Address by the South African Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, at the Second Annual Scientific Conference of the African Astronomical Society, on 14 March 2022

Programme Director, Prof. Petri Vaisanen, Director of the South African Astronomical Observatory

President of the African Astronomical Society, Prof. Jamal Mimouni

African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology, Prof. Mohamed Belhocine

President of the International Astronomical Union, Prof. Debra Meloy Elmegreen

President of the South African Institute of Physics, Prof. Makaiko Chithambo

CEO of the National Research Foundation, Prof. Fulufhelo Nelwamondo

Director of the International Astronomical Union Office for Astronomy for Development, Mr Kevin Govender

AfAS members

Members of the media

Ladies and gentlemen

 

It gives me pleasure to be addressing this second annual scientific gathering of the African Astronomical Society (AfAS), hosted by South Africa through our Department of Science and Innovation and our agency, the South African Astronomical Observatory.

 

I intended to join this conference in person, however, other equally important engagements prevented me.

 

Given the importance of this conference to South Africa and the continent at large, I decided to join the conference through this message.

 

Let me take this opportunity to welcome all the conference delegates, those who have joined the conference physically and those who joined the conference virtually.

 

You are all welcomed, including South African participants.

 

For those who are attending the conference physically at the South African Astronomical Observatory, please enjoy our South African hospitality and the splendour of the Mother City, Cape Town.

 

Please ensure that you visit our renowned attractions such Table Mountain, and Robben Island, where the father of the democratic South Africa, former President Nelson Mandela, spent 18 year in prison.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, the inaugural annual conference of the African Astronomical Society took place virtually from 8 to 12 March 2021.

 

The diversity and quality of presentations at the inaugural conference demonstrated that astronomy on the continent is vibrant, internationally competitive, and has the potential to expand and flourish even more in the future.

 

Although this is only the second of the African Astronomical Society Conference, astrology is not new to our continent.

 

The early societies of Africa were one of the first groups of people to show a keen interest in the stars and planets, and they even named the celestial bodies while studying them for astrological purposes.

 

Rightfully, I can claim that Africa is the home of astrology.

 

The African Astronomical Society was established to create and support a globally competitive and collaborative astronomy community in Africa and to be the voice of astronomy in Africa, while addressing the challenges faced by the continent through the promotion and advancement of astronomy. 

 

This conference is among the most important platforms to ensure that AfAS performs its essential role of coordinating a network of astronomers, promoting the study and application of astronomy, promoting astronomy research collaborations, advising government stakeholders on astronomy-related policy, and fostering the growth of astronomy in Africa to derive socio-economic benefits and to increase Africa's contribution to the global body of knowledge.

 

This year's AfAS conference focuses on science, outreach, communication and education activities emanating from astronomy in Africa.

 

It also seeks to enhance further collaboration among countries in Africa and the rest of the world.

 

The conference focuses on –

  • the status of astronomy infrastructure;
  • AfAS led flagship projects;
  • astronomy for development;
  • initiatives to attract and retain youth in astronomy; and
  • strengthening existing activities in the field.

 

Let me take this opportunity to thank all the AfAS committees and partner projects, the African Planetarium Association, the African Science Stars magazine, and the African-European Radio Astronomy Platform, who worked tirelessly to ensure that this conference took place.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, the astronomy landscape in our continent continues to evolve with proposed new infrastructure planned.

 

This includes the extension to the current 64 antennae of the MeerKAT telescope to a full array of some 200 telescopes for the SKA and the prospect of having the Africa Millimetre Telescope that will form an essential link in the Event Horizon Telescope Network.

 

The Africa Millimetre Telescope project aims to put a 15-m single-dish radio telescope on the Gamsberg mountain not far from the site of the High Energy Stereoscopic System (HESS) in Namibia.  This will be the only radio telescope in the millimetre-wavelength regime in Africa.

 

The recently commissioned 32-m Ghana Radio Astronomy Telescope at Kuntunse will be part of the African Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) in preparation for the second phase construction of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) across the African continent.

