Dr Re­becca Maseru­mule is one of the many black women in the pub­lic ser­vice who are us­ing their sci­en­tific re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties to el­e­vate the black African child

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A bright spark for women and SA

Sev­eral decades ago, when apartheid laws re­stricted the free­dom of move­ment of the black pop­u­la­tion, women or­gan­ised them­selves and marched to the Union Build­ings to protest un­just pass laws.

The 20 000 women who par­tic­i­pated in the iconic 9 Au­gust 1956 Women’s March changed the course of his­tory. Led by strug­gle icons Lil­ian Ngoyi, Rahima Moosa, Sophia Wil­liams-de Bruyn and

He­len Joseph, they dis­pelled the then stereo­type that cast women as po­lit­i­cally in­ept and best suited to be­ing stay-at-home wives.

To­day, just over two decades af­ter the ad­vent of democ­racy, an equally im­pres­sive gen­er­a­tion of women is con­tin­u­ing to show that gen­der should never be al­lowed to limit per­sonal growth and achieve­ment.

In­spir­ing young girls and show­ing men that women are pow­er­ful and ca­pa­ble is Dr Re­becca Maseru­mule, the Chief Di­rec­tor for Hy­dro­gen and En­ergy at the De­part­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy.This in­no­va­tive thinker holds a doc­tor­ate in math­e­mat­ics. She is one of the many black women in the pub­lic ser­vice who are us­ing their sci­en­tific re­search ca­pa­bil­i­ties to el­e­vate the black African child, par­tic­u­larly girls, in the fields of sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion, and to help them be­come am­bas­sadors for pos­i­tive change.

While her ef­forts might not nec­es­sar­ily place her next to the strug­gle stal­warts in his­tory books, her work and her story are likely to spur other women in the pub­lic ser­vice to play their part in ad­dress­ing the coun­try’s so­cio-eco­nomic chal­lenges and na­tional en­ergy needs.

Trans­for­ma­tion and gen­der in­clu­siv­ity

In an in­ter­view with PSM, Dr Maseru­mule said trans­for­ma­tion and gen­der in­clu­siv­ity are cen­tral to the de­part­ment’s strat­egy across all pro­grammes.

One of the key strate­gic ob­jec­tives of the De­part­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy is in­no­va­tion in sup­port of eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment. On an an­nual ba­sis, most of the re­search, de­vel­op­ment and in­no­va­tion pro­grammes are fo­cused on mov­ing new prod­ucts and pro­cesses from lab to mar­ket.

“The De­part­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy is re­spon­si­ble for fund­ing the gen­er­a­tion of the new

knowl­edge and once the prod­uct is ready for man­u­fac­tur­ing, then de­vel­op­men­tal fund­ing in­sti­tu­tions play a role.

“Rou­tinely meet­ings are held with fund­ing stake­hold­ers like the In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, De­vel­op­ment Bank of South­ern Africa or en­trepreneurs to sup­port the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of new tech­nolo­gies with a view that the back­bone is trans­for­ma­tion in a mean­ing­ful way. We say we want black fe­male en­trepreneurs who can help with such growth,” she said.

She said that is­sues of in­clu­sive de­vel­op­ment are key to govern­ment policy. Of­ten, black women face the most chal­lenges.

Dr Maseru­mule said most of the de­part­ment’s pro­grammes that are an­chored in trans­for­ma­tion have been in­sti­tu­tion­alised, but trans­for­ma­tion does not hap­pen overnight, which is why long-term mon­i­tor­ing mech­a­nisms are in place.

Dr Maseru­mule said that trans­for­ma­tion is part of the de­part­ment’s day-to-day op­er­a­tions.

If an of­fi­cial sub­mits a fund­ing list that is dom­i­nated by male ben­e­fi­cia­ries, tough ques­tions are asked.

“If you look at the per­cent­age of women in STEM fields, I think 20 per­cent are women and 80 per­cent are male.

“But in terms of our re­search, de­vel­op­ment and in­no­va­tion pro­grammes, we are look­ing at 40 per­cent fe­male and 60 per­cent male grad­u­at­ing.”

She be­lieves the favourable num­bers achieved by the de­part­ment are a re­sult of gen­der trans­for­ma­tion be­ing in­sti­tu­tion­alised in the de­part­ment’s pro­grammes.

Jour­ney into the pub­lic ser­vice

Af­ter ob­tain­ing her un­der­grad­u­ate de­gree in ap­plied math­e­mat­ics at the Uni­ver­sity of Rochester in New York in 1996, Dr Maseru­mule went on to ob­tain her mas­ter’s de­gree in 1999. She then com­pleted her doc­tor­ate in math­e­mat­ics, with a fo­cus on com­pu­ta­tional fluid dy­nam­ics, from the Rens­se­laer Polytech­nic In­sti­tute in Troy,

New York.

