Address by the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande on the occasion to celebrate the formal start of on-site construction of the SKA-Mid Telescope Infrastructure in Carnarvon – Northern Cape Province - 5 December 2022

Greetings your Excellencies

The Programme Directors;

The Premier of the Northern Cape, Mr Zamani Saul and all MECs present;

Mayor of Karoo Hoogland Municipality, Mr Anthony Meitas and all Mayors present;

The SKAO Council Chairperson, Dr Catherine Cesarsky and the entire delegation from SKAO;

Director-General: Joint Research Centre, European Commission, Mr Stephen Quest;

High Commissioner of the United Kingdom in South Africa, Mr Antony Phillipson;

CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Mr Sudiph Parikh;

Traditional leaders;

Director-General of the Department of Science and Innovation, Dr Phil Mjwara and all the DDGs present;

Board Chairperson of the National Research Foundation (NRF), Ms Nompumelelo Oboko and all NRF delegation;

MD of SARAO, Mr Pontsho Maruping;

Business Forums and leaders present;

Schools represented today;

Distinguished international and local guests;

Members of the media;

Ladies and gentlemen


Good day


Ever since the dawn of humanity somewhere in Africa around 300 000 years ago, our ancestors have been looking at the celestial bodies in the night sky from the surface of the earth.


It is hard to imagine them not wondering, like the famous French post-impressionist painter Paul Gaugin who wrote hauntingly on the canvas of his intriguing oil painting of 1897: “where do we come from? what are we? where are we going to?”.


Since then, and over many centuries, humans have been harnessing explanatory the powers of modern science, aided by increasingly powerful new technologies, to help us to peer deeper into the natural world to begin to answer some of these basic questions.


Radio astronomy – which uses radio waves on the electromagnetic spectrum to detect astronomical object in distant galaxies and regions of space, has begun to truly revolutionize our understanding of the universe. The development of the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) represents a major innovation that will provide scientists with unprecedented amounts of data on the basis of which to push the explanatory frontiers of modern cosmology.


I cannot help but being intrigued by the idea that significant discoveries on cosmological origins may well be made on African soil through the work of the SKA - the very place where we know through science the origins of all humanity is to be found. Indeed, an intriguing thought.


It is therefore a huge honour and privilege for me to address you on behalf of the South African Government on this momentous occasion.


I take this opportunity to congratulate the Square Kilometer Array Observatory (SKAO) on reaching this important milestone in officially kick-starting the on-site construction of the SKAO telescopes.


SKA is a pioneering, and in some ways unique international scientific project which demonstrates the power of multilateral collaboration in science to help us tackling the big challenges of humanity.


We owe a great deal to so many people who have worked incredibly hard to make this day possible, and it would not do justice to mention all. But i do want to pay homage to the SKAO leadership, Governments of all the SKA international partners and the many managerial, scientific and technical staff both in South Africa, the UK, Australia and other parts of the world who are working on this groundbreaking project.


I would also like to thank High Commissioner Phillipson for the significant investment by the Government of the United Kingdom in the SKA as host of the global headquarters and am happy to report that our SKA partnership with the United Kingdom was also discussed during President Ramaphosa’s recent state visit to South Africa.


I am also delighted that a senior delegation of the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, led by Minister Counsellor SHEN Long is with us today.  


China is a crucial partner with the SKA as manufacturer of the telescope dishes for the mid-frequency array – please extend Minister Counsellor my special words of appreciation to my dear colleague Minister WANG Zhigang for his unwavering support for the SKA.


Return on Investment: Contract awarded to South Africa.


I take this opportunity to also welcome the SKA-Mid infrastructure contract awarded to a South African company as part of the construction of the mid-frequency components of the Square Kilometre Array telescope here in the Karoo. 


Power Adenco Joint Venture (Pty) Ltd has been appointed as the successful bidder for the tender to build the major civils infrastructure, which includes roll-out of power, fibre and roads and will be the biggest contract awarded by SKAO to a South African based company, amounting close to 890 million rands.


