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Speech by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor MP

Speech by the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor MP, at the launch of the Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) exposition 2009, Bolivia Lodge, Polokwane

Programme director

Honourable Premier of the Limpopo province, Mr Cassel Mathale

House of Traditional Leaders

Non-government organisations

Civil organisations

Distinguished guests

Ladies and gentlemen

South Africa’s fossil and human genetic heritage is remarkable.

This heritage belongs to every African, it’s a source of pride; and we will make sure that it is protected and conserved.

No other country in the world can boast the oldest evidence of life on earth extending back more than three billion years, the oldest multi-cellular animals, the most primitive land living plants, the most distant ancestors of dinosaurs, the most complete record of the more than 80 million year ancestry of mammals, and, together with several other African countries, a most remarkable record of human origins and of human achievements through the last eight million years.

Given the uniqueness of this heritage, South Africa has become a global leader in the study of the palaeo world. Our aim is, of course, to share our research with the rest of Africa, uniting us in promoting a new awareness of life in the past through the study of the continent’s rich heritage in fossils, artefacts and human genetics for the intellectual enrichment and empowerment of all our peoples.

This heritage belongs to every African, it is a source of pride and we will make sure that it is protected and conserved. Few things related to science capture the imagination of people more than the study of deep time. This includes the origins of life, the worlds of dinosaurs, mass extinctions, meteorite impacts, as well as the evolution of humans.

Understanding the evolution of life is critically important to us all.

Research on the hominid (precursors to humans) record in South Africa has a rich tradition and is recognised as one of the most visible and acclaimed fields of science unique to the subcontinent. The South African fossil record of hominid evolution is arguably one of the most complete and spans more than four million years.

Philip Tobias, one of our leading scientists, explains how it all came about:

“When I was born, scientists believed that the family of mankind had arisen in Asia. In the first quarter of (the 20th) century it was widely believed that Asia had been the cradle of humanity. In Europe and North America there was a pro-Asia sentiment and an anti-African bias. Nobody wanted to believe that anything important had ever come out of Africa.”

Yet the discovery of the Taung skull in the 1920s began a revolution in the study of our origins.

“In one blinding moment, the roots of the human tree were plucked from Asia and transplanted to Africa, where no finds bearing on human origins had ever come to light.”

Today, let me say it again, it is universally accepted that the hominids (our ancestors) first appeared in Africa and only much later reached the Far East. Interest in our common humanity will ensure that archaeological research in South Africa always remains a topic of local, national and international relevance to academics, researchers, students and the public generally. For this and other good reasons, I am particularly pleased to be here in Polokwane on this important occasion. Premier Mathale and the people of Limpopo thank you for your warm reception.

Today we are here to celebrate the launch of the second Indigenous Knowledge Systems exposition. The Department of Science and Technology takes particular pride in hosting this exposition. This exposition reinforces a shared vision for the future of indigenous knowledge, a vision of protecting, developing, and promoting indigenous knowledge for future generations. Thank you for making this important event possible. I congratulate you all for the innovation, creativity and dedication that have brought us together here in Polokwane this week.

Premier Mathale, we are all proud of Limpopo’s rich cultural and biological diversity, and proud of the sterling work being done in indigenous knowledge by different provincial departments. We are proud of Limpopo’s rich heritage, so beautifully demonstrated by the golden rhinoceros of Mapungubwe and the bracelet made from gold beads found at Thulamela.

This heritage is an economic opportunity for local communities. However, care must be taken to ensure that the economic and cultural exploitation of our natural, cultural and historic heritage is undertaken in a socially and environmentally sustainable way. And importantly, we must remember that indigenous knowledge and the local communities that sustain it are strategic resources that contribute to our national identity.

We hope to identify indigenous knowledge systems that have the potential to benefit a broader constituency, in some cases an international constituency. We plan to form partnerships to develop promising indigenous knowledge systems for the most likely markets. We plan to reward the members of the development partnerships, and to protect their patents and rights. And we hope to encourage, by successful example, other holders of unique knowledge to join in the efforts to share that knowledge with us, and to share in its benefits.

As you know, a partnership that includes the Limpopo Department of Agriculture, Prolinnova, and the University of Limpopo has articulated this vision in Limpopo. The partnership is an attempt to build capacity in rural communities. It aims to eliminate poverty through integrated rural development programmes based on the indigenous knowledge of the community.

