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17 April 2019 | Story Leonie Bolleurs
Science ambassadors
Friends Tekano Mbonani and Chaka Mofokeng are pursuing graduate degrees in respectively Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS) and Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape. The two got together and decided to reach out to the high school, Leseding Technical Secondary School, where they came from.

It was a full house as more than 120 learners packed the hall at the Leseding Technical Secondary School in the Free State, where two young Astronomy researchers had come home to tell their younger peers about their studies and career prospects across South Africa.

Chaka Mofokeng and Tekano Mbonani are both former learners at the high school. Currently pursuing graduate degrees – for Mbonani in Physics at the University of the Free State (UFS), and for Mofokeng in Astronomy at the University of the Western Cape – the two friends got together and decided to reach out to the high school where they came from.

The event took place in January before schoolwork, tests, and exam preparations are occupying learners’ minds, inviting them to think about the big picture – the future, and how to be part of it. This is timely, because in July last year, the MeerKAT radio telescope was inaugurated in the Karoo. The MeerKAT is the first step to the international SKA telescope project, but it is already one of the best radio telescopes in the world and has placed South Africa firmly on the world map of radio astronomy and engineering.

Building a bridge
“This project enables us to build a bridge between secondary and tertiary institutions. Currently focused on senior secondary students, we aim to promote science through outreach events and activities. Using science and technology-based activities and events, such as stargazing at an observatory or exploring the universe in a planetarium, we want to attract these future secondary graduates. We also provide mentorship, hoping to help them improve their academic performance in matric,” said Mbonani.

For a whole morning, they spoke about their journeys, about science, about the skills that scientists acquire during their studies and all the opportunities such studies open up in an era where the 4th Industrial Revolution is predicted to reduce the number of jobs in many traditional professions. They addressed their peers in both English and Sesotho.

Astronomy in South Africa contributes to critical-skills development. Investing in the MeerKAT, for example, meant that over a thousand bursaries were made available through the SKA South Africa Human Capacity Development programme. Young scientists like Mofokeng and Mbonani have the opportunity to be part of MeerKAT science projects through their studies, using machine learning and other skills that are high in demand in today’s world. This was one of the messages they brought home.

Gaining new skills

“As an Astronomy research student, I have gained skills such as data analysis, mathematical modelling, communication and writing, programming, and teamwork, among others. These are requirements for most companies and institutions. With the unfolding of the 4th Industrial Revolution, such skills sets make young and aspiring scientists the perfect candidates for making the most of future opportunities,” reflected Mofokeng.

Most of the learners said they have never attended a science-outreach event. They were inspired by the young scientists’ stories and nearly half of them said they could see themselves pursuing a career in science. The learners also expressed a strong interest in more events of this kind, as well as mentorship during Grades 11 and 12 from peers at university. They asked about the salaries earned by astronomers, how long the studies take, and where astronomers are working in South Africa.

This initiative, started by two bright young scientists, hopefully marks the beginning of many more events of this kind. Mofokeng and Mbonani are already planning what to do on their next trip home.

News Archive

Bloemfontein's quality of tap water compares very favourably with bottled water

The quality of the drinking water of five suburbs in Bloemfontein is at least as good as or better than bottled water. This is the result of a standard and chemical bacterial analysis done by the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Centre for Environmental Management in collaboration with the Institute for Groundwater Studies (IGS).

Five samples were taken from tap water sources in the suburbs of Universitas, Brandwag, Bain’s Vlei, Langenhoven Park and Bayswater and 15 samples were taken of different brands of still and unflavoured bottled water. The samples were analysed at the laboratory of the IGS, while the interpretation of the analysis was done by the Centre for Environmental Management.

“We wanted to evaluate the difference in quality for human consumption between tap water and that of the different brands of bottled water,” said Prof. Maitland Seaman, Head of the Centre for Environmental Management.

“With the exception of two samples produced by multinational companies at their plants in South Africa, the different brands of bottled water used for the study were produced by South African companies, including a local small-scale Bloemfontein producer,” said Prof. Seaman.

According to the labels, the sources of the water vary from pure spring water, to partial reverse osmosis (as an aid to standardise salt, i.e. mineral, content), to only reverse osmosis (to remove salts). (Reverse osmosis is a process in which water is forced under pressure through a pipe with minute pores through which water passes but no – or very low concentrations of – salts pass.)

According to Prof. Seaman, the analysis revealed some interesting findings, such as:

• It is generally accepted that drinking water should have an acceptable level of salt content, as the body needs salts. Most mineral contents were relatively higher in the tap water samples than the bottled water samples and were very much within the acceptable range of drinkable water quality. One of the bottled samples, however, had a very low mineral content, as the water was produced by reverse osmosis, as stated on the bottle. While reverse osmosis is used by various producers, most producers use it as an aid, not as a single method to remove nearly all the salts. Drinking only such water over a prolonged period may probably have a negative effect on the human physiology.

• The pH values of the tap water samples (8,12–8,40) were found to be slightly higher (slightly alkaline), like in all south-eastern Free State rivers (from where the water is sourced) than the pH of most of the bottled water samples, most of which are sourced and/or treated in other areas. Two brands of bottled water were found to have relatively low pH levels (both 4,5, i.e. acidic) as indicated on their bottles and as confirmed by the IGS analysis. The health implication of this range of pH is not significant.

• The analysis showed differences in the mineral content given on the labels of most of the water bottles compared to that found by IGS analysis. The possibility of seasonal fluctuation in content, depending on various factors, is expected and most of the bottling companies also indicate this on their labels. What was a rather interesting finding was that two pairs of bottled water brands claimed exactly the same mineral content but appeared under different brand names and were also priced differently. In each case, one of the pair was a well-known house brand, and the other obviously the original producer. In one of these paired cases, the house brand stated that the water was spring water, while the other (identical) “original” brand stated that it was spring water treated by reverse osmosis and oxygen-enriched.

• Nitrate (NO3) levels were uniformly low except in one bottled sample, suggesting a low (non-threatening) level of organic pollution in the source water. Otherwise, none of the water showed any sign of pollution.

• The bacterial analysis confirmed the absence of any traces of coliforms or E.coli in any of the samples, as was also indicated by the bottling companies. This is very reassuring. What is not known is how all these waters were sterilised, which could be anything from irradiation to chlorine or ozone treatment.

• The price of the different brands of bottled water, each containing 500 ml of still water, ranged between R3,99 and R8,99, with R5,03 being the average price. A comparison between the least expensive and the most expensive bottles of water indicated no significant difference in quality. In fact, discrepancies were observed in the most expensive bottle in that the amount of Calcium (Ca) claimed to be present in it was found to be significantly different from what the analysis indicated (29,6 mg/l versus 0,92 mg/l). The alkalinity (CaCO3 mg/l) indicated on the bottle was also found to differ considerably (83 mg/l versus 9,4 mg/l). The concentration of Total Dissolved Salts (TDS) was not given on the product.

“The preference for bottled water as compared to Bloemfontein’s tap water from a qualitative perspective as well as the price discrepancy is unjustifiable. The environmental footprint of bottled water is also large. Sourcing, treating, bottling, packaging and transporting, to mention but a few of the steps involved in the processing of bottled water, entail a huge carbon footprint, as well as a large water footprint, because it also requires water for treating and rinsing to process bottled water,” said Prof. Seaman.

Media Release
Lacea Loader
Deputy Director: Media Liaison
Tel: 051 401 2584
Cell: 083 645 2454
3 August 2009


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