Pan-African maths event in SA

The 49th International Mathematical
Olympiad, held in Madrid, Spain, in 2008.
(Image: 49th IMO)

Intense concentration as a participant
solves her maths problem.
(Image: 49th IMO)

Janine Erasmus

South Africa is hosting the 19th Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad, an annual event organised by the African Mathematical Union (AMU) that brings together the brightest minds on the continent. The event takes place in Pretoria from 19 to 26 April 2009.

Entry into the prestigious competition, which is supported by the national Department of Science and Technology and organised by the South African Mathematics Foundation, is by invitation only. The event is held in both French and English, and the objective is to nurture talent and share information on teaching methods and mathematics curricula across the African continent.

In 2009 there will be 13 countries taking part – Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Kenya, Benin, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Algeria, Uganda, Mali, Mozambique, the Ivory Coast and the hosts, South Africa. Each team consists of a leader who is a mathematics teacher at secondary or tertiary level, and four pupils, all of whom must be younger than 20 years old on the day of the second examination paper, and must not be enrolled in any post-secondary institution.

At the end of the event an international jury will award the gold, silver and bronze individual medals as well as the medals for the top three countries. There will also be special prizes and honourable mentions, and every participant will receive a certificate.

Encouraging creative thinking

According to the Department of Science and Technology, the event will create an environment that will provide opportunities for creative thinking for mathematically inclined minds in the technological environment. The South African government, in partnership with the private sector, is actively looking to boost the country’s international competitiveness in all spheres of technology.

South African has participated in the Pan-African Olympiad for a number of years. The country took top honours in 2000 – its début year of participation – as well as in 2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2008, and is hoping to repeat this notable achievement in 2009 with its two teams.

These are made up of some of the brightest young mathematical minds in the country. The official team comprises Arlton Gilbert (Star College, Durban), Dessi Nikolov (Eunice High School, Bloemfontein), Greg Jackson (Diocesan College, Cape Town) and Hlanganani Shibambo (Wordsworth High School, Benoni).

In the unofficial team are Sean Wentzel (Westerford High School), Kira Düsterwald (Springfield Convent), Charl du Plessis (Stellenberg High School), Ashraf Moolla (Rondebosch Boys’ High School) and Rofhiwa Mauda (Mbilwi Secondary School). With the exception of Mbilwi School in Sibasa, Limpopo province, all pupils in the unofficial team come from schools in Cape Town.

In 2008 Thomas Weighill of Paarl Boys’ High School was the top participant overall, and Dessi Nikolov of Eunice High School in Bloemfontein came third, and was also the top girl.

The country has fared less spectacularly in the international version of the event, coming in 44th in 2008 and 68th in 2007. South Africa has participated in the International Mathematical Olympiad since 1992 and its best performance came in 2000 when it took 27th place.

The origins of maths

Evidence exists to show that mathematics was born in Africa, and mathematicians from the continent are in agreement that Africa has every right to reclaim its place at the global forefront of the discipline.

A notched calendar stick over 35 000 years old, discovered recently in the Border cave in the Lebombo mountains in the eastern part of the Southern Africa, is the oldest mathematical artefact known. The stick, known as the Lebombo bone, is a tally stick – a tool on which cuts were made to keep a count or a score – with 29 distinct notches that were deliberately cut into a baboon’s fibula. The ancient artefact resembles the calendar sticks still used by Bushmen in Namibia.

The written form of the science also originated in Africa, when the pyramid-builders of ancient Egypt used papyrus to notate their calculations and formulae around 5 000 years ago. And 2 000 years ago in the great Egyptian city of Alexandria, mathematics developed fully into a rigorous axiomatic subject, notably through the efforts of great scholars such as Ptolemy and the Greek mathematician Euclid.

Developing maths in Africa

The African Mathematical Union is the continent’s equivalent of the International Mathematical Union, and is dedicated to the development of mathematics in Africa. Founded in 1976 at the first Pan-African Conference of Mathematicians held in Rabat, Morocco, the AMU was presided over by renowned Cameroonian mathematician and politician Henri Hogbe Nlend until 1986.

The AMU’s second president was Nigerian academic Aderemi Kuku who at the time was head of the Department of Mathematics at Ibadan University. The Union set up four commissions in 1986 – the Commission on the History of Mathematics in Africa; the Commission on Women in Mathematics in Africa; the Commission Mathematics Education; and the Commission on Mathematics Olympiad.

The third Pan-African Congress of Mathematicians was held in 1991 in Nairobi, Kenya, where Kuku was re-elected and served another presidential term of office. At the fourth congress held in 1995 in Ifrane, Morocco, Ahmed Kerkour, president of the Moroccan Mathematical Society and also of the Al Akhawayn University, was elected AMU president.

During the same year the newly democratic South Africa joined the AMU, and the 2000 congress was held in Cape Town. Here South Africa participated for the first time in the Pan-African Mathematics Olympiad.

Professor Jan Persens of the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, took over the presidency of the AMU from Kerkour in 2000.

Since 1978 the AMU has published the journal Afrika Matematika.

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