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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

Doing what must be done – Fourth Reconciliation Lecture by Colm McGivern
2015-03-17

Colm McGivern
Photo: Johan Roux

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Fourth Reconciliation Lecture: Audio

McGivern: speech (pdf)

The UFS Annual Reconciliation Lecture brings leaders, scholars, and the broader community together in a shared vision for social change and conflict transformation. This event is organised by Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Senior Research Professor in Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Studies. In 2012, Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, was the first speaker to deliver the lecture. This year, at the Fourth Annual Reconciliation Lecture held on the Bloemfontein Campus, Colm McGivern, Director of the British Council in South Africa, continued the legacy.

Doing what must be done
'I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles' hand, the killer of my son.'
(Ceasefire by Michael Longley)

Using this poem to powerful effect, McGivern showed what reconciliation asks of each and every citizen: to do what must be done. “I think that peace and reconciliation are mutually dependent,” he said. “You can’t maintain one over the long run without attending to the other.”

South Africa’s history has tracked along a similar path to that of Northern Ireland. “And lessons from other places can be powerful and instructive,” McGivern said. Sometimes reconciliation needs a focal point for people to clearly see its power, as Madiba has for South Africa. But at other times, reconciliation needs everyday citizens to “kiss Achilles’ hand’”.

McGivern mentioned Candice Mama and her family, who  have recently forgiven Eugene de Kock,. Or as Gordon Wilson did after his daughter, Mary, died holding his hand in the 1987 Enniskillen bombing in Ireland. In a TV interview mere hours later, Wilson forgave the killers of his daughter, and  hope rippled across Ireland.

Learning from others
“People’s capability,” McGivern said, “to reconcile their own differences, however stark, can be boosted by learning from others in other places, internationally or perhaps just beyond their own identity group.” A powerful truth now being pursued in a joined initiative between the British Council and Teaching Divided Histories.

As an example, McGivern referred to the short film, ‘In Peace Apart’ where one Catholic and one Protestant girl decide to swop school uniforms. Harnessing the potential of moving images and digital media, the initiative enables teachers to explore contentious issues of history and identity in the classroom. This international field of conflict education draws lessons “from activities in Sierra Leone, India, Lebanon, and, of course, South Africa.”

Resuscitation of the national spirit of magnanimity
Here in South Africa, Archbishop Desmund Tutu has “called for a resuscitation of the national spirit of magnanimity and common purpose”, McGivern quoted. In the book, 80 Moments that Shaped the World, South Africa appears four times, McGivern pointed out. And as Archbishop Tutu wrote in the foreword of the book, “no act is unforgivable; no person or country is beyond redemption and the world needs more people to reach out to one another.”

 

For more information or enquiries contact news@ufs.ac.za.

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