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Mon Aug 29 23:51:28 SAST 2016

Siyabulela's a shining star

ROWAN PHILP | 14 August, 2011 03:34

Siyabulela Xuza has gone from being a praise singer for Nelson Mandela to becoming a top scientist - with even Nasa having named a large asteroid after him.

The 22-year-oldfrom Mthatha in the Eastern Cape is studying at Harvard University in the US, where he is trying to save the planet by developing a new energy technology.

This year, he attended the May launch of the space shuttle Endeavour as a guest of Nasa and, in June, met US first lady Michelle Obama.

Speaking from the US this week, he said his greatest thrill was singing Xhosa praise songs at cultural evenings in Harvard.

In an astonishing rise from once working in a vegetable field, Xuza has met three SA presidents, the king of Sweden, Nobel laureates, astronauts and the UN secretary-general.

He is the youngest member of an energy advisory panel to the African Union and recently visited corporate heavyweights at the New York Stock Exchange, hoping they might invest in his future technologies.

Clem Sunter, former chairman of the Anglo American Scholarship Panel, said Xuza was so bright that he had had no need of his Anglo scholarship, having won another to study engineering at the world's top-ranked university.

"In any other country in the world, if a schoolboy had won the awards he has - he has what they call a 'minor planet' named after him by Nasa, for goodness' sake - he would probably be a household name," said Sunter.

"In South Africa, nobody knows about it. It breaks all the normal stereotypes about South Africa and (the Eastern Cape). We should be using this guy as an inspiration to young people."

Now beginning his final year, Xuza is using supercomputers and equipment worth up to R100-million to develop a new "nano-material" for "personalised energy systems".

His remarkable journey began at 12 when he used utensils in his mother's kitchen to bake rocket fuel "like cookies" and was scolded for causing fires. Four years later, his "safer, cheaper" solid rocket fuel won him the top prize in its category at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in the US.

Nasa's Lincoln Laboratories then gave the name "Siyaxuza" to a giant asteroid near Jupiter, discovered in 2000, and which they describe as "minor planet 23182".

Xuza said he got hooked on science at five, when - standing on his rural plot near Mthatha in 1994 - he saw a light aircraft for the first time, dropping election leaflets. His parents, now business people, were teachers at the time.

He built his own rocket after watching Mark Shuttleworth's space flight in 2002, but it exploded on the launch-pad. His next, a year later, broke the national amateur altitude record at nearly 1000m.

He then won a scholarship to St John's College in Johannesburg. Principal Roger Cameron said he was "not the smartest as a younger child, but he was very focused and very determined".

Cameron credited Xuza's parents, as well as top tuition, for the phenomenon - "(giving him) that sense that you are special, but also accountable to a strong set of values".

Xuza won both a Harvard scholarship and an "Opportunities Grant" from the US State Department.

Elizabeth Trudeau, spokesman for the US embassy, said: "We really view Siya as a true global citizen who will not only be able to shape the future of his own country, but the world."

He said he was often sought for praise-singing performances "to open big university events or if there is a class on ethnic music or African culture".

"My culture inspires me, and science is a way to serve my culture and my society. People here are always surprised to see this black guy coming out of nowhere and doing a Xhosa praise song."

Although he insists he will return to start an energy company in Africa, he said he would need to spend more time in the US "to incubate my technology" after graduating next year.

As a teenager, he declared in his journal: "The purpose of this diary is to inspire the next generation of South Africa's scientists."

Today, his outlook and statements continue to be breathtaking in their casual ambition. "I don't enjoy being called 'rocket man' or 'rocket boy'. I must stress that the main thrust of my work is in nano-enabled solar energy and no longer on rocket fuels.

"I prefer to describe myself as an aspiring entrepreneur with a passion for using technology to solving the world's energy crisis."

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