As part of her th­e­sis for her PhD, Dr Maseru­mule’s re­search looked at pre­dict­ing when un­der­ground aquifer sys­tems are at risk for con­tam­i­na­tion due to the chang­ing rain­fall pat­terns.

One of the big­gest risks that govern­ment faces in terms of un­der­ground wa­ter re­sources, she be­lieves, is try­ing to predict when they could be­come con­tam­i­nated.

Her first job was in 2006, when she joined the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR) as a se­nior re­searcher, work­ing in the nat­u­ral re­source and en­vi­ron­men­tal unit. While at CSIR, she con­tin­ued her re­search into un­der­ground wa­ter re­sources look­ing at the ef­fects of cli­mate change be­cause un­der­ground wa­ter re­sources in south­ern Africa could be un­der threat.

“The rea­son why this re­search is im­por­tant is that our tem­per­a­tures are chang­ing and over time, this in­crease in tem­per­a­ture will have a huge im­pact on rain­fall pat­terns,” she warned.

As tem­per­a­tures in­crease, rain­fall be­comes more vi­o­lent – putting un­der­ground wa­ter re­sources at risk.

Her re­search fo­cused on pre­dic­tion-mak­ing as a mea­sure to man­age risk. Just how cru­cial this re­search is was brought home re­cently when govern­ment de­clared sev­eral prov­inces, in­clud­ing the Western Cape, as na­tional dis­as­ter ar­eas af­ter they ex­pe­ri­enced the worst drought in years.

The City of Cape Town then im­ple­mented strin­gent wa­ter re­stric­tions, with dam lev­els dip­ping to 20.9 per­cent in April 2018.

Ev­i­dence of Dr Maseru­mule’s for­ward-think­ing in the choice of her re­search topic was also high­lighted in Jan­uary 2018, when the City of Cape Town turned to its Cape Flats,Ta­ble Moun­tain Group and At­lantis aquifers to source

150 mil­lion litres of ground­wa­ter per day to de­lay what be­came known as Day Zero – the day the metro would be forced to close

its taps and have res­i­dents col­lect wa­ter from des­ig­nated points.

Ben­e­fits of sci­ence

Dr Maseru­mule said the re­cent drought chal­lenges are proof that sci­ence can have an im­pact on de­ci­sion-mak­ing at policy level if ad­vice is given at the right time.

“Of­ten, the knowl­edge is there but is not utilised ef­fec­tively when de­ci­sions are made. I think that Cape Town’s wa­ter chal­lenges were pre­dicted years ago,” she said, adding that while peo­ple al­ways work ef­fi­ciently in emer­gen­cies, it would be bet­ter to work in such a way that emer­gen­cies are re­duced.

She said South Africa has the best re­searchers in the world but that there is a need for govern­ment to in­crease its in­vest­ment in re­search and de­vel­op­ment in order to safe­guard the fu­ture.

“The [con­clu­sion of the re­search] was that the preva­lence of con­tam­i­nated aquifer sys­tems… will in­crease be­cause of the var­ied rain­fall. One of the rec­om­men­da­tions was that we need to in­crease our mon­i­tor­ing and look for al­ter­na­tive sources of al­ter­na­tive wa­ter re­sources such as storm wa­ter har­vest­ing.” she said.

Dr Maseru­mule ex­plained that her re­search was later pub­lished and cited by other re­searchers.

She later shifted her fo­cus to the en­ergy sec­tor af­ter join­ing the Na­tional De­part­ment of En­ergy as the Deputy Di­rec­tor: Busi­ness Process Man­age­ment.

Her role in­cluded analysing the im­pact of policy and the econ­omy on the en­ergy de­mands of South Africa in sup­port of ev­i­dence­based policy de­vel­op­ment of the In­te­grated En­ergy Plan as well as the Na­tional En­ergy Ef­fi­ciency Strat­egy.

Pow­er­ing SA’s en­ergy mix

Dr Maseru­mule said her core duty at the De­part­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy re­volves around de­vel­op­ing poli­cies and strate­gies to grow a com­pet­i­tive en­ergy sec­tor that is based on var­ied tech­nolo­gies that use the com­par­a­tive ad­van­tages of South Africa.

She said South Africa can have a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage when it comes to di­verse en­ergy sources. “We can be world lead­ers in this area,” she added, men­tion­ing the coun­try’s plat­inum and man­ganese re­sources; and bat­tery, fuel cell and pho­to­voltaic panel tech­nol­ogy.

The broader na­tional in­no­va­tion sys­tem needs to help en­sure that govern­ment cap­i­talises on these ad­van­tages, she added.

Dr Maseru­mule ex­plained that her role in­volves of­fer­ing ad­vice across all sec­tors of the econ­omy – es­pe­cially the pub­lic and the pri­vate sec­tors – on al­ter­na­tive, for­ward-look­ing tech­nolo­gies in the sus­tain­able en­ergy space to help them re­main com­pet­i­tive.

