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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

Meet our Council: Ndaba Ntsele – Inspiring entrepreneurs
2016-04-19

Description: Ndaba Ntsele Tags: Ndaba Ntsele

Mr Ntsele
Photo: Stephen Collett

 To call Mr Ndaba Ntsele just a businessman seems like a bit of an understatement. The Executive Chairman and co-founder of Pamodzi Group Limited lives and breathes business, entrepreneurship, and wealth creation. He is also a member of the Council of the University of the Free State (UFS) since September 2013.

His greatest passion is entrepreneurship, and sharing his ideas of self-employment with young (and old) South Africans. “I preach self-employment wherever I go. Everyone knows that unemployment is a major problem in our country. However, people often expect the government or big corporations to provide them with jobs. I like to influence people to start thinking about working for themselves, thereby creating opportunities for employing others,” he says.

His entrepreneurial drive extends even to his time on the UFS Council. Now in his second term, Mr Ntsele has been well placed to get a sense of the kind of contribution the university and its students could make to South Africa, and even further afield.  

“In addition to training students for all the other important industries in South Africa, I think the UFS is ideally situated to create agricultural entrepreneurs. The Free State is one of South Africa’s prime agricultural areas, after all. Food security is an issue worldwide, and it is an area in which we could make a real contribution by training food producers, food technologists, and agricultural specialists. In fact, I think the UFS could become the leading agricultural institution in the country.”

Being the best is something that he strives for continually, while high standards are not something he shirks. In fact, he believes that Council members should hold an institution accountable for maintaining the highest standards possible, whether it is in governance, financials, procurement, or any other areas of importance in an institution.

As the executive chairman of a multi-billion African-owned group with assets across the globe, Mr Ntsele does not have a great deal of free time. However, he enjoys sitting down with MBA students and graduates to share his views about entrepreneurship.

“If I can change their mind-set from ‘others must employ me’ to ‘I need to create my own employment’, then I will feel as if I have accomplished something,” he says.

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