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How astronomy aids progress in Africa

Astronomy can help address the problems of South Africa, while benefiting other African countries at the same time. This was the message of Naledi Pandor, South African Minister of Science and Technology, on 26 February in the Academy Building.

Pandor is Honorary Oort Visiting Professor of Astronomy for Development in Leiden. Her visit to Leiden was in part in response to an invitation from Leiden astronomer George Miley, who has worked tirelessly for years to bring young children worldwide in contact with astronomy. He set up the Universe Awareness programme (UNAWE) to do just that. Miley is a firm believer in the flywheel effect of astronomy: using the universe to arouse children's interest in science, and in their own development.  Pandor shares this belief in astronomy, but her interest is primarily at national level. 

Geert de Snoo Pandor
Geert de Snoo, dean of the Faculty of Science, hosted the event.

Nelson Mandela

It goes without saying that Pandor's speech also mentioned Nelson Mandela, born 100 years ago this year, who was the first truly democratically elected president of South Africa. 'Mandela freed not only South Africa, but the whole of Africa,' Pandor said. 'Our country is now in the unique position of receiving aid from science and technology programmes from countries that are further ahead in their development, but at the same time we are able to help other African countries with their scientific development. And astronomy and related disciplines are an excellent vehicle for achieving that.'

Catalyst for development

The International Astronomical Union (IAP) coined the concept of 'astronomy for development': astronomy as the catalyst for scientific development, technological innovation, the utilisation of human resources and the expansion of the scientific infrastructure. Just like Miley, Pandor believes in this concept, for South Africa and for the rest of the continent. Since taking office in 2009, the Minister has focused strongly on developing the study of astronomy. 'Many people, including my own colleagues, regarded astronomy as a rather old and dry branch of science, populated by grey, middle-aged men.'  But astronomy in Africa is now showing a different face.  Astronomers are increasingly reflecting a cross-section of the population in Africa and investments in astronomy are indeed a driving force for research, development and innovation.'  

George Miley praised Naledi Pandor for her boundless commitment to her country and to the whole African continent. Pandor (1953) was born in Durban into an academic family that fought against apartheid. This meant that her father had to flee South Africa, accompanied by his daughter, who in diaspora obtained degrees in English, History, Linguistics and Education. After teaching for a number of years in London and Botswana, Pandor returned to South Africa in 1995 to take up a position in parliament there. During this time she also obtained a diploma in Leadership in Development at Harvard University. Since 2004 she has held different ministerial posts, becoming Minister for Science and Technology in 2009. Op the very day of her lecture in Leiden it was announced that she would remain a minister under the new President of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa: she will become Minister for Higher Education and Training. Miley: ‘Under your leadership South Africa has made enormous leaps forward in the field of science and technology but you have always realised that that has to go hand in hand with the mobilisation of the under-utilised talents of South Africa's black population, women and minorities.' 

Spreading knowledge

South Africa has its own telescopes that are used by local communities. 'They facilitate teaching in astronomy and maths in these communities,' Pandor explained. The biggest investment is in South Africa's partly internationally funded Square Kilometre Array, one of the largest astronomical telescopes in the world. Africans from all parts of the continent can go there to gain unique knowledge that will before long make them sought after scientists throughout the world. 

The UK is helping South Africa by training researchers, who in turn train other younger South African researchers. Pandor also noted that radio astronomy is driving innovation in specific domains such as information and communication technology, fast networks, supercomputing, advanced materials and techniques and sustainable energy. 

Dishoeck Pandor
Pandor with eminent Leiden astronomer Ewine van Dishoeck. Left: a glimpse of George Miley.


With aid from South Africa, Ghana now also has an observatory, based on a refurbished 32-metre dish. South Africa is also bcoming involved in the rapidly developing field of Big Data. With the assistance of the University of Texas a network of supercomputers has been set up in six African countries. 

Pandor left her audience in no doubt about the ultimate goal: to realise a Plan of Action for South Africa. This plan has a number of aims, including to eradicate famine and diseases such as HIV, tuberculosis and malaria and to reduce unemployment. These goals can best be achieved by ensuring the rapid development of South Africa, and preferably the whole African continent. 

Following Pandor's address, representatives from the International Astronomical Union, the European Astronomical Society and Leiden University signed an agreement to establish a new Astronomy for Development office, the ninth worldwide. This office in Leiden will bring among other things, children in Europe in contact with astronomy via the Universe Aware programme to fuel their interest in science and technology. The European office will focus particularly on the children of migrants. 


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