Pali Lehohla: SKA must be the new Durban

Mr Mohapi, my geography teacher in Form 1, would have saliva oozing out of his mouth, spraying it all over your face as his passion for teaching drove him into a trance. We called him Tsoela Boy because of this experience.

There were seven proofs that Earth is a sphere and Mr Mohapi would move from corner to corner with great enthusiasm as we tabulated these proofs.

It took another four years for me to witness the curvature of the earth that at best I imagined in class. In fact, I would not have believed Galileo Galilei that the Earth was round.

I was in Form 1 D and on an exciting school trip, which carried many firsts including my very first trip on a train even though 13 years before I had written a composition on the subject of my first trip on a train – imaginary as it was and had little semblance with what I witnessed on the actual train trip 13 years later.

Massive cargo ships and luxury ocean liners were part of the mystery; the tall buildings and hotels, traffic lights and so on were all amazing. But in the midst of all that I was struck by the begging Indians.

Butha-Buthe, where I went to secondary school, was a district of very successful Indian businessmen. The Dambas, Osmans, Abdulas and Mohameds were so successful that their children drove their parents’ cars to school. We were always green with envy. To come across an Indian begging for money from me as a schoolboy was just shocking.

Besides, Lesotho had no beggars then. Today beggars line streets of Lesotho as they do in South Africa.

For every high school pupil in Lesotho, a school trip to Durban was a dream, a pilgrimage of sorts. The most spectacular thing would be to see the sea, dip yourself in it, taste the water and be amazed by how salty it tasted; to experience the skill of swimming over the waves explained in the book of Benny and Betty, and to carry seawater back home.

So in 1974, as a high school pupil, I undertook this important pilgrimage to Durban, the envy of every Mosotho child. The trip was an inspiration and carried more than the sea because for me the aquarium took the crown, but also the whales, lions, giraffes and elephants – we could see live the animals we had learnt of from pictures.

In fact, the Zulu guide warned us not to get too close to the head of the giraffe as the animal would crack one’s skull if it got irritated. This was simply eye-opening and educating.

Back to the geography subject and my teacher on proof that the earth is round, one of the proofs read as follows: “Standing on the seashore and if a ship happens to be sailing seaward, you will see the hull disappear first then the superstructure and finally the mast will disappear into the horizon.”

It was amazing to see this phenomenon in Durban and to remember that lesson vividly.

What then is the Durban pilgrimage for a South African child?

For inland provinces, the Durban pilgrimage still remains the in-thing and should still be pursued for the educative inspiration it delivers. However, there is even a more unique and bigger pilgrimage for the world leading to right here in South Africa.

In the middle of the Karoo, South Africa has a science spectacular that should be the dream visit of every child. They must dream big about data and visualise the fourth industrial revolution. This platform that the department of science and technology has spearheaded for us as South Africa, and the biggest in the world at that, should be the change in step that our education department takes to inspire a new generation.

In future, South African lasses and lads will leapfrog and be counted among science pioneers.

It is possible to turn the fortunes of the 10-year-olds and those that are not yet born by making the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) the Mecca of science for children and students. It is not impossible to inspire all regions of the country to turn the Karoo, the land of the first nations of the world, into one that bestows the rites of passage to 10-year-olds and those still in the loins of suitors into future problem solvers who prosper. What has become a nightmare of a demographic disaster to South Africa could be overcome in the future by using the Karoo as our inspiration for knowledge.

The director-general of the Northern Cape provincial government, Justice Bekebeke, has often asked me how soon I can make the province reach 2 million residents. My response is with more visits to the province I could contribute.

With the SKA, Bekebeke can sleep easy as the province assumes the status of the Silicon Valley of South Africa, where the future of the country could be determined.

Let us inspire the young generation and those still to come to leapfrog and be counted as those who led the country to escape the misery of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

- Lehohla is former statistician-general of South Africa and former head of Stats SA