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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

Lessons of The Spear
2012-08-14

 Discussing weighty issues at the UFS were from left: Prof. Jonathan Jansen; Vice-Chancellor and Rector; Nic Dawes, Editor-in-Chief, Mail & Guardian; Max du Preez: Investigative journalist and political columnist; Ferial Haffajee: Editor, City Press; and Justice Malala: Political commentator and newspaper columnist.
Photo: Johan Roux
14 August 2012

What were South Africans left with after The Spear? More importantly, what did we learn from The Spear?

These were the issues discussed at a seminar, Beyond the Spear, on the controversial Brett Murray painting at the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) on Monday 13 August 2012.

The university hosted this seminar, Beyond the Spear, in conjunction with acclaimed journalists, to look deeper into the lessons that South Africans learnt from this painting and the reaction from the public and politicians following soon after it went on display at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg.

The four panellists, Mr Justice Malala (political analyst, journalist and host of the news show, The Justice Factor), Mr Nic Dawes (editor in chief of Mail & Guardian), Mr Max du Preez (investigative journalist and political columnist) and Ms Ferial Haffajee (editor of City Press), all presented their views and experiences on the public’s perceptions of this artwork.

In his opening remarks, Prof. Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector, said the purpose of the seminar was to help us make sense of what happened. Prof. Jansen also chaired this seminar.

“This being South Africa, there will be more ‘Spears’. More public crises will unfold that divide the nation and that will stir the emotions. We need to understand what happened so that we are better prepared to deal with the coming ‘Spears’.”

Issues on leadership, South Africa’s hurtful past and the freedom of expression were some of the topics raised by the panellists.

“This has taught us that South Africans – especially the older generation – still need to vent their anger… White South Africa must be patient and allow black citizens to shout at them,” said Mr Du Preez. He warned that this anger should serve a constructive purpose. In reaction to a question if Brett Murray did not disrespect Pres. Jacob Zuma’s dignity with his controversial painting, he said that this painting was “…rude and disrespectful.”

“It was meant to be. It was not honouring him.” He said that politicians will do anything, including messing with the country’s stability, to further their own interests. “From now on we need to be far more alert, far more cynical about our politicians.”

Mr Dawes shared his experience and said that the debates around The Spear were very painful considering where the nation has come from. He said the painting opened up painful pasts and difficult spaces. “It is up to the media to open up these difficult spaces.” He said the painting also brought up questions of how South Africans deal and live with pain. “South Africa must live with its past. The debate should now be how to preserve space for the country’s ghosts and how its citizens could get the resilience to deal with it.”

Ms Haffajee, who was caught in the crossfire between freedom of expression and human dignity and who refused to remove a picture of the painting from the City Press website, said that the media was viciously played by politicians.

“This had shown that achieving freedom took many lives, but it took very little to kill it.” She said The Spear is art that it is part of a rich cultural heritage of protest art.

Mr Malala said with the debates around The Spear painting, something died in South Africa. “The debate was taken away from us. We let politicians get to us.”

After the panellists delivered their presentations, Prof. Jansen led a discussion session between the audience and the panellists.
 

 

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