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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

Student leaders reflect on post-Holocaust Germany and make connections to post-apartheid SA in study tour
2015-12-08

Njabulo Mabaso
Photo: Sam Styrax

“Our beloved South Africa (SA) has done quite a lot insofar as policy formulation to address the past imbalances is concerned. However, implementation has proven to be the biggest challenge.”

This is the view held by Nkosinathi Tshabalala, former Student Representative Council (SRC): Religious Affairs at Qwaqwa Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS), who was part of the Global Leadership Study Tour.

From 14 - 22 November 2015, a cohort of 37 outgoing SRC members studied through tours and seminars in Germany and Poland. The historical education trip was organised jointly by UFS Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Jonathan Jansen, and the Student Affairs office. The study tour was supported and facilitated by the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

Tshabalala added: “We know the thinking behind the likes of Reconstruction and Development Programme and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to mention only two. But what have these done to close the gap between the rich and the poor? What have they done to encourage proper and complete reconciliation? Germany paid for the damages which came as a result of the Holocaust, and it is time that we do the same.”

Mosa Leteane, former SRC President of the Bloemfontein Campus, echoed Tshabalala’s sentiments as they relate to the SA experience. “In light of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, one of the things that the youth was looking at were the symbols, what symbols mean, how symbols works as part of reparation and redress in a country that has come from a tragic past,” she said.

Leteane identified similarities between how our country and the two European nations have confronted the issue of trans-generational trauma and the reconciliation process, albeit in significantly differing circumstances.

“Within the first 20 years or so, it was almost like SA. Nobody wanted to talk about it, people just wanted to build the country.” Nonetheless, “the memorialisation and commemoration happened only for the last 20 years or so,” added Leteane.

Transformation of the European political, environmental, and social landscape took place only when students and the second generation began to challenge the status quo, and to lobby for transformation through the erection of memorials and monuments. Owing to the courage of the young generation, those countries were able to take meaningful steps towards transformation through an accurate narration and commemoration of history, which is a key factor in reconciliation.

Our students had the opportunity to conduct a comparative study of post-Holocaust Germany and post-apartheid South Africa in terms of how government and universities dealt with trans-generational trauma.

By being exposed to remnants of what used to be sites such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp memorial in Poland, the young leaders were encouraged to continue their attempt at nation building and advance transformation and reconciliation.


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