A Square Kilometre Array Meerkat antenna is transported to the international project site in the Karoo desert. Picture: SKA SA
A Square Kilometre Array Meerkat antenna is transported to the international project site in the Karoo desert. Picture: SKA SA

The Square Kilometre Array’s (SKA’s) huge scientific project in the Northern Cape should boost the local economy by creating employment, Northern Cape premier Zamani Saul says.

Delegates and representatives of the member states of the SKA project gathered at the project’s base near Carnarvon on Tuesday as part of an annual meeting hosted by the department of science & innovation.

Apart from SA, the member states are Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia and Zambia.

The government has pumped R3.2bn in project investment into the MeerKAT telescope project. MeerKAT is a precursor to the internationally funded SKA telescope, which is the next stage of the SKA project.

The SKA is developing one of the world’s largest radio astronomy sites. The well-positioned site in the Karoo is the platform from where some of the greatest questions about space and time will be investigated.

MeerKAT, KAT-7 and related projects created nearly 8,000 jobs, a media release by the SA Radio Astronomy Observatory (Sarao) reads.

Provided bursaries

More than 100 local women were directly employed by Sarao from 2015 to 2017 and nearly 1,300 by subcontractors, the release reads.

Through Sarao’s involvement, a local schools programme provided bursaries to promising students, and teachers have been appointed at Carnarvon High School.

“We are proud of our, and the Northern Cape’s, contributions to the world of science”, Saul said.

“The Northern Cape has some of the [country’s] highest levels of poverty and unemployment. The province remains a point of extraction based on a colonial configuration; it is left on the outskirts of development,” he said.

Saul said he hopes this project will challenge the status quo.

Zolile Monakale, mayor of Pixley Ka Seme district municipality, agreed that the effects of the extensive investment must be felt by the people in the project’s district.

Takalani Nemaungani, director of global projects in the department of science & innovation, said the budget for social outreach and other programmes is limited.

The project is hugely infrastructure heavy, to which most of the budget has been allocated, Nemaungani said.

“We can only do so much. We need the Northern Cape government to partner with us in terms of working towards realising some of the socioeconomic goals that we have,” he said.

So far R136m has been spent on local contractors for the construction of MeerKAT. About R162m has been spent on the salaries of locals working on the project.

Sarao said R3m has since been spent on local catering and accommodation while R4m has gone to the local transport sector. It said R5m was spent on materials from local suppliers for the building of another telescope.

Nemaungani said the first phase of SKA will be bigger than MeerKAT and there will be greater domestic and international investment.

They will “continue to work with the communities and have outreach programmes and bursaries”.

Due to increased foreign investment in the project, social development projects will have to be maintained to reflect financial influxes, he said.