Author: Cristina Semeraro – 05/07/2020
South Africa is one of the most important economy of the African continent and a middle-income emerging market. The nation stands out for its advanced communications, energy and transport sectors and it produces itself over one third of the continental income thanks mostly to its mineral resources (gold, diamonds, platinum, iron, chromium, coal) and related industries.
Beyond traditional economics, in recent decades South Africa has developed a great interest in the space as a way to sharpen its national prestige and boost its opportunities in the global market. This has led the country to invest heavily in space-related projects.
Its foundational experience in the outer space happened in 1999, when it was the first African country to launch a satellite. In 2002, the businessman Mark Shuttleworth was the first African to board a spaceship, even if only as a tourist. The 2010 was a landmark year for the region because the National Space Agency (SANSA) was founded in Pretoria. Since the beginning, SANSA’s mission has consisted in consolidating technology and space sciences in order to provide space-related services and products to regional and South African citizens; create an environment that promotes industrial development; encourage the international collaboration to increase South Africa’s notability in space research.
The first noteworthy results of the stead hard work of the agency came in 2012, when South Africa was chosen as home to a precursor mid-frequency telescope – as known as SKA – for which thousands of antennas and parables will be mounted in the Karoo desert to pick up signals from space.
The project is in the final straight after the country ratified in June 2020 the Convention establishing the SKA Observatory. South Africa is the third country in the world to conclude its national process supporting the establishment of the SKA Observatory after Italy and the Netherlands and SANSA is the intergovernmental organisation responsible for building and applying the SKA telescopes: a golden opportunity which can’t leave doubts about the country’s capabilities in the space field.
The data collection by satellites will help forecast meteorological changes in a useful way to agriculture in order to monitor or prevent phenomena such as drought and floods; monitor the borders and movements of armed groups such as al-Qaida or Islamic State-affiliated organisations in the Sub Saharan region; improve telecommunication systems at low cost without depending on the connections through the European satellites.
In May, SANSA announced plans to boost and make the public space sector sustainable over the next decade by an investment of just over ZAR 1.5 billion (about USD 86.3 million) into developing the local space sector, renovate its focus on regional space programmes and make available essential products and services for socio-economic development. These services include providing satellite imagery to end users, supplying global civil aviation with space weather information and supporting satellite missions over Africa.
SANSA is structured into four departments (Earth Observation, Space Engineering, Space Operations and Space Science), each performing its own specific programme and strategic plan.
Within Earth Observation department, SANSA has planned to develop a data cube as a smart platform which allows users to log into satellite images promptly and efficiently.
Space Science department has developed a project regarding the building of a new space weather monitoring centre in Hermanus (situated on the Cape Whale Coast of the Western Cape in South Africa) which will be operative 24/7 by next two years, in order to provide real-time information for aircraft flying over the whole African continent.
Space Operation section is seeking the possibility of setting up a new ground station for near-Earth and deep-space exploration in Matjiesfontein, in the Western Cape province. This new station, if successful, would support NASA’s endeavour to drive the next man to the Moon and also to fly beyond Mars.
Finally, Space Engineering has arranged to enact a new satellite development programme for an optical satellite mission planned in collaboration with other African partners to design a constellation.
Within this new strategic plan, SANSA is pay attention also to the satellite communication area and has already started dealing with the Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services.
SANSA’s next decade strategy has definitely moved from an inward focus to an outward focus, looking at the whole Africa and not only at South Africa: it highlights that the first agency’s vision going forward consists in benefitting all 54 countries on the continent.
Currently, Pretoria is experiencing the harsh consequences of the ongoing pandemic. At the beginning of August, South Africa has exceeded 500,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, becoming the fifth-highest country in the world by number of infections, equivalent to more than 50 percent of all cases recorded in the whole continent. Despite South African economy was in recession even before the pandemic, it caught the health crisis as an opportunity to relaunch national and foreign investments and cope with the 30 percent of unemployment. In fact, South African President Ramaphosa, along with extending grants to the country’s poorest people, has ranked infrastructure sectors as a national priority. Thus, the government followed up in June with an ambitious post-pandemic investment of R2.3 trillion (around USD 140 billion) in the key industries such as ICT infrastructures, water, energy and transports.
Within this economic programme, the space will play a fundamental role. It will benefit an investment of R3.1 billion (around USD 179 million), spread across three fiscal years, in a new space infrastructure hub that will be a catalytic project with high multiplier outcomes and promote the development of earth observation satellites, satellite-based augmentation systems and satellite infrastructures. All data provided by these systems could massively help South Africa tackle the socio-economic challenges and would advance safety and security of the continent as a whole.
A noteworthy effect from the investment plan consists in the expected impact of this Space Infrastructure hub on GDP and employment: it is forecasted a contribution over R3.96 billion (around USD 228 million) to the nation’s GDP in the first three years and about 5,000 new job opportunities per year.
Cristina Semeraro, Analyst – Vision & Global Trends. International Institute for Global Analyses
Other works by Cristina Semeraro published in Vision & Global Trends-International Institute for Global Analyses: