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Asmal: Launch of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (18/09/2003)

18th September 2003


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Date: 18/09/2003
Source: Ministry of Education
Title: Asmal: Launch of African Institute for Mathematical Sciences


Minister Ben Ngubane
Friends and Colleagues
Ladies and Gentlemen

I apologise that I only join you at this stage; as you may have been told we had a Three-line Whip today in the National Assembly for a vote that requires, in terms of the Constitution, a two thirds supporting majority to secure the appointment of the Inspector General of Intelligence Services. Nevertheless, I am pleased to be here now.

The peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994 provided South Africa with the opportunity to play a meaningful role in the development and promotion of our continent. South Africa, led by President Mbeki, together with a number of key African partners, has being playing a key role in the formation of NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa's Development.

The African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) is an example of the spirit of NEPAD in action. With the advent of democracy in South Africa it was our great hope that South Africans who had achieved high level intellectual and business positions and appointments abroad would return to South Africa and to Africa to assist with the development of our country and our continent. Under the leadership and inspiration of Professor Neil Turok this is exactly one such project.

Thirty of Africa's brightest graduates in mathematics and science, from 16 countries - from Algeria to South Africa - have been brought here to Muizenberg, to a state-of-the-art educational facility. The project is fully international, involving collaboration between Cambridge and Oxford Universities in the United Kingdom, the University of Orsay in France, as well as the three Universities in the Western Cape.

AIMS has already succeeded in eliciting global interest and enthusiasm, as evidenced by the article appearing today in Nature, the leading magazine in world science. Some of the world's finest lecturers will teach fields running across all the sciences, using mathematics as a unifying thread.

But why does Africa need a mathematics institute?

Last week I was privileged to be present at the installation of, Professor Loyiso Morgan Nongxa, who has a doctorate in Mathematics from Oxford University, as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; the first occasion, probably anywhere in the world, where a herd boy was inaugurated as a Vice-Chancellor. In my speech I commented that the arch advocate of Bantu education, Hendrik Verwoerd, must have been turning in his grave at the very thought of this professor of mathematics assuming the helm of one of our greatest universities. Verwoerd, in his notorious speech introducing the Bantu Education Act of 1953, proclaimed the education provided for whites as "forbidden pastures" for the African majority. These "forbidden pastures" included the world of mathematics, science and technology.

In South Africa fifty years later, we are still striving to undo the damage of this cruel ideology. We are well aware of the acute shortage of maths and science teachers at school level, and of maths and science graduates at university level. Yet the global economy is increasingly driven by industries requiring these skills. We need initiatives such as AIMS, where African students will learn to be first-rate researchers, to provide beacons drawing our children into maths and science at school.

I am particularly impressed with the plan to make AIMS a centre for the development of school mathematics enrichment materials, and for in-service teacher training, to help our teachers improve the quality of maths and science teaching in our schools. I hope too that AIMS will support our Dinaledi initiative which is focussed on increasing the number of maths and science passes at Grade 12 level in more than a 100 schools in South Africa, partly to ensure that we have more matriculants equipped to follow courses at universities which require a grounding in these subjects.

Recognising the vital role that maths plays in our lives and also recognising that there are many, such as myself for whom maths has been a great mystery, we have introduced into our national curriculum a new subject, called mathematical literacy, for all students who will not be taking regular maths as a subject. And this is not pop maths but rather a course of study that should give our students sufficient grounding to take on the challenges of life in the 21st century. In the process I hope that maths and the related sciences will become more exciting and grounded in the experience of our youth.

The final argument for an African Institute for Mathematical Sciences is that mathematics and science are a global language, which have great power to unite humanity. In these times of fracture between North and South, between the artificial divide of the so-called Muslim and Christian worlds, we must support initiatives which bring people of many cultures and religions together, to build links and bridges, and thereby reduce suspicions based upon ignorance.

Of course we should not forget that maths is not a Western invention. In about 1000 AD it was Europe that had to play catch up by beginning to absorb Chinese science and technology and Arabic mathematics. The word algebra was derived from the book Al Jahr wa-al-Muqabilah by Mohammad Ibn Muza-al-Khwarizmi whose name gave rise to the term "algorithm"

Science and mathematics, besides being useful economically, are true unifiers because usually everyone can agree on mathematical and scientific truths, and unlocking the secrets of nature is one of humanities greatest quests.

AIMS already has a presence on the global Internet, indeed the project itself would not have been possible without the Internet. Its plans to disseminate free software and educational materials over the Internet thereby assisting Universities and lecturers across Africa, may have an enormous impact in the coming years. Likewise its plans to build a network of African academics in maths and science, linked via the internet and by academic exchanges, could dramatically speed the development of maths and science capacity across the continent.

In conclusion, AIMS is a glimmer of another achievement which Africa needs. African and international scientists working together to improve education and research across the continent could provide a leading-edge example bringing Africa together to solve its problems and build a brighter future for all it citizens.

I thank you.

Issued by the Ministry of Education, 18 September 2003


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