Star-gaz­ing MeerKAT a friend to the land’s first peo­ple

Sunday Times - - News Education - By TANYA FARBER

● It was a gi­ant leap for astron­omy and our un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse when the MeerKAT tele­scope was un­veiled in the North­ern Cape this week.

But be­hind the shoot­ing stars of sci­ence, the mas­sive project is also ben­e­fit­ing the an­cient knowl­edge sys­tems of in­dige­nous San com­mu­ni­ties.

MeerKAT is the big­gest ra­dio tele­scope in the world and will ul­ti­mately be in­cor­po­rated into the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray, which will be up to 100 times more sen­si­tive than any other ra­dio tele­scope.

It is a ma­jor mile­stone for South Africa, and for San com­mu­ni­ties it has al­ready had a down-to-earth pos­i­tive ef­fect. The pur­chase of farms to host MeerKAT’s 64 dishes reunited the San with long-lost plants that had been con­signed to folk­lore.

“We found some medic­i­nal plants in the area be­cause of the project and we are so happy about that,” said Collin Louw of the South African San Coun­cil. Many of the plants grow only in that area, he said.

Un­der an agree­ment with the South African Ra­dio Astron­omy Ob­ser­va­tory, the San will ben­e­fit in other ways from the SKA and MeerKAT.

“The me­moran­dum of un­der­stand­ing is ben­e­fi­cial to us in that we have the right to the her­itage sites, and it is also good for San youth. They can ap­ply to study if they are in­ter­ested to do so be­cause of the sup­port from this project.

“It is our orig­i­nal place and we want to be part of this big project,” said Louw.

Ac­cord­ing to SKA stake­holder man­ager An­ton Bin­ne­man, “her­itage stud­ies and ecol­ogy walk-throughs” have been con­ducted in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the San coun­cil, and a bless­ing rit­ual was car­ried out at the site of the tele­scopes in re­mote re­gions of the

North­ern Cape.

San art projects and youth tours have been planned, a fes­ti­val is be­ing dis­cussed with North­ern Cape Tourism and a doc­u­men­tary is be­ing made about San in­volve­ment in the MeerKAT.

To date, ac­cord­ing to the Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy, a to­tal of R306-mil­lion has flowed through the North­ern Cape econ­omy be­cause of the con­struc­tion of MeerKAT and the ear­lier KAT-7.

Al­most 7 300 job op­por­tu­ni­ties have been cre­ated in the area, and 22 un­der­re­sourced schools have ben­e­fited from hu­man cap­i­tal de­vel­op­ment pro­grammes.

Seventy-two stu­dents had been en­rolled at tech­ni­cal col­leges and 15 at uni­ver­si­ties through bur­saries from the ob­ser­va­tory. A tech­ni­cal train­ing cen­tre has opened in Carnar­von and two li­braries have been built, both with in­ter­net fa­cil­i­ties.

The other ma­jor spin-off is a green one, with the wellbeing of 130 000ha pro­cured for the tele­scopes now rest­ing with South African Na­tional Parks, which, said Bin­ne­man, pro­vided “an ideal op­por­tu­nity to pre­serve this part of the Ka­roo as well as pro­vid­ing a space where re­search can be con­ducted on this sen­si­tive land­scape”.

Any re­searchers who visit will need to op­er­ate with­out Wi-Fi or smart­phones, though. Both are banned be­cause they would ruin the work of the tele­scopes.

While own­er­ship of the land will re­main with the ob­ser­va­tory, as will the man­age­ment of fences, graves and build­ings, SANParks will man­age the ecol­ogy.

All these spin-offs make the SKA and MeerKAT trail-blaz­ers for how astron­omy can have big­ger ben­e­fits.

Ac­cord­ing to Vanessa McBride, a re­searcher in the Univer­sity of Cape Town astron­omy depart­ment, astron­omy “oc­cu­pies a spe­cial place among the ef­forts to ad­dress de­vel­op­ment chal­lenges be­cause of its unique abil­ity to stim­u­late thoughts of ‘what is pos­si­ble’ in the minds of marginalised com­mu­ni­ties, women and chil­dren”.

Writ­ing in the jour­nal Na­ture, she said it was per­haps the “fu­sion of the philo­soph­i­cal, cul­tural and in­spi­ra­tional as­pects of astron­omy” with the “cut­ting edge of sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy” that gave astron­omy a “unique ad­van­tage” in fos­ter­ing so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment.

Astron­omy has the unique abil­ity to stim­u­late thoughts of ‘what is pos­si­ble’ in the minds of marginalised com­mu­ni­ties

Vanessa McBride

Re­searcher in the Univer­sity of Cape Town astron­omy depart­ment

Pic­tures: Ru­van Boshoff

In the re­mote North­ern Cape, ra­dio tele­scopes dot the land­scape at the MeerKAT in­stal­la­tion, which will even­tu­ally be part of the Square Kilo­me­tre Ar­ray.

Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Min­is­ter Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane, Deputy Pres­i­dent David Mabuza, and Dr Rob Adam, MD of the South African Ra­dio Astron­omy Ob­ser­va­tory, at the of­fi­cial open­ing of MeerKAT.

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