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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

Triumph of the Human Spirit – a symbol of hope
2015-08-24

Ahmed Kathrada discusses his latest book, Triumph of the Human Spirit.
Photo: Johan Roux

“A triumph of courage and determination over human frailty and weakness; a triumph of the new South Africa over the old.” – Ahmed Kathrada

Ahmed Kathrada, stalwart of South Africa’s liberation struggle, visited the Bloemfontein Campus on 18 August 2015 to launch his latest book, Triumph of the Human Spirit. Turning page after page, the reader travels back with Uncle Kathy – as he is fondly known – to revisit Robben Island with the more than 300 guests he has accompanied since 1994. With each photo – be it a celebrity or school child, head of state or famous artist, friend or royalty – the significance of the island is eternalised, right alongside Ahmed Kathrada.

Message of triumph
“Why this specific title for the book?” Prof André Keet, Director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ), asked during the book launch. “Robben Island,” Kathrada answered, “should not be remembered only as a place of suffering – that’s history. But the message of Robben Island is the message of triumph – triumph of the human spirit over all sorts of adversities.”

Speaking about Kathrada’s quiet but profound impact, Zaakirah Vadi, editor of the book, said “I think Uncle Kathy does not realise what an inspiration his own strength of spirit is”. The fight for human values and dignity was “honed and perfected in the cells of Robben Island,” she said. “It created the vision for a new South Africa and, as Uncle Kathy puts it, the triumph of the new South Africa over the old.”

UFS surprises Ahmed Kathrada with a birthday cake.
Photo: Johan Roux

Freedom was sacrifice
This triumph was not achieved without a cost, though. “No freedom comes on a platter,” Kathrada said. “Freedom was fought for. Freedom was sacrifice. Through the sacrifices of those who did not survive, we are still here to tell the story.”

And that is exactly what Triumph of the Human Spirit does. As Kgalema Motlanthe writes in the foreword, “This book serves as a preservation of history and a symbol of hope.”

Birthday celebration
Just as the event seemed to come to a close, members of the Student Representative Council carried a candle-lit cake – shaped in the number 86 – toward Kathrada. This surprise was organised by the UFS to celebrate his birthday on 21 August 2015. And, as the audience cheered and sang, Kathrada’s smile spread like a light across the hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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