SKA science building SA skills

South Africa is building local capacity to tackle its share of the massive Square Kilometre Array project in the Northern Cape province.

The project aims to build over 3 000 radio telescopes that that will enable astronomers to look 12 billion years back in time and examine the infant universe.

To prepare to host the project, SA built the KAT 7 (Karoo Array Telescope) outside Carnarvon as a test bed for the MeerKAT, which will consist of 64 antennas.

"What we did in the early stages of the project was we hired the very best people, and put them in contact with the most experienced people in the world," Professor Justin Jonas, associate director of Science and Engineering, SKA South Africa, told News24.

The South African team also secured international co-operation, and research chairs at local universities have been established to accelerate development of the technology expected to drive the project.


"So we now found ourselves in the situation, certainly on the engineering front and technical side, that we're as experienced and skilled up as anybody in the world.

"Through our human capital programme at the universities, we're spreading that in the universities and the people coming through," said Jonas.

A number of researchers have come to SA to ensure that students will have the correct skills to participate in the programme.

Professor Roy Maartens joined UWC, Prof Claude Carignan joined UCT, and Prof David Davidson joined Stellebosch in the Western Cape. In Gauteng, Prof Sergio Colafrancesco joined Wits and Prof Oleg Smirnov is at Rhodes University.

"On the science side, we've managed to attract a large number of top international scientists, either into permanent positions in South Africa, or joint positions in South Africa, or at least where they can still supervise our students," said Jonas.

The longer term goal is to produce local experts who could expand the project, slated for completion in 2024.

"We do import people, but our prime undertaking is to produce local Africans and South Africans in particular who will be skilled up to do the work that we need to do.

"The value that we have is that even now, we excite young people enough to do the hard work; to do science, even in challenging circumstances," Jonas said.


SA has challenges in the education of maths and science at high school and the number of graduates in those subjects has been in decline for four years.

In 2008, 300 008 wrote mathematics and only 89 788 scored above 40%. This declined to 224 635 writing in 2011, with 67 541 scoring above 40%, according to the department of basic education.

In physical science, 217 300 wrote in 2008, with 62 530 mustering more than 40%, and last year, 61 109 hit the same level out of 180 585 who wrote.

Jonas insisted that the situation was not as bad as the numbers suggested, and there were pockets in the country where students were doing well.

"The very best black students coming into Rhodes University are coming from rural Limpopo. So with enough motivation - I think projects like this provide that motivation.

He cautioned against dooming the progress made so far because of the lack in scientific skills in the country.

"We do need people who are skilled in science and mathematics, but at the same time, I'm hoping that we are contributing to the solution of that problem as well."

Written by: Duncan Alfreds

  • This article was published on


Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education.  Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit to donate