Long line of people waiting to cast their vote in South Africa first election in 1994.

South Africa’s first free elections in 1994.Credit: Mike Persson/AFP/Getty

As Nature went to press, South Africans were going to the polls to vote for a new parliament — as they have done every five years since 1994, when the country held its first free, multi-party election. Once the votes cast on 29 May have been counted, it is possible that the African National Congress, which led the struggle for liberation and has governed South Africa continuously for 30 years, will have to share power with other parties for the first time. The country is at risk of being overwhelmed by deep-rooted problems, and for the best chance of resolving these, all parties need to work together. Researchers are ready to play their part.

Historically, South Africa has had one of the African continent’s strongest science systems. After Egypt, it is Africa’s leading producer of scientific research, and, according to a report from the country’s science department, the number of publications the country produces per capita is increasing year-on-year (see go.nature.com/3wx4jjg). Diversity is also rising in the scientific workforce. As of 2021 (the latest year for which data are available) — and from a standing start in 1994 — nearly half of the nation’s publications included Black authors from South Africa. (Black, in the report, means “black African, coloured, Indian/Asian South African nationals only”; ‘coloured’ is an official demographic term used in South Africa.) Black people also make up a sizeable proportion of the nation’s upcoming talent. Some 44% of doctorates in sciences, mathematics and engineering were awarded to Black people in 2020, the report finds, and the trend is continuing.

South Africa is also respected for its global contributions. It has a record of combining depth in scholarly knowledge with a commitment to championing knowledge-sharing to benefit all of humanity. This was perhaps most apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, when South Africa’s diplomats worked with their counterparts in India to try to ensure that intellectual property for vaccines and therapeutics — created using data gathered by researchers everywhere — could be freely shared in a pandemic. It was a cause that Nature also backed. Ultimately, the campaign was unsuccessful, but its advocates were brave to take a stand and press others to do the right thing.

In South Africa, such strengths could now be applied on the home front. But for this to happen, the government must recognize them and allow researchers to make greater contributions to tackling the nation’s problems.

By many indicators, progress seems to be going into reverse. South Africa has debt problems, worsened by two big setbacks — economic growth nosedived after the 2008 financial crisis and again during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirty years after the end of Apartheid, successive South African governments have made, at best, halting progress towards meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A study by the World Bank and the Development Bank of South Africa found that four out of five rural roads are unpaved (see go.nature.com/3rqm5bn); around half of households lack safe water and sanitation; and an ongoing energy crisis means frequent power cuts. Moreover, although the nation has been a destination for people from elsewhere in Africa for decades, xenophobia is rising, even at universities. All of these need to be tackled.

Progress towards a number of SDG targets could be improved with more funding. The World Bank study found that to achieve climate-resilient transport, education, water and sanitation by the SDG deadline of 2030 will cost between 8% and 11% of South Africa’s gross domestic product every year. This is not a small sum, and would require the government to borrow more, tax people more or cut public spending — or some combination of the three.

The problem for South Africa, like many other low- and middle-income countries, is that its economy is not strong enough to sustain further borrowing. Meanwhile, raising more money through general taxation or cuts to public spending would hurt the very people the SDGs aim to help.

A potential alternative is to levy an extra tax on the wealthiest citizens. Among the countries for which data are available, South Africa is the world’s most unequal society (A. Chatterjee et al. World Bank Econ. Rev. 36, 19–36; 2022). The proceeds of a wealth tax would be used to boost public services that are used by the poorest, including universities. It does not need to be a recurring tax, but could be a one-off charge, for use in the aftermath of emergencies.

The idea of wealth tax is gaining ground among economists, notably at the Paris-based World Inequality Lab (WIL; see go.nature.com/3yyicmf). However, relevant data are lacking. “We have much better information on people’s income than on their wealth,” says Léo Czajka, a researcher at WIL who studies inequality in South Africa. For a wealth tax to work, an international agreement would be needed that countries would collect and share relevant data on citizens’ wealth. This would allow governments to better anticipate the implications of a wealth tax, as well as reducing the risk of more nations becoming tax havens.

In 2002, just eight years after South Africa’s liberation, the country’s researchers were among those who welcomed the international community to Johannesburg to attend a UN summit that was an important staging-post on the road to agreeing the SDGs. The nation’s policymakers should again look to scientists. Our message to whichever party, or parties, wins the election is this: talk to your researchers. Involve them. They are ready to play their part.