Newly renamed Makhanda, formerly Grahamstown, is teeming with learners as they take in the wonder and excitement that Scifest Africa serves up every year.


The science extravaganza, now in its 23rd year, is being held under the theme "Discover your element", in celebration of the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements as proclaimed by the United Nations.


The theme also celebrates several anniversaries in the history of chemistry, including 350 years since the discovery of phosphorus in 1669, the categorisation of 33 elements by Antoine Lavoisier in 1789, Döbereiner's Law of Triads in 1829, and the 150th anniversary of the periodic table's creation by Dmitry Mendeleev in 1869.


Scifest Africa Manager, Pumza Tshebe, said they hope the 2019 theme will inspire young people, when thinking about their future careers, to consider the endless opportunities that exist in the field of science.


Dr Stephen Ashworth, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, United Kingdom, delivered this year's annual Brian Wilmot Lecture.  Dr Ashworth, who also curated this year's festival, took the audience on a historical journey, highlighting the earlier attempts and setbacks leading up to the final discovery of the elements in the periodic table.


"Attempts were made to systematise the known elements prior to Professor Dmitri Mendeleev.  This presentation reviews some of these attempts and explains why it is that Mendeleev's approach, in particular, is being honoured," Dr Ashworth said.


He reminded the audience that science and the periodic table are central to daily life.  "What ultimately drove scientists such as the Russian chemistry professor, Mendeleev, who is largely credited in the development of the modern-day periodic table, were human solutions."


Scifest Africa also serves as one of the Department of Science and Technology's (DST's) key science engagement platforms.  The six-day event makes science accessible to learners, parents and the public from across the country.  It provides a platform for young scientists, both local and international, to engage with the youth and inspire them to embark on careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).


"The science awareness engagements this week will not only awaken interest in science, but also demonstrate the impact of science, technology and innovation on our everyday lives," said Dr Daniel Adams, the DST'S acting Deputy Director-General: Research Development and Support.


Dr Adams, who opened this year's event on 6 March 2019, said that science, technology and innovation are central to South Africa's economic and social prosperity.  He encouraged learners to pursue mathematics and science, as these were gateway subjects that would open up various careers in the STEM fields to them.


"Scifest's diverse set of activities and experiences will help to change the all too persistent perception that science is beyond most of us, and meant only for a select few.  I am confident that over this week, visitors to Scifest Africa will enjoy a rich programme that reveals not only the impact and relevance of science in society, but also its beauty and fun," added Dr Adams.


The festival proved to be a real eye-opener for many learners who were attending for the first time.  Aviwe Dzingwe was amazed to discover that snake venom can be used for medicinal purposes.  "I regarded snakes as human enemies and that they should be avoided at all costs, but the lesson learnt today will change my attitude towards snakes," said Dzingwe.


Lunga Nkosi, the silver medallist in the Science Communication category of the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists competition, presented an exciting paper on sharks entitled "Sustainable Shark Barrier".  The Grade 10 learner from Hoerskool Bergvlam in Mpumalanga began developing an innovative shark barrier after noticing how the fear of sharks prevented people from enjoying their visits to the beach.


"The aim of this investigation was to develop a device that would reduce shark and human encounters in an effective way, without causing harm to marine animals, using an inexpensive and sustainable measure that would also guarantee safety to beach goers" explained Nkosi.


Her solar shark barrier makes use of an electromagnetic field and a rechargeable battery source to repel sharks within its detection range.  The system has been tested numerous times and shown favourable results.


Scifest Africa continues until 12 March 2019, and includes exhibitions, workshops, a STEM olympics and a film festival among its exciting activities.