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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

I-DENT-I-TIES to shine at the Free State Arts Festival
2016-07-08

Description: I-DENT-I-TIES  Tags: I-DENT-I-TIES

Erwin Maas with members of the student cast from the
Qwaqwa Campus. They are, from left: Mpho Xaba,
Lebohang Molefe and Tankiso Mofokeng.

Imagine this: A student cast from a rural campus; Production team consisting of a New York-based Dutch director, a South African screen and stage legend, a The Hague/Vienna-based Dutch theatre designer, and a Vienna-based Serbian performance-craft-artist and designer.

This sounds like a far-fetched flight of the imagination. But it is real and it is called ‘I-DENT-I-TIES’, a large-scale interdisciplinary performance project with international theatre professionals and students from the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Qwaqwa Campus.

According to the  director of the project, Erwin Maas, the production explores the ‘dents’ and ‘ties’ of both individual and communal identification and distinctiveness and does this through the famous Basotho story of ‘Moshanyana Sankatana’ as a point of departure.

“We explore questions like ‘what are dents in our society as well as in ourselves’, ‘what ties me to who I really am and who I want to be’, ‘what does it mean to be me’, ‘what does it mean to be South African’,” said Maas, who has been working on this project since last year.

The production also celebrates personal, communal, and universal narratives and identities through song, dance, story-telling, and music. It explores the past, the present, and the future.

“This production will certainly reveal an extraordinary journey into what makes us unique and binds us together,” he added during the rehearsals that started in May at the Qwaqwa Campus.

Maas has teamed up with a well-known South African film and stage legend, Jerry Mofokeng, as consultant. Mofokeng, who introduced Maas to the ‘Sankatana’ story, has featured on a number of critically-acclaimed films that include ‘Cry, The Beloved Country’ as well as the Academy Award-winning ‘Tsotsi’. Maas has also worked with the Hague/Vienna-based Dutch designer Nico de Rooij and Djana Covic, a Vienna-based Serbian designer.

The production is a partnership between the UFS Student Affairs, Vrystaat Arts Festival, the Programme for Innovation in Artform Development, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands in South Africa. It will premiere at the Free State Arts Festival, held in Bloemfontein from 11 to 16 July 2016. This will be followed by a performance at the Qwaqwa Campus on 19 July 2016.

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