It’s the final day of the December school holidays and the Cape Town Science Centre is teeming with children whose parents have run out of ways to keep them occupied. Filled with interactive displays and exhibits, the kids can experience everything from the weightlessness of space travel to the kinetic power of their own brain waves. Any budding young scientist would benefit from such entertaining early exposure. Siyabulela Xuza needed no such inspiration – his talent was borne from pure curiosity.
In 1994, an aeroplane passed over the village of Mthata. Dropping election pamphlets from the skies, it was the first sighting of its kind for the young Siya. His interest piqued, he began asking questions, desperate to know how the contraption worked. When no one could answer him, he took matters into his own hands – or into is mother’s kitchen.
Using household cleaning supplies and other substances he found around his home, Siya would sneak into his mother’s kitchen and concoct elaborate experiments – all in pursuit of a formula for affordable rocket fuel. “Initially, it was simply passion and curiosity that drew me,” he explains. “I didn’t know what science was, I just knew I wanted to make things. I didn’t know what engineering was, I just wanted to build things.”
The second the young scientist and engineer opens his mouth, it’s clear a Harvard University graduate is talking – his choice of words, and the conviction with which he infuses every sentence sounds the alert. Each word emphasised by a passionate physical gesture, he says, “I am an example of what happens when you give people – young South Africans – opportunities.”
Siya has seized these opportunities. He broke the amateur altitude record at the age of thirteen when his home-made rocket launched successfully and, following numerous international science fair entries, won a scholarship to study at the prestigious Harvard University in the United States. In 2008, a small planet was discovered near the Jupiter asteroid belt, and in his honour, MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory named the planet 23182 Siyaxuza.
Today, SIya is home. He has bucked the trend of internationally educated young South Africans choosing to make a life for themselves overseas. Committed to creating sustainable solutions for South Africa’s energy sector, he has used his access to a world so often denied to others to develop the place that he believes in: Africa. “Imagine the potential, he says. “There’s a chapter we still have to write in Africa. There’s so much more to be done here.”