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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

Johann Naudé talks at first Beyers Naudé lecture for 2012
2012-08-02

At the event were, from the left: Ms Bontle Senne, Managing Director for the PUKU Children’s Literature Foundation, Mr Sipho Hlongwane, writer and columnist for the Daily Maverick, Prof. Nicky Morgan, Vice-Rector: Operations at the UFS, Mr Themba Mola, Chief Operations Officer at Kagiso Trust, Mr Johann Naudé, son of Dr Beyers Naudé, and Dr Choice Makhetha, Vice-Rector: External Relations.
Photo: Stephen Collett
2 August 2012

The University of the Free State (UFS) together withKagiso Trust, presented the first Beyers Naudé lecture for 2012 on its South Campus in Bloemfontein last week. Speakers like Dr Wilmot James, Member of Parliament, Mr Johann Naudé, son of Dr Beyers Naudé, Mr Sipho Hlongwane, writer and columnist for the Daily Maverick and Ms Bontle Senne, Managing Director for the PUKU Children’s Literature Foundation, all gave a lecture around this year’s theme: Collaborative partnerships for social cohesion: Building a nation with ethics.

Dr Beyers Naudé played a major role in the formation of Kagiso Trust. His contribution to the trust and the fight against oppression in South Africa, as well as his challenging of the establishment from which he came, makes him one of South Africa’s courageous heroes. Kagiso Trust thus saw it fit to celebrate the life of this clerical activist through a Memorial Lecture The Beyers Naudé Memorial Lecture is an effort by the Trust to engage South Africans into a dialogue about issues affecting our nation.

Mr Johann Naudé talked about the lessons they as children learnt from their parents as well as his father’s decision to respond to the needs of the people in South Africa. Even before the Sharpeville Massacre, Dr Naudé began a self-transformation that led to his rejection of apartheid. “Apartheid had no theological or scriptural grounds and my father decided to resign from the church. After that, he started to talk openly against apartheid and he also paid the price for that. For seven years he was under house arrest and we as his children also felt the effect of his decision. At the University of Pretoria in a residence where I stayed as a student I was called in and told that I would be treated as an outcast. Loans and jobs were also closed for us as children and as a result, we all started our own businesses,” Mr Naudé said.

“Furthermore, our parents taught us to believe in ourselves. He also said we have rights and we can only demand those rights if we take the responsibility that goes with it. My father also taught us to honour and to respect our fellow men, elderly people and the culture of people different from us. We were also taught to apologise for the wrongs to our fellow men and to acknowledge earnestly that we were wrong.”

Dr Wilmot James said that there were two things consistent in the life of Dr Beyers Naudé, namely justice and fairness. “There are many Nelson Mandelas and Beyers Naudés out there. It is the responsibility of political parties and institutions to motivate such leadership. We must ask ourselves: Are my actions and decisions ethical and will they have fair consequences?” Dr James said.

Mr Hlongwane focused his presentation on the ethics part of the theme. He said: “We in South Africa fall very short of ethics. We can start by respecting each other and taking care of one another. The Constitution will not mean a thing if we fail to respect and trust one another. We will have no cohesive society if we continue to treat those different from us like dirt. It is also our ethical duty to build up the disadvantaged.

In her discussion, Ms Senne emphasised the role of the youth in South Africa. “Our youth is failing our state because our state is failing our youth. Their role is to bring cohesion and acts of courageousness to the table. For them to contribute in a practical and sustainable manner, they need to start making the changes they want to see in society. They are young people and they can make it work because they do have access to the necessary means (social networks) to get things done. They must get involved,” she said.

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