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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

Twenty years of the constitution of South Africa – cause for celebration and reflection
2016-05-11

Description: Judge Azar Cachalia Tags: Judge Azar Cachalia

Judge Azar Cachalia

The University of the Free State’s Centre for Human Rights and the Faculty of Law held the celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the adoption of the South African Constitution on 11 May 2016 on the Bloemfontein Campus.  Students and faculty members celebrated and reflected on not only the achievements of the constitution but also on perspectives regarding its relevance in modern society, and to what extent it has upheld the human rights of all citizens of South Africa.

The panel discussion started with a presentation on the pre-1996 perspective by Judge Azar Cachalia of the Supreme Court of Appeal.  Judge Cachalia reflected on his role in the realisation and upholding of the constitution, from his days as a student activist, then as an attorney representing detainees during political turmoil, and currently as a judge: “My role as an attorney was to defend people arrested for public violence. My role as a judge today is to uphold the constitution.”  He stressed the importance of the constitution today, and the responsibility institutions such as the police service have in upholding human rights.  Judge Cachalia played a significant role in drafting the new Police Act around 1990, an Act which was to ensure that the offences perpetrated by the police during apartheid did not continue in the current democratic era. Further, he pointed out that societal turmoil has the potential to make society forget about the hard work that was put into structures upholding human rights. “Constitutions are drafted in moments of calm.  It is a living document, and we hope it is not torn up when we go through social conflict, such as we are experiencing at present.”

Thobeka Dywili, a Law student at the UFS, presented her views from the new generation’s perspective.  She relayed her experience as a student teaching human rights at schools in disadvantaged communities. She realised that, although the youth are quite aware of their basic human rights, after so many years of democracy, “women and children are still seen as previously disadvantaged when they should be equal”. She pointed out that, with the changing times, the constitution needs to be looked at with a new set of eyes, suggesting more robust youth engagement on topics that affect them, using technology to facilitate discussions. She said with the help of social media, it is possible for a simple discussion to become a revolution; #feesmustfall was a case in point.

Critical perspectives on the constitution were presented by Tsepo Madlingozi of University of Pretoria and University of London. In his view, the constitution has not affected policy to the extent that it should, with great disparities in our society and glaring issues, such as lack of housing for the majority of the poor.  “Celebration of the constitution should be muted, as the constitution is based on a decolonisation approach, and does not directly address the needs of the poor. The Constitutional Court is not pro-poor.”  He posed the question of whether twenty years on, the present government has crafted a new society successfully.  “We have moved from apartheid to neo-apartheid, as black elites assimilate into the white world, and the two worlds that exist have not been able to stand together as a reflection of what the constitution stands for.”

Prof Caroline Nicholson, Dean of the Faculty of Law, encouraged more open discussions, saying such dialogues are exactly what was intended by the Centre for Human Rights. She emphasised the importance of exchanging ideas, of allowing people to speak freely, and of sharing perspectives on important issues such as the constitution and human rights.

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