bigger picture.

“The day that I see it is natural and instinctive for the government of South Africa, the private sector and civil society, to think we can find a solution from the national system of innovation, I am the happiest man,” says Mjwara.

That day is just beginning to dawn, he says, because South African scientists are making more and more significant contributions to global governance. 

“During the COVID-19 pandemic it was very pleasing to hear the president of the country asking our Minister of Science and Innovation, ‘what does science say about this?’.”

The country’s scientists were able to undertake genomics surveillance and advise on vaccines, thanks to investments the government made in biotechnology in the early 2000s, says Mjwara.

Later in the 2000s, the government also started building capacity in universities around green hydrogen, so Mjwara was glad when a billion dollar green hydrogen fund was announced recently, in partnership with the Netherlands and Denmark.

“We are beginning to have a sound system that is looked upon to drive investments of the order of billions of rand with international partners. I couldn’t be happier,” he says.

He is also particularly proud to see our scientists prominent on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and to have been part of South Africa’s bid to host the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

“We were convincing and showing the international community that even though we might be a small country on the tip of the African continent, we can deliver as much as any other country anywhere in the world.” 

He says the MeerKAT telescope, a smaller array in the Northern Cape that will form part of the SKA, is currently the best performing and most sensitive radio telescope in the world.

“It’s not what I’ve done, but it’s the efforts of all in the science system that has made this country proud,” says Mjara.

He is now looking forward to working with other government departments to build South Africa’s science knowledge enterprise. “They will work with us in committing resources to take some of the investments and some of the ready solutions that we have developed over the years, and embed them in their programmes. 

“I hope even when I’m gone, this should become the way that South Africans do things,” he says.

Dr Philemon Mjwara won the Ukhozi Award in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the NSTF Awards, and for an essential contribution to STI in South Africa, as well as to the NSTF over many years. — ScienceLink

Read the special Mail & Guardian supplement about all the NSTF-South32 Award winners.

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