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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

SA cannot sustain momentum - Boesak
2010-09-02

Photo: Stephen Collett

South Africa finds it increasingly difficult to live up to the challenges facing it as a nation because of its failure to meet its democratic ideals and possibilities, peace and lack of self-belief.

This was according to renowned cleric and former political activist, Dr Allan Boesak, who recently delivered the CR Swart Memorial Lecture, the oldest memorial lecture at the University of the Free State (UFS). His lecture was on the topic Creating moments, sustaining momentum.

He said South Africa had plenty of opportunities to show the whole world what was possible if all the people of this country joined hands and worked together to build a truly united society. However, he said, the country somehow invariably contrived to find its way out of these wonderful possibilities.

He cited events of historical significance like Codesa, the inauguration of Nelson Mandela as the first democratic president of South Africa, the assassination of South African Communist Party leader, Chris Hani; and the rugby and soccer world cups.
To drive his point home about this dismal failure of the country to “sustain momentum”, he alluded to the current public servants’ strike that is gradually crippling public service.

“The public servants’ strike was neither unexpected nor is it completely unjustifiable. Most of us have understanding for the frustration of teachers and health workers. Their demands resonate with most of us, and I think that it is scandalous of SACP fat cats to tell workers to “stop crying like babies,” he said.

He also added to the criticism of the much-maligned decision of the government to spend billions of taxpayers’ money to purchase weapons when there was “no discernible military threat” to the country. He said the greatest threat to the security of the country was poverty, inequality and social cohesion.

“As for the argument that arms sales bring in foreign exchange – how can we be instrumental in killing the poor elsewhere with the intention of feeding our poor, and then our ill-gained profits feed only the already well-fed?” he asked.
“Can we see the hopeless contradiction, the total impossibility of being both the apostle of peace and a merchant of death?”

He also lambasted the Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policy of the government which he said benefited only those connected to the political aristocracy.

“It couples with the unashamed, in-your-face display of wealth by the privileged elite in this country, the crass materialism of the so-called “bling generation”, and the casual carelessness with which promises to the poor are given and treated. It is only the public symptom of the deep-seated scorn our political elites feel for the poor,” he said.

He said the government’s disdain to the poor was “setting fire to our future”.

“The anger of people on the ground can no longer be denied or ignored, and little by little, the leadership articulating and directing this anger is being estranged from politically elected leadership, and even more disturbing, from our democratic processes,” he said.

He concluded that the country’s difficulty in dealing with race and racism was putting the reconciliation process kick-started by Mandela just over a decade ago, under a threat.
 

 

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