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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

UFS awards honorary doctorate to global peace ambassador Dr Lakhdar Brahimi
2015-07-07

Professor Heidi Hudson, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies at the UFS and Dr Lakhdar Brahimi.
Photo: Mike Rose from Mike Rose Photography

The Faculty of the Humanities and Centre for Africa Studies rewarded the contributions of Dr Lakhdar Brahimi, a prominent global peace leader, with an honorary doctorate on Thursday 2 July 2015.

The conferment formed one of the highlights of the 2015 Winter Graduations. Dr Brahimi’s work as a United Nations’ (UN) envoy, and African peace leader of note, was deeply respected by the university. Professor Heidi Hudson, Director of the Centre for Africa Studies at the UFS, accepted the PhD on his behalf.

In his acceptance speech, read by Prof Hudson at the Chancellor’s Dinner the same evening, Dr Brahimi expressed his gratitude to the university. “I deeply appreciate your generous recognition, and even now, in the twilight years of my life, I shall try to be worthy of your confidence in everything I say or do.”

“My generation did its share: its successes and its failures are things of the past. We must accept to be judged by you, the graduates. You, the young graduates here at the University of the Free State, and your fellow members of the African intellectual elite, have an exciting opportunity to take on the challenges and fulfil the dreams you have. We must accept to be judged by you.”

Algerian-born Dr Brahimi was first involved with the UN in 1992 as rapporteur to the Earth Summit. Distinctively, he is the most-frequently appointed special envoy of the UN. Amongst many other countries, he has worked as a mediator for South Africa, Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Burundi, Angola, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, and Côte d’Ivoire on behalf of the UN.

Significant peacekeeping efforts in South Africa (1993- 1994)

The ambassador– in his capacity as special representative to South Africa from December 1993 to June 1994 –played a direct role in South Africa’s democratic transition.

Prof Hudson expressed appreciation for the ambassador’s role in facilitating a peaceful transition from South Africa’s Nationalist government into the current democratic dispensation.

“One of the reasons we selected him as recipient of the honorary doctorate, is because of what he did for the African continent,” she said.

In addition, she commented Dr Brahimi for being a living testament of Ubuntu. “He has displayed an ethic of humanism in everything that he has done, in the way that he has mediated in certain conflicts - his main contribution is as a mediator.

According to Hudson, his humility, modesty, and generosity are the epitome of Ubuntu which states that “I am because we are.”

Dr Brahimi as a global peace practitioner

Dr Brahimi served as Undersecretary-General of the Arab League, Arab League Special Envoy for Lebanon, and Foreign Minister of Algeria.

The UN Peace-building Commission was established as a result of recommendations in his2000 Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations (Brahimi Report).

Since 2007, Dr Brahimi has been a member in The Elders - an alliance chaired by Kofi Annan -of peace and human rights advocates including Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson, and Jimmy Carter. His passion for justice led to his membership in the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor.

In 2010, he was Laureate of the Special Jury Prize for Conflict Prevention, awarded by the Chirac Foundation (France), which promotes international peace and security.

Dr Brahimi’s influence in Peace Education

The Brahimi Report has had an indelible impact on scholars specialising in the broad field of peace operations. Dr Brahimi’s writings have also contributed to knowledge on post-conflict reconstruction and development (PCRD), a signification part of the African Union’s narrative.

He is a distinguished senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. He has taught a postgraduate course on Conflict Resolution at Sciences Po, Paris (2011); is Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University; and is affiliated to the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was a visiting professor from 2006 to 2008.

In addition, Dr Brahimi is a founding member of the French-language Journal of Palestine Studies, and a board member of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.


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