Few have done as much to guide the development of science in South Africa since democracy in 1994 as Dr Khotso Mokhele, until recently President of the National Research Foundation (NRF). His vision and actions as a senior science manager for close to 15 years have been guided by his deep conviction that for a truly democratic society to emerge in South Africa all people must be empowered to be its architects and must have unhindered access to those careers upon which our economy is built.
This philosophy has had a great impact on the strategies of, first, the Foundation for Research Development (FRD) and, subsequently, the NRF, with a strong focus on capacity building, particularly among black South Africans; a research support framework informed by national needs and priorities; and adherence to stringent quality criteria to ensure that South African science can compete with the best in the world.
Khotso Mokhele was born and raised in Bloemfontein. After matriculating from the Moroka High School he went on to study at Fort Hare, where he graduated with a BSc in Agriculture, winning the Massey-Ferguson award for the best student in that field. As a recipient of the prestigious Fulbright-Hays Scholarship, Dr Mokhele entered the University of California in Davis where he took an MSc and a PhD degree, both in Microbiology. He was awarded post-doctoral fellowships at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland, and at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.
Mokhele returned to South Africa in 1987 set on becoming a top-class academic and researcher. He held lecturing posts at the Universities of Fort Hare (1987-1989) and Cape Town (1990-1992). In 1992 he was approached by the then President of the FRD, Dr Rein Arndt, to join the foundation as one of its vice AA¬-presidents. The decision was a difficult one for the young Mokhele. Not only had he just embarked on an academic career, he was uncertain whether it was appropriate for a political activist to join a parastatal organisation under the apartheid government.
After much soul searching he accepted the offer on condition that he was given the freedom to transform the FRD into a funding agency geared to meeting the needs of higher education in South Africa. Shortly after he joined the FRD in June 1992 he made his presence felt as an outstanding organiser and communicator and several new research funding programmes were initiated, with a strong emphasis on developing people who had previously been excluded.
When Dr Arndt retired in 1996 Mokhele was the obvious choice to succeed him as President of the FRD. Several challenges faced him in his new position. Among them was his successful bid for the position of President of the NRF in 1999, the merging of the FRD and the Centre for Science Development of the Human Sciences Research Council, which had very different cultures, and the development of a strategic framework for unified research support programmes across the disciplines.
He was also instrumental in securing government support for the Southern African Large Telescope project and subsequently worked tirelessly to recruit several international partners as co-investors in this flagship programme. The successful completion of the project is contributing in no small measure to South Africa’s bid to host the multi-billion Rand Square Kilometre Array.
Under his visionary leadership the FRD-NRF has grown from an organisation with an annual budget of Rl00-million in 1996 to one with a budget well in excess of R1-billion; from a body that supported 2 600 students and made about 1 000 research grants in 1996 to one that supports more than 7 000 students and makes in excess of 2 000 research grants now. It has grown from managing three national research facilities in 1996 to managing seven such facilities and the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement. Under his leadership the body is playing a pivotal role in the development agenda of the country.
As if these challenges and tasks were not enough, he saw it as his responsibility to be involved in the broader science and educational arenas nationally and internationally. He was part of the team that drafted the Green Paper for science and technology, was instrumental in establishing the South African Academy of Sciences and was elected its first president. He was appointed a member of the first Council for Higher Education and deputy convenor of its task force on the Reconfiguration of Higher Education, and served on the councils of a number of universities. More recently he was appointed by the Minister of Science and Technology as a member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation and by the Minister of Labour as chair of the National Skills Board.
In achieving his vision he also recognised the importance of South Africa s re-entry into the international science community and has been an ambassador for South African and African science in high-profile international fora. He represented South Africa on the Executive Board of UNESCO and served on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Director General. He was also South African representative on the General Committee of the International Council for Science and, more recently, was elected its Vice-president for Scientific Planning and Review.
Khotso Mokhele’s contribution to science in South Africa has received wide recognition locally and abroad. He has received six honorary doctorates, the most recent from Rutgers University in the USA. He was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour by the President of France in recognition of his personal efforts in strengthening scientific ties between France and South Africa, and was appointed a director of the Salzburg Seminar, an institution focused on global change, and subsequently a member of its Council of Senior Fellows.
His strong leadership qualities and stature as a strategic thinker have also been recognised by the private sector and he serves on the boards of major listed companies such as Genbel SA, Iscor (now Mittal Steel), and Impala Platinum.
After more than 10 years at the helm of, first, the FRD and then the NRF Khotso Mokhele has decided that the time has come for new blood to take over and for him to focus his talents on new ventures.
It is appropriate, at this point in his career, for this University to pay tribute to and acknowledge the monumental achievements of a truly great South African.