Mega scientific project revives a struggling Karoo community

The upgrading of the 80km road between Carnarvon and the SKA site, from gravel to tar, has created many job opportunities in the local community

The upgrading of the 80km road between Carnarvon and the SKA site, from gravel to tar, has created many job opportunities in the local community

When you walk the streets of Carnarvon, a little Karoo town about 80km from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) core site, it is hard to encounter someone who is not benefitting directly or indirectly from this huge scientific project.

In a town riddled by poverty and a myriad of socioeconomic challenges, the mega science project that’s expected to deliver the world’s biggest telescope has captured the attention of locals.

In Carnarvon, Van Wyks Vlei and Williston the residents are well aware of this scientific endeavour, which has attracted the attention of the world’s foremost scientists. They are aware, because not only will the SKA assist mankind to probe the origins of universe but it is also transforming life in Carnarvon, bringing hope to its people.

“When we began implementing the SKA, we realised that one of the things we need are technical professionals; young people trained in technical skills,” Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor said in a speech to the community. “So we took 350 young people from the Northern Cape and they are being trained at the moment.” Pandor recently visited the small Karoo town to officially open a newly upgraded 80km road connecting Carnarvon to the SKA SA core site.

For 20-year old Simoné Pieterse and Brandon Swarts, the SKA project has opened up new opportunities. The pair are currently completing their 36-week vocational training in electrical engineering at the Technical Training Centre located at the SKA SA Karoo support base in Klerefontein, 17km outside Carnarvon.

Pieterse was not interested in the artisan programme when her Carnarvon High School principal first told them about it when she was in grade 12. At the time her father had also heard about the programme and thought that his daughter would be well suited for such a programme. He eventually convinced her to apply.

“It’s not so bad anymore, because you get used to it,” Pieterse said about the centre. “Even when we have small injuries, we just wrap them up and go on.” She said that so far, she has enjoyed the practical component of the training the most.

For Swarts, the project coming to Carnarvon where there are no opportunities or real industries, was like manna from heaven. He counts himself as fortunate for getting an opportunity to access world-class training without having to travel long distances to obtain it.

The Klerefontein Training Centre also offers courses in carpentry, plumbing, bricklaying, welding and working with optic fibre.

Northern Cape premier Sylvia Lucas accompanied Pandor to the official opening of the new road.  The premier recalled how difficult it used to be to travel to the SKA site. “What we have today we didn’t have two years ago when I came here with the deputy president. There was no road. We discussed that issue, and today we have a road.”

In 2015, upgrades to the 80km gravel road between Carnarvon and the site began. SKA SA contracted NMC Construction Group to train and upskill local contractors to enable them to tender successfully for subcontracts, in order to participate in the upgrades

The construction of the road cost R200-million and several local subcontractors benefitted from this initiative. Gert Neels and Lillian Andreas from the area were appointed as local subcontractors and are immensely proud to be part of the project.

“I am someone who never went to school,” said Neels. “I only went up to grade two, and I had to create a future for myself in life. SKA gave me a future that I never had before.” Neels now employs 11 local residents.

It is envisaged that the contractors will use the skills acquired during the road upgrade programme to participate in other construction programmes across the country.

A range of job opportunities linked to the SKA project have been taken up by locals. Boitumelo Poloholo works as a communication radiotrician on the MeerKAT, while Laurian Andreas has been working as a health and safety officer for SKA since 2015. Andreas said the exposure has afforded her with several opportunities to develop her career.

Johan van Tonder is in the process of obtaining his crane operator license, a process that SKA has been instrumental in. He works as a crane operator and driver for SKA SA. Van Tonder believes that SKA has been beneficial to the local community because of the numerous jobs it has created.

During her address to the community, Pandor assured residents that for the next 10 to 12 years, the building of and support services to MeerKAT and the SKA itself would continue to create jobs. Following that, the running and maintenance of the SKA will create jobs for the next 50 years.