Of great importance in the awarding of this contract is the requirement from the SKAO of local participation, which will see Power Adenco providing a range of sub-contract opportunities and benefits to local communities.


A proportionate amount of the contract value will indeed be spent with local SMMEs, employment of local people, training and transferring skills to local people, supporting local businesses and implementing community development initiatives in conjunction with the SKAO and the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory.


This contract is in addition to recently awarded contracts to SARAO and other South African companies such as VIVO, Zutari, and EMCOM.


A total estimated value of contracts worth R1.2 billion have now been awarded to South African entities, with further contracts expected.


Furthermore, it is expected that the leasing of buildings to be constructed, and ongoing technical maintenance and operations of the SKA Observatory for the next 50 years will deliver long term, sustainable foreign investment to South Africa with about 11,200 construction job opportunities to be created over the next 6 years of construction.


Skills Development


The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) will continue to invest about R80 million per year through the SKA HCD Bursary Programme in order to develop the requisite skills in South Africa and the African partner countries.


The South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) would fund about 100 bursary recipients per year and the skills that will be targeted include artisans, technicians, astronomers, engineers and data professionals.


I must also indicate that through this programme,  SARAO has already funded about 1 400 recipients to date and this number is expected to double in the next 15 years.


Scientific Returns


Let me also indicate that our  astronomy community will continue to  increase exponentially as it  more than tripled from  60 when we started 20 years ago to  the current size of about 200 astronomers.


We are also expecting scientific papers to increase significantly, and this is expected to propel South Africa to the top ten (10) leading countries in this field.  Currently, South Africa is number 21 in terms of world ranking.


This will further position SA to participate meaningfully in the science of the SKA – generating amazing discoveries and innovations.


Working with the Northern Cape Government


Premier Zamani Saul, my Department of Science and Innovation together with SKAO and SARAO will continue to work closely with the Northern Cape government to ensure that the local communities in the Northern continue to benefit in the form of job creation, SMME development, training, science tourism and other related benefits.


I must thank you for taking the leadership in ensuring that this project is successful.


We have met here several times and had briefings about the work that is taking place here and my department officials do indicate that there is enormous support of the project event from the municipalities, business and schools, not only from this area but of the entire province.


Benefits of the MeerKAT Telescope to date


Ladies and gentlemen, as I conclude, allow me to share some of the benefits we thus far have achieved through the MeerKAT Telescope to date.


Over the past five years, South Africa's investment in the development of astronomy, specifically the MeerKAT radio telescope, not only positioned the country as a premier hub for scientific research and innovations, but also realised socio-economic spin-offs, including the installation of 110 km of overhead power lines, the resurfacing of 80 km of road and the construction of complex foundations for the 64 dishes, which created more than 8 700 direct and indirect jobs for the local communities surrounding the SKA site. 


Other notable spin-offs include a massive human capital development drive. 


More than 1 400 grants and scholarships have been awarded in the field of science and engineering, and a technical training centre has been established, at which close to 400 technicians have been trained in trades related to the work being done on the telescope. 


Fifty-six local SMMEs were supported through the SKA's financial assistance programme to empower them to participate in the SKA construction tenders. 


More than R130 million was spent on local businesses during the construction phase of the MeerKAT. 


The MeerKAT telescope was successfully completed in 2018 at a cost of R3,2 billion with 75% local content that boosted the local industry in terms of manufacturing various components for the telescope.


The local design, manufacturing and construction of the MeerKAT telescope proved that South Africa has very good capable systems engineering capabilities.


 This became handy when the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO) managed the design and manufacture of 20 000 ventilators that were distributed to several hospitals during the Covid19 pandemic.




With those few words, allow me to conclude by thanking the SKAO Council, led by the Chairperson, Dr Catherine Cesarsky, the Northern Cape government, led by Premier Zamani Saul, international guests, business leaders, community leaders and all the other representatives of the SKA member and participating countries.   


Thank you


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