Tata’s ‘legacy is safe’

2013-12-10 00:00

HE was a child praise singer for Nelson Mandela. And he was a rocket scientist who had an asteroid named in honour of him by Nasa.

Now, Durban-born Siyabulela Xuza (25) has returned from Harvard University to dismiss global predictions of gloom for South Africa in Mandela’s wake — saying, “I’m telling you: his legacy is safe in the hands of the youth he inspired”.

This week, numerous western media organisations warned of a disastrous national delinquency without Mandela’s moral presence.

But Xuza — the youngest member of the science panel for the African Union — reacted with annoyance, pointing to world-class projects like the R20 billion Square Kilometre Array telescope, telling The Witness, “Young people including myself, are set to do great things, thanks to the chance he gave us, and we won’t forget; in fact, South Africa has already begun to lead the world in many fields.”

Xuza has emerged as a unique link between South Africa’s distant past and its distant future, as an imbongi who renders the legacy of Xhosa ancestors in poetry, and also a cutting-edge innovator working on nano-technology energy solutions “which will make the idea of power stations seem silly”.

Earlier, the U.S. embassy in Pretoria released a statement saying, “Siya will not only be able to shape the future of his own country, but the world”.

Having just graduated a four-year degree in engineering and physics at Harvard, Xuza is leading a research group for a “breakthrough” in fuel cell energy storage. But Xuza said he had also taken “every opportunity” to give public praise-singing performances at Harvard.

Yesterday, he told of the “amazing connections” between Mandela and his rocketing career.

Xuza’s interest in science was triggered in early 1994 when he watched a plane drop election pamphlets onto the rural village he spent time in as a child, as Mandela led the project to educate the country in democracy. He tilled the family vegetable garden and went to school in Mthatha, driven by parents who valued learning.

In the early 2000s — having earned a bursary to St John’s College in Johannesburg — he was asked to perform three times as a traditional praise singer for the newly retired president.

“He had a humility you couldn’t put words to — I mean, he actually introduced himself to me, as if I didn’t know his name,” he said. “I tried to use words which captured the essence of the man, also highlighting his lineage and trying to ignite the atmosphere at the events.”

In 2006, Xuza won first prize in the energy category at the International Science and Engineering Fair in New Mexico, after inventing a cheaper, safer rocket fuel — despite having “set fire” to his mother’s kitchen during the manufacturing process.

Lincoln Labs — a Nasa affiliate in Boston — recognised his breakthrough by naming a large asteroid — which orbits between Mars and Jupiter – after the matric pupil, calling it “Siyaxuza”.

Xuza said dozens of other young South Africans were “quietly” taking similar strides into innovation, thanks to Mandela’s inspiration. “A hundred years from now, he will be remembered for much more than leading the political struggle to end segregation — it will be unlocking the imagination of Africans. And it will be people like me, working hard to answer the question: ‘What have we done with the freedom he helped win for us?’ ”

Xuza heard the news of Mandela’s death via Twitter.

“I saw the news, and honestly my reaction was a feeling of closure. A good end to a great life. And the realisation that the next step young South Africans like me must take up is the challenge to serve the ideal he was prepared to die for.”

Former chairperson of the Anglo American Scholarship Panel Clem Sunter said Xuza was so brilliant he didn’t even need the scholarship awarded to him by the panel — having won another to Harvard. Sunter said breakthrough students like Xuza should be “a household name” like sports stars.

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