 

The construction of the SKA is now set to begin following the recent Square Kilometre Array Observatory approval for the start of the construction phase in both Australia and South Africa.

 

AfAS is in the initial phase of developing a proposal for an African Integrated Observation System and Data Network that will incorporate existing African optical telescopes at the South African Astronomical Observatory, where you are currently meeting.

 

AfAS is also developing proposals for the Entoto Observatory and Research Centre in Ethiopia, the Bouzaréah Observatory in Algeria, the refurbished Kottamia Astronomical Observatory in Egypt, the Oukaïmeden Observatory in Morocco, the future 1-m optical telescope in Burkina Faso, and the Kenya Optical Telescope Initiative.

 

The range of benefits of such a network include scientific opportunities, shared access to telescopes, exchange programmes, outreach, and human capacity building.

 

In as far as education, outreach, and capacity building is concerned, capacity-building initiatives include –

  • the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy (DARA) Newton Fund programme to train young Africans in astronomy, engineering, technology, and related fields;
  • the National Astrophysics and Space Science Programme, which is a multi-institutional postgraduate programme training graduates in astronomy, astrophysics, and space science, with alumni from across the African continent; and
  • the launch of the AfAS Seed Research Grant, which supports research projects in astronomy (including astrophysics and space science) conducted by postgraduate students and early career researchers based in Africa.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, all these projects aim to develop skills using astronomy infrastructure based in African countries. We all must be proud of these achievements.

 

Since the commencement of operations on 1 April 2020, AfAS met various objectives, including laying a foundation for a sustainable institution going into the future, supported by the experienced South African Institute of Physics, the International Astronomical Union Office for Astronomy Development and the Department of Science and Innovation's Astronomy unit.

 

Like the rest of the world, Africa has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

AfAS was not spared the negative effects brought by this global pandemic.  However, the AfAS Executive Committee and the Secretariat worked around the clock to ensure that the organisation achieved its milestones and planned activities.  This included setting up all governance and internal control processes.

 

During this period, AfAS also received a clean, unqualified audit report for the 2020/21 financial year.

 

AfAS stop did not there, but together with the International Astronomical Union Office for Astronomy Development and the African Planetarium Association, collectively funded astronomy small projects to enable communities to overcome some of the effects of COVID-19.

 

Through this initiative, about 120 proposals were received, and 43 projects were supported through grant funding.

 

Indeed, astrology can be used as an enabler to address societal challenges.

 

AfAS further demonstrated its resilience and determination when it funded five more astronomical projects in –

  • remote teaching and learning during school closures due to COVID-19;
  • providing follow-up capacity building for teachers involved in refugee camps;
  • engaging elementary and high school children through art;
  • providing the families of students with hygiene supplies, while also including educational, astronomy-based material for the children and their families to enjoy while at home; and
  • acquiring recyclable personal protective equipment and handwash for laboratory activities and awareness sessions.

 

These funded projects are based in Tanzania, Algeria, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and South Africa.

 

The African Planetarium funded four additional projects in Kenya, Arabic-speaking countries, Ghana and Uganda.

 

I am delighted that the AfAS Executive Committee has established a subcommittee for fundraising and developed a funding strategy.

 

AfAS also established the African Network for Women Astronomers, which aims to connect women working in astronomy and related fields in Africa.  With this network, AfAS will indeed guarantee the future participation of girls and women at all levels in astronomy and science developments in Africa.

 

This will ensure that the status of women in science in Africa is improved and will also inspire more girls to do science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects.

 

AfAS introduced the African Network for Women Astronomers Awards in collaboration with the International Science Programme at Uppsala University, Sweden, to recognise and support the scientific achievements and contributions of women in Astronomy in Africa.

 

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I wish you all fruitful engagements in the coming five days of the conference.

 

I also wish you well in your General Assembly to be held on 31 March 2022, where a new Executive Committee will be elected.

 

Thank you very much.

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