Cape Town – Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel says the MeerKAT, the precursor of the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope, is creating jobs and skilling local people.
The Minister said this when he, along with several Deputy Ministers, accompanied Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor to the launch of the MeerKAT Array Release 1 (AR1) telescope near Carnarvon in the Karoo on Saturday.
AR1 is the first 16-dish array that scientists can use for research. There will be ultimately 64 dishes.
Minister Patel, who is also a key member of the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission (PICC), said the progress of the project so far has demonstrated how it can contribute to the economy as a job driver and a catalyst for development.
“This is a great moment for South Africa. It is an example of what we can do as a country – big science, large infrastructure and innovation that we bring into the economy. This can create jobs and give opportunities to the economy. We are here in the pristine environment of the Northern Cape and we are connecting thinkers across the world to what South Africa is bringing together today,” he said.
The Minister said infrastructure investment is a key priority of both the National Development Plan (NDP) and the New Growth Path (NGP).
He said the SKA is one of 18 strategic infrastructure projects identified by the PICC.
The Minister said about 422 people are currently working as a result of SKA through initial infrastructure projects. Fifty-four percent of these are young people, which shows that youth employment has been incorporated into the SKA and the MeerKAT.
“More than 800 people have been supported by skills development over the last number of years ranging from postgrad studies to very important artisanal skills that are being developed,” he said.
The Minister said the MeerKAT and SKA projects will have a huge impact on the country’s economy, and compared this to similar scientific projects in other economies.
“What nuclear and the space programmes did for the United States and the Russian economies show how important mega science is in the nation’s economic development.
“We see SKA as an opportunity to catalyse a new economic development path that is science rich and innovation led,” he said.
MeerKAT, SKA sector-to-sector economic opportunities
The Minister said Cabinet adopted 10 job drivers as part of the NGP and the NDP. The job drivers include the agriculture value chain, mining and beneficiation, infrastructure development, advanced manufacturing, tourism and private services, green economy, knowledge based sectors, social economy, public services and African regional development.
Minister Patel said he has identified eight streams that can contribute to the economy. One of the streams is infrastructure and already, 31.5km of farm roads have been built to make the SKA project possible, including the installation of more than 100km of transmission lines between Carnarvon and the SKA site.
Minister Patel said another positive development was localisation. Approximately 70% of goods and services were procured from local manufacturers and local suppliers.
“… The fabrication of steel is being done here in South Africa. The receivers of the MeerKAT are being developed locally. The digitisers have been developed by the SKA team. The correlators that assist with data capturing are now South African products made by South Africans using innovation and the thinking of local people,” he said.
While the MeerKAT and the SKA are already attracting international researchers, the project places South Africa at an advantage when it comes to bidding for major scientific conferences in the future, the Minister said.
“… The seventh stream that I see is astro tourism. I drove from Cape Town to Sutherland a few days ago and yesterday from Sutherland to Carnarvon. I stopped in Sutherland [in the Northern Cape] to visit the largest telescope that you can see through the naked eye in the Southern Hemisphere located not very far from here and producing visual images of stunning clarity of starts and planets and the moon.
“And just driving 100 kilometres further, I am here on the site of what will be the largest radio telescope nerve centre. So we have an astronomy corridor here that we can bring South Africans and foreign tourists to visit, starting in Sutherland and moving to Carnarvon.”