Highlighting the need for a more skilled workforce, Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, recently encouraged youngsters to choose science and technology as a career path at a prize-giving event linked to the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope - the world's largest radio telescope that will be hosted in the Karoo.
Pandor said, "We don't want to rely on extracting raw materials from mines and exporting them to other countries any longer. Many leading economies in the world produce no mining raw materials at all. They rely on knowledge and innovation for economic growth."
Minister Pandor should be applauded for her visionary remarks. The best thing she could do for the country right now is schedule an appointment with Minister of Energy, Dipuo Peters, who appears to take quite the opposite view to her counterpart in education. Some might recall the unbelievable remark Peters made about shale gas exploration, "It would be wrong for us to not use the resources that God left us with. This is a blessing that God gives us, and we need to exploit for the benefit of the people," she said.
Peters apparently couldn't care less about sending armies more of our people into miserable low-waged, low-skilled jobs. This is what natural resource exploitation normally results in and there's tons of evidence in South Africa's mining industry.
When she's not down on her knees praying for her peers in government to give shale gas exploration their stamp of approval, Minister Peters is taking every opportunity to lead the drumbeat for fracking in the Karoo. With just days to go before Minister of Mineral Resources, Susan Shabangu, makes a ruling on applications for shale gas exploration, Peters, again very publicly endorsed fracking. Speaking at the Infrastructure Africa Business Forum held in Sandton this week, she said, "President Jacob Zuma always speaks about overcoming poverty and unemployment. If fracking is safe, then it should be the way to go."
Remember how the media lined up behind George Bush when he led the drumbeat for the invasion of Iraq based on bogus evidence and inexplicable logic?
Well, it seems that our Minister of Energy has a willing accomplice in some sectors of our media too, who this time, are discrediting the science on climate change to build a case for fracking in the Karoo.
Recently we've been treated to business columnist Stephen Mulholland's deliriously optimistic "The Good News about Fracking", which appeared in Business Times on 8 July 2012. Notwithstanding his careless remarks aimed at casting doubt on the science of climate change, Mulholland reached a new low in journalism when he referred to delegates attending the recent Rio+20 Summit on sustainable development as "50 000 climate-crazy free loaders". That's one massive character assassination. But I guess if you're writing for the business press with mighty corporations backing you, it is possible to get away with passing off unsubstantiated hogwash for reasoned analysis.
Of course the energy industry has also taken full advantage of its access to the media. Shell's general manager of Upstream Operations, Jan Willem Eggink, produced an op-ed that appeared in South African newspapers in October last year in which he argued, it is a "major misconception" that hydraulic fracturing poses a risk to fresh water aquifers.
This op-ed appeared after the Advertising Standards Authority of South Africa "ruled that several of Shell's advertised claims - including one that said fracking had never led to groundwater contamination - were misleading or unsubstantiated and should be withdrawn. (Shell's response was that) the advertisements were an accurate reflection of its opinion," reports Source Watch, a non-profit investigative reporting organisation that monitors who shapes public debate.
Meanwhile the success of the American gas industry is routinely quoted by energy companies and our government to make the case for fracking in South Africa. But that picture of success is fraught with problems, as Oscar-nominated Josh Fox's 2010 documentary, Gasland, showed us with footage of Mike Markham setting his tap water on fire.
The gas industry mounted a definitive campaign against Fox after his documentary was released. Eggink's 2011 op-ed in South African newspapers also made a special effort to respond to the scene in the movie where Markham sets his water alight, of course, completely downplaying the connection between fracking and his methane filled explosive water.
But as Fox points out in his follow up to Gasland, The Sky is Pink, the natural gas industry will stop at nothing to grow their profits. Sixty years after the American tobacco industry employed PR firm Hill & Knowlton to cast doubt on scientific research that highlighted the link between tobacco smoking and lung cancer, the American Natural Gas Association has hired the exact same firm to purge the connection between shale gas fracking and the contamination of water from the public's mind.
Their modus operandi contends Naomi Oreskes, author of the book, Merchants of Doubt, is to create a debate in the public discourse, thereby fostering doubt. This debate of course leads to uncertainty and confusion, which creates the space for corporations to come in and do exactly as they please, while the public and the media engage in endless debate fuelled by PR-driven journalism.
As the day approaches when Minister Shabangu will make her decision on shale gas exploration in the Karoo, who is shaping the debate on fracking in South Africa? Can we trust a government locked into the unhealthy minerals-energy-complex? Can we trust an industry that has a notoriously poor social and environmental record? Should we wait for the market to determine our future? A prominent theoretical physicist contends that the rising cost of fossil fuels will intersect with the falling cost of renewable technology by about 2020. Surely by then it will be too late for the people of the Karoo whose water sources will be well on their way to non-reversible contamination.
It's ironic that the heavenly oriented SKA project, so forward-thinking in its vision and so magnanimous in its goals, could some day find itself within a stone's throw of 1,500 ghastly gas drilling wells that Shell is planning to plonk on the pristine Karoo landscape. It certainly doesn't conjure up an image of serene stargazing, neither for the scientists nor for the many tourists, SKA could potentially attract.
It certainly doesn't bode well for our future generations. When Minister Pandor looked into the young faces at the SKA-Meerkat Schools Competition prize-giving event, I'm sure she saw a brighter future than this for them.
Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.