Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor formally unveiled the MeerKAT Precursor Array (MPA) radio telescope on Tuesday.
In her speech, Pandor highlighted that the MPA was "an important milestone on the way to establishing the core competences of the SKA".
The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, is a €1,5-billion international radio telescope project South Africa is bidding to host.
The MPA, previously known as KAT-7, comprises seven dishes, all of which have been erected and four of which are now operational.
It is hoped that the MPA will be able to start doing some scientific experiments by the end of this year.
The MPA's main function is to serve as an engineering test bed for technologies and systems for MeerKAT.
"The MPA is an engineering prototype," explains SKA South Africa (SKA SA) associate director Anita Loots, herself an engineer. "Information from the MPA will inform the design of MeerKAT."
Thus, the MPA dishes are not identical - although of the same diameter and made from composites, they are divided into two types, which are manufactured using different methods.
The one type of dish is produced using a metal mesh embedded within the composite material, while the other has an entirely composite structure. "The metal mesh method is cheaper and easier, but the size of the mesh limits the radio frequencies the dishes can receive," she elucidates.
"The scientists will have to decide if that is acceptable or not. And once that decision is taken, we will have to develop the ability to series produce dishes at a consistent high quality."
The MeerKAT will be composed of up to 80 of the selected dishes, and will be developed in four phases, plus the MPA, which will be incorporated into the larger instrument. MeerKAT phase one will be completed, and start doing science, in 2013.