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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

Reverend Frank Chikane honours ‘Oom Bey’ at second Beyers Naudé Memorial Lecture for 2012
2012-09-11

Rev. Frank Chikane and Dr Choice Makhetha, Vice-Rector: External Relations at the UFS.
Photo: Stephen Collett
10 September 2012

The 9th Beyers Naude Memorial Lecture, a partnership initiative between the University of the Free State (UFS) and Kagiso Trust, was held on the South Campus of the university last week. The theme of the lecture focused on Collaborative partnership for social cohesion: Building of a nation with ethics.

Guest speaker, Reverend Frank Chikane, is a member of the UDF, ANC, Director-General in the Office of the President and a board member of Kagiso Trust.

In his speech, Rev. Chikane focused on the first 45 years in the life of Beyers Naudé, sketching a picture of a man who lived for what he believes in. When this former minister of the South African Dutch Reformed Church and member of the Broederbond, decided to question the morality of the Apartheid government after the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, he made some changes in his beliefs and started to play a big role in the struggle against apartheid.

“If one know about ‘Oom Bey’s’ earlier life, you will see how radical his contribution was in turning South Africa from a country on the brink of destruction to a country of peace. ‘Oom Bey’ must be seen as a role model, someone we can aspire to be in South Africa today,” Rev. Chikane said.

“From his legacy one sees elements of someone building a nation with ethics.

“He took sides with the poor against an unjust system. Power breaks cohesion. It makes people not to think,” Rev. Chikane said.

If Afrikaners and black people stood together after the South African War (Anglo-Boer War), we would have talked a different language today. However, they did not. Afrikaners stood together, excluding black people and cohesion between all races was destructed. ‘Oom Bey’ tried to build relationships between people from all races in South Africa in an effort to create peace amongst all people. He was alienated from the Broederbond and defrockedrom the church.

In his speech, Rev. Chikane also said that South Africa did not succeed in collaborative partnerships in terms of the economy. “We need collaborative action to change our economy. This specific failure can destroy all that we have built together.”

“All South Africans can be like ‘Oom Bey” and make a contribution, especially in terms of the economy. To deal with this challenge, we can all contribute. This is important because due to a poor economy, many people are desperate and desperate people can destroy any relationship that we might have built so far.”

At this event, the university and Kagiso Trust also announced the winners of a poetry and essay competition that coincided with this last Beyers Naudé lecture for 2012. The award ceremony looked at the creativity of the learners, how they expressed themselves as well as the novelty of their work. Students as well as learners from schools in the Free State participated in the competition and first, second and third place winners received cash prizes as well as a book from Rev. Frank Chikane for their brilliant work.
 

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