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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 hosts first ACS Institute held on African soil
2015-12-08



The first ever Association for Cultural Studies (ACS) Institute hosted on the African continent is taking place on the Bloemfontein Campus. At the event are, from the left: Prof Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the UFS; Prof Jean Comaroff, Alfred North Whitehead Professor of African and African-American Studies and Anthropology at Harvard University; Prof Helene Strauss, Chair of the Department of English at the UFS; and Prof Gil Rodman, Chair of the Association for Cultural Studies and Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Photo: Johan Roux

The University of the Free State (UFS) is hosting the 2015 conference of the Association for Cultural Studies (ACS) Institute – the first time for this international event to take place on the African continent.

From 7 – 12 December 2015, some of the world’s leading scholars in cultural studies are taking part in the conference on the Bloemfontein Campus. The event has been organised by the UFS Department of English in collaboration with colleagues from other departments in the Faculty of the Humanities.

 The ACS is the foremost international association for scholars in cultural studies, and has been hosting the biennial Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference since 2006. In 2011, the ACS held its inaugural institute at the University of Ghent (Belgium), followed, in 2013, by one at the Alpen-Adria University Klagenfurt (Austria). As the 2015 meeting of the institute is the first to be held in Africa, the organisers aim at highlighting the contributions that scholars from our continent and other (post)colonial contexts have made to cultural studies, even as it engaged many of the long-standing theoretical concerns generated for the field by scholars from the Global North.

Themed ‘Precarious Futures’, the conference explores how cultural studies might assist in charting more equitable futures by reflecting critically on the cultural, economic, and political trajectories within which precariousness – a state increasingly anticipated for the planet – might be altered. Experts in a diversity of disciplines are sharing their perspectives in the form of seminars and lectures.

Keynote lectures are delivered by Prof Jean Comaroff (Harvard University), Prof John Erni (Hong Kong Baptist University), Dr Jo Littler (City University London), Dr Zethu Matebeni (University of Cape Town), and Prof Handel Kashope Wright (University of British Columbia).

In her opening lecture on Monday 7 December 2015, Prof Comaroff addressed the challenging relationship of law, detection, and sovereignty in contemporary African polities within the South African post-apartheid context.

Topics discussed include climate change; the archives of everyday life; cross-racial intimacies; ethnography; meritocracy; cultural studies and human rights; China and globalisation; gender, sexuality, and race; and governance, embodiment and the work of care.

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