Between science and society: Northern Cape communities struggle with the telescope in their backyards

Vanwyksvlei

Community members at Vanwyksvlei receive a meal before entering the hall where the SKA/DST meetings took place. People of all ages participated in the event, which saw experts telling the community about the developments taking place. Image credit SciBraai/Paul Kennedy.

“Will the SKA affect pregnancies in the area?”

The question comes in Afrikaans, in a rough voice belonging to someone who has lived a much longer, harder life than this middle-aged man appears to have lived.

We’re in Vanwyksvlei, in the Northern Cape. Outside the last light is draining from the timeless Hantam Karoo landscape.

From the looks of things, most of the town has crammed into this small hall, where representatives from the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and the Department of Science and Technology (DST) are explaining how the SKA will affect the community.

This may be the most exciting thing that has happened here since then SKA last visited.

The evening workshop is part of a week-long tour of the tiny towns around the SKA site, with two major objectives: give communities a chance to respond to new proposed regulations to protect the new telescope, and give them more information about how SKA will affect their lives.

I’ve tagged along as a science communicator who sometimes helps the SKA share their work with different audiences. It is a rare opportunity to observe what I would call ‘the pointy end of science communication’ – how communication works at the nexus of science and society, far away from my sheltered office in Cape Town.

Apart from a smattering of farmers, most people here are not white, and not rich. Nearby farms producing the lamb that the region is famous for provide most of the employment. The only other activities in the area seem to be working at the butchery, or drinking.

Different points of view

From a politician’s point of view, the SKA is an excellent project for South Africa: ‘space science and technology’ was identified as one of five grand challenges to help SA transition to a knowledge economy in the Ten-Year Innovation Plan of 2008 (PDF). Further, the project brings a great deal of foreign investment into the country – only R16 of every R100 spent on the project comes from South Africa.

From a scientist’s perspective, building the SKA in the Karoo is clearly a good idea: it is the most ambitious astronomy project the world has ever seen, and the Karoo is one of the best places in the world to put it. It’s a no-brainer.

But what about the communities? There are around 50 000 people affected by SKA activities, across five towns and the surrounding farms (see map). If this week’s experience is representative, they appear to be angry.

They seem not to be happy with the SKA or the DST, and seem to have very little understanding of project. Despite SKA SA’s past efforts at talking to the community about radio astronomy, confusion and misunderstanding is rampant.

The anger I experienced comes from different places, but seems to have two different root causes.

The first is identity. For many in these small towns, farming is the only life they know. Many farmers are angry at the possibility that SKA will take their farms, severing their ties to the land they call home. The same is true for farm workers – they can’t envision a life here without employment by farms.

The second is linked to promises that the SKA have made; promises about economic development, about compensation, and as always, about job opportunities. The communities we spoke to all echoed the same complaint: where are the changes that they were promised?

While the concerns over identity and connection to the land are valid (SKA SA is buying a minimum of 33 farms in the

area), the complaints that SKA is not delivering on promises for community development is premature. Economic development cannot happen overnight, and SKA SA has made substantial efforts to offer jobs to locals and promote local businesses.

Perhaps these communities have been promised the same things by a parade of government officials over the last 20 years; these expectations are now laid squarely at the feet of the SKA team.

A map showing the farms potentially affected by SKA’s Land Acquisition programme, as well as the locations of the nearest towns. The red border delineates the SKA astronomy reserve area where the majority of the antennae will be built, while the three arms will host fewer antennae. Image credit SKA/Alice Pienaar-Marais.

A map showing the farms potentially affected by SKA’s Land Acquisition programme, as well as the locations of the nearest towns. The red border delineates the SKA astronomy reserve area where the majority of the antennae will be built, while the three arms will host fewer antennae. Image credit SKA/Alice Pienaar-Marais.

SKA asks for patience

Rob Adam, Director of SKA South Africa since the beginning of 2016, says that the communities need to be patient. “We have to coexist with these communities, and we’re having a major impact on them. I believe we will change the communities very positively; they may not see it now and they have frustrations, but you have to start somewhere.”

From his perspective, the SKA and the DST have a responsibility to these communities, and one that he takes very seriously. He quotes a conversation he had with Minister Pandor of the DST, who once said to him, “it would be a tragedy if, after we finish this project, the Northern Cape was the same as when we started.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the Northern Cape will never be the same again. When the nearly 200 antennae of the SKA interrupt the otherwise pristine Karoo skyline, what remains to be seen is whether the communities will be as happy as the scientists and politicians.

Paul Kennedy

Paul Kennedy is a science writer interested in innovation, sustainability and research policy in Africa. He trained as a molecular biologist before realising that the research out there was way more interesting than what he was doing in the lab. He blogs about innovation and other science stories that get him excited at www.dreamingthefuture.co.za. See more at www.about.me/paul.kennedy. He is also the co-founder of ScienceLink (www.sciencelink.co.za)

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