On Contested Ground, SKA Looks to the Heavens

A vast new radio telescope system promises new astronomical insights. But on the ground in South Africa’s Karoo, it’s stirring up a complex history.

In this short documentary film, local farmers are among many stakeholders with mixed feelings about the arrival of the massive radio telescope array. Says one of this landscape: "It’s not desert." (Cover photo: AFP via Getty)

In July, a vast field of parabolic dish antennas — 64 in all — was inaugurated near the small South African town of Carnarvon. Over the next five years, 133 more radio dishes will rise up in this region as part of the $780 million, multinational Square Kilometer Array (SKA) project, which aims to become the world’s most powerful radio telescope system. By delving into the darkest reaches of the universe, the SKA project, which is overseen by 12 member countries, also aims to solve some of the most vexing questions in astrophysics: How did the first stars form? And just what is dark energy?

The scientific implications of the project might well prove profound, but its arrival on the ground — a landscape with a complex history of racial discord, land seizure, and even stargazing — has been met with a mix of anticipation and suspicion by the region’s current occupants.

One concern here has been the project’s appetite for land. The dishes must be surrounded by a 320,000-acre “Radio Quiet Zone” to prevent interference from mobile phone signals and other sources. So the overseers of the SKA installation have acquired 42 farms in the region surrounding Carnarvon. Further complicating matters, South Africa’s Minister of Science and Technology has the right to seize land from farmers unwilling to sell. This power was granted as part of the 2007 Astronomy Geographic Advantage Act, which was passed as part of the country’s successful bid to win the SKA project over other nations vying to host it.

To date, no farms have been expropriated by the SKA project, but concerns remain among landowners, particularly given an unrelated motion passed by the South African parliament earlier this year, which took a step toward allowing land expropriation without compensation nationwide under certain circumstances. Even the uncontentious sales of the 42 farms have caused anger among many long-time farmers who believe the SKA’s impact on farmland will spread well beyond these acquisitions. Among other things, these farm owners — nearly all of them white — argue that water depletion and changes in land use could dramatically alter the ecology of the Karoo, the vast semidesert region covering much of south-central South Africa.

Meanwhile, poverty and alcohol abuse are persistent problems in Carnarvon, a town of 6,600 people, where more than a quarter of the residents looking for work — most of them black — can’t find it. The arrival of the telescope project spurred hopes that it would provide desperately needed economic activity, including construction, land management, and hospitality services. According to the managers of SKA, thousands of jobs have been created so far, and $10 million has been spent with local suppliers and contractors. The SKA project has also invested in science education in the region, funding two science teachers at Carnarvon High School, alongside several university and technical training scholarships each year.

The discord is nothing new here, of course, and the legacy of apartheid runs through everything. Black residents have been pushing for reparations from the region’s mostly white farmers, whose families in many cases took the land they are on from resident black farmers under colonial rule. Now some black residents are concerned that the SKA project’s acquisition of land could prevent any future claims they might have.

It’s a modern tug-of-war over land and science — one infused with undercurrents of racism, politics, and economics. And it gets even more complicated: Before there were white farmers here, or even black farmers, the Karoo was home to indigenous hunter-gatherer communities broadly referred to as the San. The San had their own rich culture of studying the nighttime sky, and of deriving meaning from the stars that decorate it. But black farmers were brought to this region in the 19th century by South Africa’s colonial government in order to push out the San — forcing them to the far north of the country.

Then, as now, this arid landscape is a source of cosmology and a home for many. The SKA project has now partnered with the South African San Council to acknowledge their connection to the land and a shared culture through astronomy. But even as the parabolic arrays flicker to life and begin gathering their first bits of celestial data, the region’s history of injustice and prejudice remains a persistent backdrop — one that the SKA project’s member countries will find impossible to ignore.

Thomas Lewton is a science writer and documentary filmmaker whose freelance film and photography work has been featured on the BBC, VICE, and The Guardian.

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4 comments / Join the Discussion

    This is a signal event for the country, continent and the world in general.The scope for immense accumulation of new and probably astonishing evidence on cosmological underpinnings of our universe, are far too important not to be investigated . It seems to me that it is virtually impossible to predict the scale and depth of knowledge arising from this endeavour. All life is a risk of varying probabilities and this massive programme is no different. I fully understand the serious concerns individuals have about SKA, however the sheer size and profound implications of this study , on balance would justify the risks taken. My sincere message of unstinted support to the SKA programme


    Totally with you Hoosen. Science is important and all the relevant risks/costs have been taken into account. There is a distinct hint of political wingery on the part of the detractors, who are digging up all the “complexities.” The disadvantaged will remain disadvantaged, but at least some of them stand to benefit by educational opportunities, one or two children now at school in Carnarvon may wind up, who knows, as leading cosmologists? As for the tired old trotting out of the whites stealing the land from the blacks, and the legacy of apartheid, yes partially true, only partially. Who were the “resident” farmers, and where is the evidence? There were certainly nomadic Khoi (and before that, stone-age hunter-gatherers). The white farmers are descended from the Afrikaner burgers at the Cape, who ironically enough, were trekking away from British colonial occupiers of the ‘Cape Colony’. The best scenario for the poor and previously disadvantaged is the success and economic growth of South Africa, which is at present in the balance. SET could contribute to that significantly.


    The story of South Africa is to some degree written into that small town.
    I was so fascinated by it that in 2014 a novel about it — A Trojan Affair-The SKA at Carnarvon (soon to be a film).
    Everything I wrote into that plot seems to be unfolding as if it were a prophesy. Uncanny how this article reads like a promo for the book


    Don’t fully agree about all land taken from blacks. Much of the land in 16oo was unoccupied except the hunting race named khoi who were nomads moving with mostly the springbuck and ostrich
    ..for meat. They also lived from roots of a certain tree . Dug for water in certain areas where there were no rivers. The actual black tribes came in the latter 1700″s from far north mud Africa. The first to cross Limpopo river that settled in Sibasa was in 1770″s Already there were white trekkers far north of the Tvl. My great grandfather parents bought a farm from a prince in Transkei in the Late 1800 and paid with horses and sheep as the prince dis not now what money was.

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