SKA shows up world's afro-pessimism

The Square Kilometre Array site in the Northern Cape. (Maryn Cotton, Photowise)

The Square Kilometre Array site in the Northern Cape. (Maryn Cotton, Photowise)


Hidden between the hills on the Losberg farm 80km outside of Carnarvon, it is easy to take the exceptional work done by South Africa's scientists and engineers for granted, seeing it as a fait accompli. But the work being done is changing the international perception of South Africa.

Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa's (Brics's) science ministers descended on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) site in the Northern Cape this week. Many will see it as a self-congratulatory meeting of talking heads, but its importance for the country's image cannot be overstated.

"It's one thing in Africa to say what you are doing, it's another thing to show it," said science and technology director general Phil Mjwara.
"It is important for us, on an ongoing basis, to show we can do these things in Africa."

It has been nearly two years since it was announced that South Africa would co-host the SKA, expected be the largest radio telescope on earth, along with Australia. 

At home, we are now secure in the certainty that South Africa's site and scientists have been recognised as among the world's best, despite pervasive afro-pessimism that abounds. In the run up to the site decision, then Australian science minister Chris Evans said that an "aid-mindset" was the reason that South Africa would be chosen to host the SKA, rather than its scientific capabilities.

But "after people have visited, even if they had these doubts, they disappear immediately and people are more willing to work with South Africa", Mjwara said. During their visit, the Brics ministers all commented on the exceptional advances made in science by South Africa.

'Represents a major milestone'
The visit also coincided with completion of the MeerKAT foundations. MeerKAT will be a 64-dish telescope, designed, developed and paid for by South Africa, which will eventually be incorporated into the SKA.

"The completion of the foundations and the soon-to-be completed first antenna represents a major milestone on the building of the MeerKAT," Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said. The first completed dish would be ready next month, with the entire array expected to be complete by the end of 2016.

He "wish[ed] them well with the enormous task ahead of meeting the tight schedule in the next two years".

Aside from its technical acumen, the country's strength in system engineering – which involves pulling the whole project together and meeting deadlines – was also recognised internationally. South Africa would lead the assembly, integration and verification consortium, which "includes the planning for all activities at the remote sites that are necessary to incorporate the elements of the SKA into existing infrastructures, whether these be precursors or new components of the SKA", the SKA organisation last year said. 

SKA South Africa's Tracy Cheetham, general manager for infrastructure and site operations, would head up the infrastructure consortium in charge of the South African site, the organisation said.

At the foundation unveiling this week, Cheetham said: "We are on the last leg now." 

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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