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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

Renowned writer for Africa Day
2012-05-31

 

Attending the lecture were, from left: Dr Choice Makhetha, Vice-Rector: External Relations; Prof Kwandiwe Kondlo, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies;Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong'o; Prof Lucius Botes, Dean of the Faculty of the Humanities, and Prof Andre Keet, Director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice..
Photo: Stephen Collett
25 May 2012

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Lecture: THE BLACKNESS OF BLACK: Africa in the World Today

Audio of the lecture

Profile of Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o (pdf format)

“Flowers are all different, yet no flower claims to be more of a flower than the other.” With these words Kenyan writer and one of the continent's most celebrated authors, Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, delivered the tenth annual Africa Day Memorial lecture on 25 May 2012 in the University of the Free State's (UFS) Odeion Theatre on the Bloemfontein Campus. The lecture was hosted by the Centre for Africa Studies.

Long before Prof. wa Thiong’o was led inside the venue by a praise singer, chairs were filled and people were shown to an adjoining room to follow the lecture. Others, some on the university's Qwaqwa Campus, followed via live streaming.

In his speech titled the Blackness of Black: Africa in the world today, Prof. wa Thiong’o looked at the standing of Africa in the world today. He highlighted the plight of those of African descent who are judged “based on a negative profile of blackness”.

Prof. wa Thiong’o recalled a humiliating experience at a hotel in San Francisco in the United States, where a staff member questioned him being a guest of the hotel. He shared a similar experience in New Jersey, where he and his wife were thought to be recipients of welfare cheques. He said this was far deeper than overt racism.

“The certainty is based on a negative profile of blackness taken so much for granted as normal that it no longer creates a doubt.”

Prof. wa Thiong’o said the self certainty that black is negative is not confined to white perception of black only.

“The biggest sin, then, is not that certain groups of white people, and even the West as a whole, may have a negative view of blackness embedded in their psyche, the real sin is that the black bourgeoisie in Africa and the world should contribute to that negativity and even embrace it by becoming participants or shareholders in a multibillion industry built on black negativity.”

“Africa has to review the roots of the current imbalance of power: it started in the colonisation of the body. Africa has to reclaim the black body with all its blackness as the starting point in our plunge into and negotiations with the world.”

Prof. wa Thiong’o concluded by saying that Africa must rediscover and reconnect with Kwame Nkrumah’s dreams of a politically and economically united Africa.

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