For about one century, two bodies aspired to the position of being South Africa’s national science academy – the Royal Society of South Africa (RSSAf), with a royal charter from the United Kingdom, and the Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns (SAAWK), with a statute of the South African Parliament.
With the dawn of democracy in the early 1990s, it was generally realised that a new model was required. The President of the Foundation for Research and Development (FRD), now the National Research Foundation (NRF), invited the RSSAf, SAAWK and the Science and Engineering Academy of South Africa (SEASA) to plan a new Academy.
In 1994, a plan and a draft constitution were adopted. A year later, 100 founder Members had been elected, and the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) was launched as a voluntary association in 1996, with then-President Nelson Mandela as patron.
When the ASSAf Statute was passed by the South African Parliament as Act 67 of 2001, the SAAWK statute was simultaneously revoked. ASSAf thus became the only national science academy of South Africa. The Academy was broad in its inclusion of all forms of empirical enquiry, and differed from the previously existing bodies in having a core mission of providing evidence-based advice to the government and the nation, as indicated by the motto: ‘Science for Society’.
In 2001, the Department of Science and Technology (DST) commissioned and funded the Academy’s first consensus study, dealing with a strategic approach to South African scholarly journals. The year 2004 brought a breakthrough when the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI), led by the United States National Academy of Sciences (US NAS), selected ASSAf as a one of three intensive partners, guaranteeing generous funding and mentoring for five to seven years. This, together with steadily increasing funding from Parliament administered by the DST, has led to the building of capacity in the ASSAf secretariat, many further evidence-based studies and forum-based activities, a large-scale Scholarly Publishing Programme, a strong international presence and a wide acceptance of the Academy’s key role in the national system of innovation.