The Limpopo partnership sets an excellent example, one that others would do well to follow, particularly universities that are situated in locations that can enable the development of a special relationship between themselves and the holders and owners of knowledge in their vicinity. Where it’s established that particular communities are ‘resource rich but economically poor’, concerted research and development interventions grounded in an indigenous knowledge should commence as a matter of priority.

Some departments have taken up this challenge and the products displayed at the exhibition stalls here bears testimony to this endeavour. Nonetheless, more needs to be done. The Department of Science and Technology encourages research into the establishment of a viable bio-economy. Our Farmer to Pharma programme is aimed at promoting and coordinating the commercial use of South Africa’s plant resources and related indigenous or traditional knowledge. Three market areas have been identified to advance this objective: first the cosmeceutical, second, the food or nutraceutical and, third, the African traditional medicines industry.

Holders and practitioners of indigenous knowledge are custodians of a rich knowledge system that has the potential to form a productive and profitable connection with mainstream science.

We will record and validate indigenous knowledge

Ladies and gentlemen, during the course of the day there will be a focus on the recording and validation of indigenous knowledge. I’m pleased to be able to inform you that much of the work of the national office on the national recordal system will concentrate on this very issue. The national recordal system is a complex initiative to protect indigenous knowledge data, information, and systems. The validation of indigenous knowledge will serve to protect and preserve. The collection and authentication of indigenous knowledge in all its dimensions, with the active participation of communities, will ensure that indigenous holders and practitioners are capable of understanding and coping with change.

Women are custodians of indigenous knowledge

Ladies and gentlemen, women have a special place in promoting and protecting indigenous knowledge.

* Last year, in 2008, the third national Women and Environment Conference held in Polokwane affirmed indigenous women as custodians of the world’s natural resource and indigenous knowledge.

* The Department of Science and Technology has taken steps to enhance the abilities and capacities of indigenous women in a number of initiatives, including equal representation of women on the Ministerial Advisory Committee, some of whom are practitioners in their communities.

* At this year’s Woman in Science Awards ceremony, two awards were made in the category indigenous knowledge systems, and I am proud to say that the recipient of one of the awards Ms Phuti Gladis Ragophala, a school teacher, is from Polokwane.

* And the South African Women in Mining Association, based in Limpopo province, is today demonstrating at the exhibition the uniqueness of the graphic art inscribed on their pottery and ceramics.

These are just a few examples that reveal that government’s approach to the empowerment of women.

We want a right to indigenous knowledge

I want to make brief mention of the issue of the future protection of indigenous knowledge. We know that there is no magic line dividing the many legal and practical problems relating to the protection of intellectual property rights.

Uncertainty and misunderstanding remains around many issues, not least the collective ownership or custodianship of indigenous knowledge.

Substantial challenges remain, but our objective is nothing less than an internationally binding instrument for the protection of indigenous knowledge, traditional expression of culture and genetic resources. As yet there is no recognition of this as a right. That time has not yet arrived. Until it does, progress in the achievement of the main objectives of Indigenous Knowledge System policy adopted by Cabinet in 2004, will remain slow.

That does not mean we are helpless. In order to achieve better understanding and wider consensus of the issue of protection, it’s necessary to address basic conceptual problems and test practical solutions. I trust that the parallel workshop during the course of the week will adopt resolutions and recommendations, which include proposals for future work.

Too often in the past, legal issues on the protection of indigenous knowledge have been discussed in separate and uncoordinated forums, in the absence of key stakeholders. The parallel workshops ensure representation from different departments, academic institutions, scientific research councils, practitioners or holders of indigenous knowledge, non-governmental organisations, ethno botanical and medical research institutions, traditional doctors and herbalists; and representatives of indigenous and local communities.

In conclusion, I look to you for proposals that both protect the integrity and ownership of indigenous or traditional knowledge, and set fair and clear rules for those who wish to access it and benefit from it. As the holders and custodians of the oldest known traditional knowledge, we have a solemn responsibility to set the international standards in this domain. With that aim, it is a privilege and pleasure to declare this IKS exposition 2009 open.

Thank you.

Issued by: Department of Science and Technology

3 November 2009