Ad­vice is of­ten of­fered to the executive au­thor­ity on mat­ters of policy in the space of in­no­va­tion and sus­tain­able en­ergy tech­nolo­gies.

“We give ad­vice to min­is­ters; we some­times give them brief­ing notes when there could be for­eign poli­cies up for re­view and we ad­vise the pri­vate sec­tor with re­gard to South Africa’s com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tages.We say to them,‘Part­ner with us be­cause we have A, B or C,'" she said.

Use of tech­nolo­gies

The de­part­ment’s ad­vice also looks at en­cour­ag­ing the use of tech­nolo­gies or en­ergy car­ri­ers that may not nec­es­sar­ily be con­ven­tional but will be key in the fu­ture.

“For in­stance, with the De­part­ment of Trans­port, they have a green trans­port strat­egy.We have been col­lect­ing data for the past 10 years to in­form policy.

“Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it un­til you grow into the per­son

who can.”

“At the same time, be­cause we in­sti­tu­tion­alise some of the work of the de­part­ment at in­sti­tu­tions such as uni­ver­si­ties and sci­ence coun­cils, we can help with the demon­stra­tion of some of these al­ter­na­tive tech­nolo­gies. We have the sci­en­tists in place to do the tests, to mon­i­tor, so that if you want to bring in a new tech­nol­ogy, like hy­dro­gen fuel, we can test this in prac­tice in a real world en­vi­ron­ment,” she said.

One of the projects she worked on in re­la­tion to al­ter­na­tive tech­nolo­gies in the re­new­able en­ergy space was the launch of a hy­dro­gen fuel cell sys­tem us­ing re­new­able en­ergy at a school in the

North West.

Re­cently launched by Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane at the Poe­lano Se­condary School, the 2.5kW Hy­dro­gen Fuel Cell Sys­tem is aimed at en­sur­ing that the ru­ral school con­tin­ues to ac­cess off-grid elec­tric­ity for in­for­ma­tion com­mu­ni­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy and light­ing.

The school has 486 pupils and was hand-picked for the project that is in­tended to show­case the abil­ity of re­new­able en­ergy to meet the needs of com­mu­ni­ties which have no ac­cess to Eskom power.

Part of that process was to pro­vide ed­u­ca­tion ma­te­rial for the stu­dents, which in­formed them of the high school sub­jects and uni­ver­sity cour­ses needed to be­come a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer one day and to work in the fuel cell sec­tor.

Learn­ers were taught about fuel cell tech­nol­ogy and how it is en­vi­ron­men­tally sound.

“The fuel cells are on school grounds. So again, it is an op­por­tu­nity to learn about sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in a prac­ti­cal way. Like I said, we are in­form­ing the stu­dents about op­por­tu­ni­ties. So in a sense, we are in­form­ing the pub­lic – the par­ents and the stu­dents – by do­ing prac­ti­cal work in the school yard,” she added.

Grow­ing hu­man cap­i­tal

The project also fits in with one of the roles she plays in the de­part­ment: grow­ing hu­man cap­i­tal and ap­ply­ing sci­en­tific knowl­edge to ad­dress the coun­try’s so­cio-eco­nomic needs.

“At the end of the day, we want to cre­ate new sec­tors, which means jobs, but we want to en­sure that lo­cal talent can be con­sid­ered for these new jobs, which means we cre­ate a new work­force that will be work­ing in the new sec­tors.”

She said one of her favourite quotes from when she first be­came a chief di­rec­tor two years ago is: “Set a goal so big that you can’t achieve it un­til you grow into the per­son who can”.

“This is me talk­ing about not wor­ry­ing about leav­ing your com­fort zone when you try to ac­com­plish a task. I al­ways say that you are not do­ing some­thing great un­til you need part­ner­ships to do it, which speaks to the im­por­tance of part­ner­ships. Es­sen­tially, the coun­try has a lot of chal­lenges and as a pub­lic ser­vant, you can get dis­cour­aged but what keeps me com­ing into the of­fice every day is the de­sire to make life bet­ter for those who live in South Africa,” she said, urg­ing that when dis­cour­age­ment sets in, pub­lic ser­vants need to re­mem­ber that they can rise to the chal­lenge.

“Ev­ery­thing that I do when I get to work, every mo­ment that I am at work, is for the pub­lic; that keeps me fo­cused. When I make a de­ci­sion, my de­ci­sion is al­ways based on the ques­tions:‘Is this tak­ing the coun­try for­ward? Are our cit­i­zens ben­e­fit­ting?’ I think South Africa is a great coun­try and from year to year, it im­proves and grows.

“I want to be part of that ex­cel­lence,” she said.

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