Ladies and Gentlemen:
Introduction: social scientists and astronomers
It’s a pleasure to talk to you here this morning in the Cradle of Humankind.
This conference will, I hope, lead to a rich exchange of ideas between social scientists and astronomers.
South Africa has a proud history of research into our origins and identity. For example, this history includes both significant palae-ontological discoveries beginning in the 1920s and the transformation of South African historiography in the 1970s that contributed in an important way to our transition to democracy.
This proud history of research continues to influence how we think about ourselves and how we conduct our public arguments.
These questions about who we are and where we come from were reflected in the establishment of the Cradle of Humankind as a World Heritage Site.
The site itself and the discoveries made here have been the responsibility of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for the better part of a century. Together with other palaeontological endeavours, the discoveries have increasingly strengthened the claims that the key stages in the evolution of humanity took place in Africa.
While many South Africans have a very real appreciation of the importance of studying our origins and identity, they probably have less of an appreciation of thevalue of astronomy.
Why do we invest material resources, time and talent in studying the universe? I have heard this question asked often. The implication is that there are more pressing social and economic challenges to attend to.
The benefits of the SKA to Africa
The great telescope that will be built in the northern Cape can be justified interms of foreign investment, job creation and international esteem.
The SKA will bring in a billion Euros in capital and operational expenditure.
Where every radio telescope station is built, thousands of local jobs will be created.
SKA will help in the provision of access to broadband connectivity in rural areas.
However, remember that we need not only astronomers and engineers but also entrepreneurs, educators and economists. Engineers and astronomers build good telescopes, but they require assistance to build good economic benefit programmes, particularly in initiatives of the magnitude of the SKA.
In addition to the impact on employment and grossdomestic products, the SKA will provide many African countries with access to world-class facilities for teaching, training and research.
Investment by African countries in astronomy, information technology and engineers skills development will position the continent to maximise the benefits that can be harnessed from hosting the mega telescope.
Direct benefits are generally an increase in total employment, aggregate income, and value added and business output. A rise in demand for construction materials stimulates the demand for local labour and other production factors, thereby creating a spiral demand for other consumables.
Indirect benefits are industry spill-overs and technology spin-offs. They take time to manifest and may be located at a distance, butthey are still foreseeable.
Since the inception of the African SKA bid, we have also embarked on an aggressive programme to train engineers and astronomers to contribute towards the construction and maintenance of the SKA.
Over 400 bursaries and postdoctoral grants have been provided by the South African SKA Project. When the students meet at their annual bursary conference, there should be a stronger sense of purpose to ensure research outputs and spin-offs to benefit our economies.
Positioning Africa as a global astronomy hub
Africa has grown impressively over the last decade and universities have been expanding and showing promising growth in student enrolment.
Yet African countries need to invest more in their universities. But more resources must also be matched with a commitment towards building and strengthening African higher education systems in ways that genuinely contribute to social, economic and political development and the alleviation of poverty, disease and war.
There is general agreement that African leaders must make a deliberate effort to enable the African continent to be at the forefront of global scientific activity.
One of the areas on which Africa is focusing is astronomy.
Burkina Faso is working towards the installation of an optical telescope. Egypt is busy refurbishing a 1,9-metre optical telescope to modernise its capabilities. And when the 2012 Addis Ababa AU Heads of StateSummit took place, Ethiopia was finalising preparations to install one-metre optical telescopes at the Mount Entoto Observatory.
Ghana, which is one of the pioneers of African independence, is converting a communications dish into a radio telescope that will be operational before the construction of the SKA.
Kenya has started an astronomy programme at the University of Nairobi to ensure the development of a critical mass of youngresearchers that will participate in the SKA research programme.
Mauritius has had a radio telescope from the early 1990s. During my visit to Mauritius last year, Minister Jeetah and I announced theconstruction of a low frequency array called MITRA.
Morocco is finalising a search for an ideal site for the Cylindrical Radio Telescope, which will use a different technology from MITRA and the dish antennae that we are building in the Karoo.
Mozambique has introduced an astronomy and astrophysics programme at the University of Eduardo Mondlane. This programme will receive a boost when the Governments of Mozambique and South Africa jointly construct a radio telescope at the Maluana Science and Technology Park.
We are grateful to Telkom SA Ltd for the generousdonation of a dish antenna that will be converted into a teaching telescope and shipped to Mozambique in the next six to 12 months.
Nigeria is constructing a 25-metre radio telescope that will strengthen its position as a key player in astronomy.
Our neighbour Namibia hosts a gamma-ray telescope called HESS, which has been operational since 2003. Now Namibia is bidding to host the world’s biggest gamma-ray telescope called the Cherenkov Telescope Array. A successful bid by Namibia for the CTA will further strengthen the position of Africa as a global astronomy giant.
All these high-level astronomy projects are an indication of how seriously African leaders take the issue of enhancing Africa’s scientific capacity.
The emergence of Africa as a global astronomy hub has been fortified by the African Renaissance Fund’s decision to fund theinitial phase of the African VLBI Network. This network will comprise new radio telescopes and communications antennae that have been converted into radio telescopes.
We are at a point where many companies throughout the world are looking at the SKA to provide an impetus that will strengthen manufacturing, maintenance and operations capacity. African companies should also position their resources to harness benefits from the SKA construction and its substantial infrastructure requirements.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have won the bid and now the real work begins.
Our key challenge is to ensure that SKA brings the kind of benefit I have referred to, and that each and every citizen in the various African partner countries enjoys those benefits.