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SA no longer the observer as MeerKAT stands to attention


SA no longer the observer as MeerKAT stands to attention

After 17 years the 64 dishes have been launched and the SKA is complete. We are on the map

Senior science reporter

When the MeerKAT with its impressive 64 dishes was launched in a remote region of the Northern Cape last week, one couldn’t help but wonder if the political spirit of former president Thabo Mbeki was floating above the antennae, silhouetted against a sapphire sky.
When Deputy President David Mabuza spoke at the launch of the MeerKAT on Friday, something of Mbeki’s African Renaissance stirred beneath his words.
While the astronomical fervour around the MeerKAT is well documented, as are the general socio-economic benefits of the telescope and its future larger sibling, the Square Kilometre Array, it should not be forgotten that other African countries have also had a role to play.
At one point in Mabuza’s speech, his words moved deftly to this Pan Africanism. After thanking all the stakeholders, he said: “We also thank our African sisters and brothers who supported the South African bid to have this iconic instrument built on our land. To the people and governments of Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Madagascar, Mauritius, Kenya, Zambia and Ghana, this is your success too.”
He then took those present back to 17 years ago and said: “We recall with great level of excitement that South Africa’s involvement in the SKA began in 2001, when the country was an observer in the project. That observer status turned into an expression of interest to bid for the hosting of the telescope.
“It is now our proud history that the eight African countries I mentioned above became a solid part of the African bid. There was no shortage of support for our resolve.”Mbeki was president in 2001, but by the time the bid was under way in 2010 Jacob Zuma had replaced him — and he was still there when South Africa won the bid in 2012.
Although then minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor made no mention of Mbeki in 2010, her words struck the same chord of his philosophy.
She said at the site in Carnarvon where the MeerKAT was unveiled on Friday, and where the SKA is under construction: “The SKA is one of the great scientific projects of the 21st century. The Southern African Development Community has declared their support for the African Square Kilometre Array bid. Most importantly, the excitement and challenges of astronomy and space science are already attracting some of our best students into studying science and engineering.”
She then added that hosting the SKA would “make Africa the world centre of physics, astronomy and high-tech engineering”.
Now that the MeerKAT has been unveiled, and is already producing some of the best radio images of the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, one cannot help but think that Mbeki’s dark legacy of Aids denialism is matched only by his brilliant dream of an African Renaissance which now could be coming to fruition.
In a speech to the UN University in April 1998, while deputy president to Nelson Mandela, Mbeki said: “The conviction that our past tells us that the time for Africa's Renaissance has come, is fundamental to the very conceptualisation of this renaissance and the answer to the question: Whence this confidence? Unless we are able to answer the question: ‘Who were we?’, we will not be able to answer the question: ‘What shall we be?’ ”

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