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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

Statement by Judge Faan Hancke, Chairperson of the Council of the University of the Free State (UFS)
2008-03-08

The Council of the University of the Free State today (Friday, 7 March 2008) unanimously condemned the offensive and racist Reitz video in the strongest possible terms.

Council further labeled the video as an insult to women, to older persons and to poor working people who are defenseless and vulnerable and expressed its disgust at the action of the students concerned.

Council also apologised unreservedly and sincerely to the five UFS employees who were shown in the video and offered all emotional and counselling assistance necessary as well as in the current criminal matter under way or possible civil action they may undertake.

At the same time the university must also provide counseling to current first year students of Reitz who were not present at the time of the filming of the video.

Council also mandated the management, in addition to the other disciplinary steps under way, to consider the possibility of closure and of conversion of Reitz into a beacon of transformation, hope and liberation (either as a residence or in some other form).

This must take place in accordance with due process of the law to give residents and other stakeholders reasonable opportunity to make submissions so that all relevant considerations can be taken into account.

The Council expressed its full confidence in the management and supported the steps taken by management thus far under trying circumstances concerning transformation, residence integration, the Reitz video and the vandalism of the campus.

It reaffirmed the decision taken in June 2007 to increase diversity in student residences and recommitted the UFS to implement the policy.

The Council condemns all forms of racism and committed itself to eradicate racism and racial prejudice in any form and from any quarter on the UFS campus.

The meeting also approved the appointment of an external expert agency to assist the university in:

  • understanding and identifying the current challenges relating to the implementation of the integration policy 
  • supporting the university management and making recommendations on how to enhance the process of implementation

The intention is to provide additional capacity to the management in order to accelerate the transformation and integration process.

It called on management to take firm action against any staff or student who violates the law, is involved in threats, racism, disruptions, intimidation and vandalism and condemned these actions in the strongest possible terms.

The Council reassured all staff, students, parents and other stakeholders that firm action will be taken against persons who are guilty of disorderly conduct, intimidation, disruption or similar actions with the full force of the law.

The management was requested to maintain law and order so as to create a conducive environment in which academic excellence can be furthered. The Council appreciates the steps that have been taken in this regard.

The Council supported a management initiative to investigate the fundamental issues underlying many of the current problems in residences, including:

  • residence culture, including initiation, as well as race, racialism and racism
  • alcohol and drug abuse role,
  • place, organisation and management of residences constitution of student structures
  • and the role of political parties in student politics and structures
  • the physical structure of residences as part of a campus accommodation strategy

The Council agreed that social cohesion and racial tolerance will be highlighted as a strong theme in the academic cluster initiatives of the UFS and that management should find additional ways to strengthen existing programmes regarding diversity on the campus among all staff and students.

The Council called on all stakeholders to honour the high values of the Constitution of the country, to maintain these values and to further them in an orderly and peaceful environment.

Media Release
Issued by: Anton Fisher
Director: Strategic Communication
Tel: 051 401 3422
Cell: 072 207 8334
E-mail: fishera.stg@ufs.ac.za
7 March 2008

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