/ 18 September 2004

Indian president quizzes SA students

South African students at a high school in a township outside Durban were treated to a special science lesson on Friday, delivered by Indian President Abdul Kalam.

The Indian statesman later wrapped up his visit — the first ever by a head of state from the subcontinent — by travelling to Chatsworth, one of the largest Indian townships built by the apartheid government outside the port city of Durban.

Kalam, who is also one of India’s most renowned scientists and a former aeronautical engineer, was on the final leg of a state visit to South Africa.

The 73-year-old Indian leader, a former professor, returned to his teaching roots as he held a question-and-answer session with the 600 students gathered in the school square at Menzi High School.

”How many planets are there in our solar system, and which planets revolve around the sun?” Kalam asked.

Kalam, who had personally asked to visit the school, became animated as he talked about his love for learning and science.

”When I was a 10-year-old boy, I had a science teacher who was teaching us how birds fly,” Kalam recalled.

The teacher explained the dynamics of flight in the classroom, he said, then took them to the seaside to observe flying birds.

”My teacher injected in me the belief that flight is beautiful. On that day, he gave me a vision of what I could become,” said Kalam, who went on to become one of India’s best-known rocket scientists.

Kalam was born into a working-class Muslim family and became an engineer who in his career led Indian space research, served as a Defence Ministry adviser and led India’s successful underground nuclear tests in 1998.

But he slipped comfortably into the role of a teacher as he posed questions on planetary movements, even inviting questions from students.

”When learning is purposeful, creativity blossoms. When creativity blossoms, thinking germinates,” the former teacher had the children chant repeatedly, to their delight.

Kalam announced he was leaving the school with a gift from Indian youth: a fully-equipped science laboratory to be completed by the end of the year.

Menzi High, regarded as one of the top township schools in Durban, will join about 15% of South African schools that have laboratories.

Kalam also donated a stack of books on Indian culture and science to the school.

He later visited the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi in Durban and addressed a gathering in Chatsworth.

More than 8 000 residents turned out to welcome Kalam and treat him to traditional Indian and Zulu dancing.

He was particularly taken with a dance with rhythms and music that fused the two cultures.

”I enjoyed that dance — it’s great to see India and South Africa dancing together,” Kalam said.

The Indian president will leave for New Delhi on Saturday.

He arrived in Cape Town on Tuesday for talks with President Thabo Mbeki before meeting Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. — Sapa-AFP