Why South Africa needs a Space Program

No man owns the heavens – that dry statement punctuates the United Nations Space Aviation program in Austria. A realization that competition sooner or later will take us to the same place.
Of the countries that have a Space Program non is African. Russia, United States, Argentina and China, are the prominent, but none is African country. In the context of science, it is time South Africa visits the idea for a space program.
When Africa is probed as a possible place for a space Program, the reason mostly given in refusing is that Africa lacks the resources or that it is too poor to contemplate such an endeavor. Are we really that poor when we produce so much Gold and Diamond? Of the top ten companies producing Gold, South Africa has two, - while the United States has only one. Great Britain also has only one company. Of those companies, one South African company is in the top five – Anglo American Ashanti. South Africa is the fourth diamond producing company, with Botswana being number one – are we really that broke and incapable of putting a man or woman on the Moon.
I for one believe differently. A space program Africa may well reclaim something that has since been long lost to Africa. And that is the idea of a tomorrow, - the future. Don’t get me wrong, tomorrow exist as a reality and in real terms for Africans. Yes it’s in our calendars and in our work schedules. But the tomorrow I am writing about is the tomorrow in which Europe and other countries plan for – the generational future of hard science and technology; the understanding that our consequences will affect an aspect of us in the future. That the destruction of an economy does not help the country’s resources and people. For in taking such an accumulatively expensive project, we will cherish not only our resources but understand why the West has a shrewd arrogance as a result of technological advances: the arrogance of being able to survive on your own terms. Africa does not need to mimic Western gimmicks and attitudes but we need our own technology. It’s time that we studied Western science and added our own African inventions born of the blood of Mapungubwe, the San People, Nguni the ancestor, Moshoeshoe the King, so forth and so on. The culture of Timbuktu (Africa’s great library in the North) must be appreciated in our education.
When technology overcomes the environment and you become a master of your state of mind; when droughts are no longer the norm; when every one drinks clean water – all through advances in technology we will then have earned respect and equality by our actions and in the process achieved scientific advancement. It is sad fact that while every Nation in the world has parried forward into the Space Age, Africa remains in the later part of the Iron Age with a sprinkling of the Plastic Age.
Too often foreign Aid works more against Africa in general than for us. Take the Biblical tale of the man told to learn how to fish, and not merely borrow a net. If we can master Africa in its wildness and stop trying to ameliorate the problems – go directly into them: how do we drill more bores, how do we stop the Sahara from advancing southbound, Aids, cholera and in the Equatorial region – how do we preserve the remaining primate population. Then we may achieve what the Afrikaners achieved as a nation when they first arrived in South Africa, and that is a deep understanding that we are on our own in Africa. Africa must invest in science and technology, and not merely talk about it. We need to invent special tools to plough our lands under hot weather, special trucks to store food when it’s too hot, and clothes for disease prevention.
Some may wonder, it’s fair and fine that we invest in science but how does a Space Program help?
Early this year I visited NASA Kennedy Space Station in Orlando Florida. I was taken back by what I. But one thing that was said that I will always remember is the guide saying how - many people think NASA is a waste of money, but how from planning and preparing to go to the moon NASA has developed the technology and science to cure diseases ( Arthritis for example), air contamination; and food regeneration. To my surprise, - even an onion can grow in outer space.
My point is that the bigger the challenge we set for ourselves as a country then the bigger the gains as a Nation with ties to each other. The science that is needed to go to the Moon is ultimately the science of survival and human evolution. African leadership and South African leadership in particular has not failed us, but must allow itself to break free, like a shuttle deck breaking free from a fuel rocket, from the chains of colonial language or colonial limit. We are beyond subject and master relationships. By this I mean the politics of protest is not necessarily the politics of building something for your self; criticism does not mean you have a solution.
We must live with the inheritance of the past but always in the present and directed towards our future. While I concede that an undertaking like this will require government assistance and that government has other understandable priorities. Perhaps, in our case, as South Africans, the government merely can create platforms and licensing incentives that stimulate a Space program. South Africa has the land ports, the little islands off the Indian coast for the Space Station plant, the coastal ports for shuttle reentry and submersion. Remember, under Apartheid we had a nuclear bomb housed at Pelindaba (Pelindaba: a Zulu word meaning the matter is settled), - evidence of Apartheid’s misdirected energies and racism - so why can’t we have a Space Program post Apartheid - are the resources really not here?
Given that private companies are at the forefront of our national wealth (and understandable people’s private property) one tenet of Madiba’s legacy is that government has a working and friendly relationship with business. Perhaps a deal can be struck where mineral deposits act as collateral for private equity funding for our space project. I believe all we need is a little push and similar minded individuals will then have to come up with solid blue prints and detailed project planning.
As the African saying goes - to find a river sometimes you have to look for the Deer. In stimulating bids for our own Space Program (Mandela Space Center), out of our midst and in this beautiful land will emerge genius and a courage we never imagined we had. As Ray Charles, the late jazz musician, puts it ---- genius loves company. Or perhaps more fitting T.S Elliot’s “Little Gidding”:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Ken Sibanda is a Constitutional Lawyer and movie director. He wrote the science fiction novel – The Return to Gibraltar