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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

UFS focuses on human rights and anti-racism
2017-03-20

Description: "Bongani Majola Tags: Bongani Majola
Prof Bongani Majola and Prof Leon Wessels at
the launch of the FSHRC.
Photo: Supplied

Human rights are part of the dominant moral and political language of our time, and demand a multi-layered scholarly engagement. These discussions influence national and international relations, and set standards for political and democratic practice.

New Centre for Human Rights launched

Since the academic space is a microcosm of society at large, it is crucial that the University of the Free State (UFS) takes part in such scholarly discussions, drawing lessons and crafting solutions from these dialogues.

To this end, the new Free State Centre for Human Rights (FSCHR) was officially launched on 14 March 2017 at the Bloemfontein Campus of the UFS. Professor Bongani Majola, the newly elected chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), was the guest speaker at the event. The FSCHR began operating on 1 January 2016, under the leadership of Prof Leon Wessels, founding member of the SAHRC, as the acting director of the centre. 

A priority on the centre’s agenda will be to uphold the February 2011 post-Reitz agreement between the SAHRC and UFS, which was subsequently made an order of the Equality Court. This order compelled the UFS to establish such a centre. The centre presents new opportunities for cooperation between the UFS and SAHRC and other stakeholders to benefit the UFS and the broader community.

Anti-Racism Week marked by IRSJ

The Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice (IRSJ), in conjunction with the newly-launched FSCHR, the Anti-Racism Network of South Africa (ARNSA), and the Arts and Culture office of Student Affairs presented an event on Friday 17 March 2017 to mark Anti-Racism Week (14-21 March) and Human Rights Day (21 March).

This second annual Anti-Racism Week sees seven days observed for all institutions, organisations, and individuals to fight racism, with each day having an assigned theme, such as ‘Be Aware’ (14 March) and ‘BeCome’ (21 March).

“Battling racism
is a life-long
commitment”
—JC van der Merwe,
Acting Director, IRSJ

JC van der Merwe, Acting Director of the IRSJ, said, “Battling racism is a life-long commitment. It is time for us to tackle the problem head-on. Anti-Racism Week gives us the platform to communicate within the university, within our communities, but also at grassroots level. The idea this year is that we all BeCome champions against racism, not just during this week, but that it will become part of everyday life on our campuses.”



Talented UFS students perform a flash mob dance prior to a collaborative event to mark Anti-Racism Week and Human Rights Day.
Video: UFS Instagram

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