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South Africa’s Scientists Waters Down “Afro-Pessimism” with The SKA Project

by Felix Omondi

South Africa’s Scientists Waters Down “Afro-Pessimism” with The SKA Project
South Africa SKA project South African engineers and scientists have been working on a project dubbed SKA laying hidden in-between the hills of Losberg Farm some 80kms from the town of Carnavon. This week, the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) Project attracted a high profiled delegation visit, consisting of science ministers from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) to view the progress that South Africa government through the ministry of science and technology has achieved so far in terms of the completion of construction for the SKA Project.

It’s one thing in Africa to say what you are doing, it’s another thing to show it. It is important for us, on an ongoing basis, to show we can do these things in Africa” said the Science and Technology director general Mr. Phil Mjwara during the BRICS’s visit to the construction site. The SKA  project is said to be the biggest radio telescope to be developed on earth, and South Africa was one of the countries selected to co-host this project alongside Australia. The announcement of South Africa as a co-host to this project was made two years ago, and South Africa has been working tirelessly with a team of scientists and engineers to ensure that the project would be a success and prove wrong the pessimism from other stakeholders that initially was opposed to the idea of South Africa being selected as a site for the SKA Project.

This comes amidst a stereotype that South Africa and the African continent in general could not host such an important science project in the world. Some members of the international science communities from other parts of the world, were quite pessimistic about the prospects of an African country installing, maintaining and successfully running such an important scientific project. This can be attested to, by the fact that during the run up to selection of the site locations and hence picking South Africa as a co-host to the project, the then Australian Science Minister, Mr. Chris Evans was quoted saying that the only reason South Africa was chosen to co-host the project was due to the “aid-mindset” and not because of South Africa’s scientific capabilities. This remarks by Senator Evans showed ignorance and inadequacy in understanding of the scientific and technological advancement Africa has undergone over the years. He did not appreciate the numerous economic analysis showing Africa to be a very vibrant economic hub, and that South Africa’s bid was quite sound and hailing “insults” in a bid to sway the decision to favor Australia was very unprofessional and uninformed.

This week’s visit by the BRICS to the SKA site, would be a great testimony to the capabilities of the South Africa’s scientists and engineers and therefore serve to disapprove the “afro-pessimism” that seems to be plaguing the African continent in general. The MeerKAT foundation was just recently finished hence coinciding with the BRICS’s visit to the SKA site. The MeerKAT is expected to comprise of 64-dish telescopes when fully complete. These telescopes will have been designed, developed and funded by South Africa and will be incorporated into the SKA project. During the BRICS’s visit, Mr. Mjwara was quoted saying, “after people have visited, even if they had these doubts, they disappear immediately and people are more willing to work with South Africa”. He said this in a bid to showcase just how competent the South African scientists were.

The first fully completed dish would be up and running by next month and they are expecting to complete all the array by the end of 2016. The Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom was quoted saying, “The completion of the foundations and the soon-to-be completed first antenna represents a major milestone on the building of the MeerKAT”. Mr. Hanekom encouraged the team to finish all the tasks necessary in ensuring the South Africa’s SKA project is ready by 2016.

South Africa’s impressive performance in preparing for the SKA project was recently recognized internationally by the SKA organization. This can be seen from the awarding of South Africa the opportunity to assemble, integrate and verify the consortium: including the entire planning for the activities on the remote sites which are necessary in incorporating the SKA elements into the existing infrastructure, be they be precursors or new SKA components. This was according to the statement made by the SKA organization last year. SKA South Africa General Manager for infrastructure and site operations, Tracy Cheetam said: “We are on the last leg now”. She is expected to head the infrastructure consortium that would be in charge of the South African site.

South Africa is indeed championing the fight against the “afro-pessimism” from all angles, as can be attested with its other ground breaking technological projects such as: South Africa’s first locally made Smartphones & Tablets and the South Africa’s Top Mobile Apps projects.

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