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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

From peasant to president; from Samora Machel to Cahora Bassa
2015-03-25

Prof Barbara Isaacman and Prof Allen Isaacman
Photo: Renè-Jean van der Berg

When the plane crashed in Mbuzini, the entire country was submerged in a profound grieving.

This is how Prof Allen Isaacman, Regents Professor of History at the University of Minnesota, described the effect President Samora Machel’s death in 1986 had on Mozambique. In a public lecture, Prof Isaacman spoke about the man, Samora Machel, and the influences that shaped Machel’s life. The event, recently hosted by the UFS International Studies Group on the Bloemfontein Campus, was part of the Stanley Trapido Seminar Programme.

Samora Machel: from peasant to president
Born in 1933 into a peasant family, Machel was allowed to advance only to the third grade in school. “And yet,” Prof Isaacman said, “he became a very prominent local peasant intellectual and ultimately one of the most significant critics of Portuguese colonialism and colonial capitalism.” Machel had a great sense of human agency and firmly believed that one is not a mere victim of circumstances. “You were born into a world, but you can change it,” Prof Isaacman explained Machel’s conviction.

From herding cattle in Chokwe, to working as male nurse, Machel went on to become the leader of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo) and ultimately the president of his country. To this day, not only does he “capture the imagination of the Mozambican people and South Africans, but is considered one the great leaders of that moment in African history,” Prof Isaacman concluded his lecture.

Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007
Later in the day, Profs Allen and Barbara Isaacman discussed their book: ‘Displacement, and the Delusion of Development: Cahora Bassa and Its Legacies in Mozambique, 1965–2007’ at the Archives for Contemporary Affairs. As authors of the book, they investigate the history and legacies of one of Africa's largest dams, Cahora Bassa, which was built in Mozambique by the Portuguese in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The dam was constructed under conditions of war and inaugurated after independence by a government led by Frelimo. The dam has since operated continuously, although, for many years, much of its electricity was not exported or used because armed rebels had destroyed many high voltage power line pillars. Since the end of the armed conflict in 1992, power lines have been rebuilt, and Cahora Bassa has provided electricity again, primarily to South Africa, though increasingly to the national Mozambican grid as well.

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