The Vulnerable Research and Innovation Base of South Africa  

The Vulnerable Research and Innovation Base of South Africa  


South Africa is facing structural problems in strengthening its research and innovation capacity in order to become and remain competitive in the global business environment. Although greater emphasis is given to strengthen Research and Development efforts in the country and to translate it into commercialization of products,  Africa    South Africa are lagging behind its competitors on four critical domains of:

  • The level of technological exports;
  • Funds invested in Research and Innovation activities;
  • Capability to transform relevant scientific knowledge and technological inventions into commercial applications; and
  • Sourcing for competitive technologies.

Although it is realised that South Africa as a developing country cannot match the R&D spending of developed countries, the assumption is made that if South Africa can carry out R&I activity levels comparable to that of principle trading partners and competitors, it will be able to sustain its relative competitiveness in the world.

Complicating the situation further is the fact that South Africa is considered an innovation environment in which medium to low technology innovations dominate. Therefore, it is not a strong competitor for attracting research exports from foreign companies. This is due to the fact that this privilege belongs to environments classified as at the forefront of research efforts, high technology oriented, huge market opportunities and dynamic in nature. Typical countries adhering to these requirements include amongst others China, India, the United States of America, Hungary and Romania (RTDinfo, 2006).


The purpose of this article is to describe the vulnerable research and innovation base of South Africa in terms of the three domains mentioned in the introduction.

Technology exports of South Africa as percentage of world exports

According to statistics provided by Kaplan (2005) high technology export of South Africa, 0.3% in 2002, as a percentage of global exports represents indeed a very small proportion of world exports in technology. How poor is only conceived when compared to 2002 figures of other European countries such as Turkey (1.6%), United Kingdom (1.25%), Sweden (13.7%), Switzerland (21.6%), Spain (5.7%), Slovenia (4.9%), Portugal (6.8%), Norway (4.6%) and the Netherlands (18.7%).

Sufficiency of funding for R&I in South Africa

Whilst the aim of the South African Government is to spend at least 1% of its GDP on R&D this objective has never been reaches since 1983 (No survey was done in 1995 and 1999). With a median of 0.76 and currently at 0.806 GERD:GDP too little emphasis is given to R&D activities. Currently only R10.1 billion (+/- US$1.6 billion) is spend on R&D in comparison to a 2005 GDP of R1 250 billion (+/- US$208.33) comparing favourably with levels experienced in a country lie Portugal. However in comparison with other countries in Europe like Switzerland, Sweden, United Kingdom and the Netherlands which spend two percent and more of their GDP on R&D, South Africa are lagging far behind. Further, of the R10.1 billion available for R&D, only 13% is spend on the advancement of knowledge, whilst the most (60%) is spend on economic development. This indicates that too little is invested on human factors, which is considered a critical element for a succe


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