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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

Head of SA Witness Protection Programme pays UFS a visit
2010-05-04

 
Receiving the Head of the South African Witness Protection Programme are, in front: Prof. Hennie Oosthuizen, Head of the Department of Criminal and Medical Law at the UFS; back: Adv. Beatri Kruger from the UFS Unit for Children’s Rights, Ms Lani Opperman, Member of the Free State Human Trafficking Forum (FHF), Adv. John Welch, Head of the Witness Protection Programme in South Africa; and Lene van Zyl, a LLM student at the UFS who is doing her thesis on human trafficking in body parts.
Photo: Leonie Bolleurs


Recently Adv. Beatri Kruger from the Unit for Children’s Rights in the Faculty of Law at the University of the Free State (UFS) invited Adv. John Welch, Head of the Witness Protection Programme in South Africa, to address the Free State Human Trafficking Forum (FHF) on the safe-keeping of victims who are witnesses against human traffickers.

Human trafficking is prevalent in the Free State, especially in Bloemfontein. The Unit for Children’s Rights is one of the founding members of the FHF that was established to take action against and fight the disturbing reality of human trafficking more efficiently.

According to Adv. Kruger the FHF identified the problem of trafficked witnesses being threatened by human trafficker syndicates.

Adv. Welch made some suggestions with regard to the safe-keeping of trafficked victims. He also, with some of the forum members, paid a visit to the areas in Bloemfontein where human trafficking is prevalent as well as to the local shelter for trafficked victims.

Adv. Welch undertook to join forces with the FHF in assisting trafficked victims and the local Witness Protection Programme Office is now a member of the forum.

Since December 2009 members of the FHF managed to disrupt the work of the human trafficking syndicates. “The traffickers have not stopped this inhumane practice but there are indications that they have moved to other buildings in the inner city and even to houses in the suburbs. It was reported to the forum that approximately 27 males suspected of being involved in human trafficking had been arrested, and since they are illegal in the country, they were deported to their countries of origin,” said Adv. Kruger.

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