Most international conferences start with a solemn series of speeches welcoming delegates, describing the importance of the theme, and looking forward to a successful outcome.
But this is South Africa.
The opening session of Forum 2012, which is taking place in Cape Town over the next three days, started with a colourful group of musicians entering the auditorium blowing on instruments made out of animal horns.
It ended with an energetic dance display by the Gumboot Dancers, who gave an exuberant performance derived from musical traditions established within South Africa’s mining communities.
Between these two performances, the country’s Minister for Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, gave an equally impassioned performance.
Pandor’s theme, echoing that of the meeting, was that African countries should be thinking seriously about the implications of moving “beyond aid”, towards a situation where they not only produce the research required to meet their needs (in health as elsewhere), but also generate the capacity to put science into practice through innovation.
This should be done in partnership with the private sector, Naledi said. But not in a way that remains controlled by foreign-owned corporations — in the pharmaceutical sector as elsewhere — as is the case too often at present.
Earlier, Carel Ijsselmuiden, executive director of the Council on Health Research for Development — the main organiser of Forum 2012 — outlined progress already made in this direction.
But he also referred back to a meeting in Lagos in 1989, at which African countries pledged to spend 1 per cent of their gross national product on research and development — a goal that many are still far from reaching.
“Just think what Africa would look like today if that target had been met,” Ijsselmuiden said.
Pandor reminded the audience of a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which Mark Anthony describes Caesar’s ambition as a “grievous fault”, in a speech at his funeral.
“We have a great deal of ambition, as Caesar did,” said Pandor. The only way to prevent this ambition from becoming a grievous fault was through practical activity, she said.
Her suggestion? That the next forum identifies 10 to 15 countries in which concrete actions, particularly through developing the capacity to apply science and technology, could move from being aid recipients to self-sustaining economies.
Ten years later, “we would know whether we have been able to lift these countries beyond aid,” said Pandor.
Hopefully the dancing at that point would not be on the grave of unachieved ambitions, but in celebration of “all’s well that ends well”.
This blog post is part of our Forum 2012 coverage — which takes place 24–26 April 2012.