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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

German Ambassador speaks on universities as agents for transformation
2016-05-25

Description: German Ambassador speaks on universities  Tags: German Ambassador speaks on universities

Eva Ziegert, JC van der Merwe, Lindokuhle Ntuli, Anita Ohl-Meyer, Ambassador Walter Lindner, Tali Nates, and Prof Leon Wessels at the dialogue session hosted by the IRSJ
Photo: Johan Roux

“Change is facilitated through education, not by means of radicalism, violence, or revolution.” Speaking at the Bloemfontein Campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) on Thursday 12 May 2016, the German Ambassador, Walter Lindner, urged students to engage in profitable dialogue instead, keeping their values and ideals in mind while changing the system from the inside.

The Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ) hosted a full day of dialogues and discussions, the highlight of which was a critical dialogue with Ambassador Lindner, entitled “Universities as agents of transformation in society—Germany’s experience with the student protests of the 1968 movement and the difficulties it has reconciling with its past.” This was followed by a student colloquium, hosted by the Student Representative Council, which concluded with the second in the Africa’s Many Liberations seminar series, co-hosted by the IRSJ and the International Studies Group (ISG), with the title of “Fanon and the relevance of personal and collective decolonisation in today’s South Africa”.

Mr Lindner related his experience of student protests in Germany during the late 1960s, drawing certain parallels with South Africa’s own recent protests. According to Ambassador Lindner, it is “the impatient youth that drives forward change”, but cautioned against radicalism as a long-term solution.

Pointing out the various challenges facing humankind today, such as the lack of natural resources, unbridled climate change, and population growth, Mr Lindner stated that politicians (and the youth of today) would do well to focus on these greater issues, rather than focusing on the more mundane issues with which they are faced on a day-to-day basis.

The subsequent dialogue session was facilitated by Tali Nates, Director of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre. A diverse array of questions and comments, both radical and more conservative, was directed at the ambassador, which he handled with unflappable aplomb.

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