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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

Stained glass artist’s hard work recognised
2016-07-13

Description: Bongani Njalo Tags: Bongani Njalo

Bongani Njalo, project co-ordinator for the
Program for Innovation in Artform Development,
was recognised as one of the 200 Young
South Africans by the Mail & Guardian category
for the year 2016.
Photo: Siobhan Canavan

“I’ve used each highlight of my career as a benchmark for greater accomplishments.”

These are the words of Bongani Njalo, who was selected as one of the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans together with Adv Loyiso Makapela, Junior Lecturer at the University of the Free State (UFS) Law Faculty. Njalo was recognised in the Arts and Culture category for his outstanding contribution to the art scene.

Getting to know the artist

The fine art graduate has worked on different art projects in several cities, and is currently the project co-ordinator for the Program for Innovation in Artform Development (PIAD). PIAD is a programme developed by the UFS and the Vrystaat Arts Festival, which focuses on how technology, interdisciplinary and experimental arts can connect with and impact on communities.

Aspiring artist on the move

Soon, this young artist will be on the move again, as he has been accepted into the Internal Leadership Program in Visual Arts Management at Deusto Business School, taking place in Bilbao in Spain in November and in New York next March.

When asked about the nomination, Njalo simply said: “To be honest with you, I don’t feel any differently whatsoever. I now feel I have more work I’d like to do.”

A man of many talents

Not only was Njalo an intern at the Mandela Bay Development Agency where he compiled the book entitled Art & Artists of the Eastern Cape, but he also curated the Eastern Cape Artists Exhibition at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival in 2011.

In 2012, Njalo was invited to curate a group exhibition, Beehive, for the Cape Town International Month of Photography Festival, and in 2014 he won the David Koloane Mentorship Award.

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