Tech is the road to success. Meet Lindiwe Matlali - Founder of Africa Teen Geeks - the person making sure each and every South African knows that.
BY HANS MACKENZIE MAIN | May 2022
The chat was scheduled for 11:00. By 11:05, I was still the only participant in the Zoom meeting titled, Interview with Lindiwe Matlali. I checked my phone to make sure the time on the device corresponded with the time on my desktop’s clock. Sure enough, in the world of smartphones it was also 11:05. I checked the note I’d made – handwritten in pen on a piece of paper stuck to my actual desktop – to make sure I had it right. Confirmed again: ‘Interview with Lindiwe Matlali, founder of Africa Teen Geeks, at 11:00’, it read.
I felt a little confused, but then it occurred to me that a person who’d spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos probably has a lot going on. And then there’s being interviewed by the BBC, which probably also takes time, and accepting the Commonwealth Point of Light recognition awarded from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, an event that could eat up one’s whole day. And then, at 11:06, Zoom informed me that a second participant had logged on.
I soon found out what caused the delay. “I rely on my diary a lot,” the first African to win the German Global Digital Female Leader award informed me. “If you want to talk to me, make sure it’s in my diary.”
Now, the diary Lindiwe referred to is probably not made of paper and cardboard. Most likely, it’s an intricate combination of code and ingenuity which would have automatically scheduled our interview had I known how to prompt it to do so.
For all I know, the miracle invention books Lindiwe’s hairdresser appointments automatically and sends her daily planner direct to her digital watch with a distinct notification for urgent matters. And if that’s the case, the chances are very good that the member of the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) wrote the code herself.
Hailing from the province of Mpumalanga, Lindiwe Matlali attended secondary school in a town called Belfast. And even though the small rural school offered a limited education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), Lindiwe was actively discouraged from studying any of the subjects by a biblically-inspired guidance teacher.
“I actually remember him saying to us that we must choose the class with subjects like history and business and economics, because that is the promised land of Canaan where the work is easy. Those who choose maths and science, he said, are stuck in Egypt subjected to a life of slavery and hard work.”
To the benefit of the world, Lindiwe bravely ignored the advice of her teachers and pursued her interest. She signed up for STEM subjects, which, she said with gusto, “open many doors” and allow you to “do anything you want at university”. At the time, she was inspired by her brother who studied chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town. But her resolve to go further than what others said she would go was forged many years before.
From a young age, the grandfather who took her in after her mother passed instilled in her and her siblings that attending school is the surest way to get ahead in life. “He emphasised education. He was raising twelve orphans and we were really poor.
One thing he always told us is that if we stay in school, one day we won’t even remember that we are orphans. We could get away with most things, but not going to school was not tolerated. And if you get negative feedback from school, you knew that you were in trouble.”
Lindiwe holds degrees and qualifications from the University of Cape Town, Stanford University, the University of Pretoria and Columbia University. Her achievements are made all the more impressive considering that the advice she received at the end of school – having already been told to stay in the land of Canaan where subjects were easier – was to rather apply to a college than to try and get into a university.
“The expectation was that I wasn’t smart, which isn’t true,” she told me. “If you’re smart, you mustn’t limit yourself in terms of where you can go.”
Founded in 2014, Africa Teen Geeks is one of Africa’s largest computer science NGOs, impacting over 600 000 children, 10 000 teachers and recruiting 2 000 volunteers.
It’s a tech success story with a philanthropic mission to bring science into children’s classrooms – underprivileged children especially, and girls in particular – led by Lindiwe’s belief that no child should be left behind by the tech revolution. Africa Teen Geeks aims to teach children and unemployed youth how to code, exposes them to computer science, and inspires a future generation of technology entrepreneurs and innovators.
“Most of the children we work with know of computers, but when they sit down, they touch a computer for the first time,” Lindiwe said, indicating the need for change in terms of equipment. But the shortcomings go deeper than that. According to the CEO of Africa Teen Geeks, the problem starts with exposure.
“A lot of kids who come from disadvantaged communities, when they think of success, they think of celebrities because that’s what they see. But you can’t become what you can’t see. So, when we expose them to STEM and the tech field, they think ‘You know what, I can become successful without trying to be a football player or a rap artist’.”
When I asked Lindiwe if she thinks South Africa could produce the next Bill Gates, she told me that she never could understand the fixation of people on achievers abroad when there is so much local talent. “I always say that we don’t have a talent deficit in this country,” she said. “What we have is an opportunity deficit.”
Without skipping a beat, she offered an example of a South African who’s scaled the heights of tech. “There is no one more inspirational to a child than Mark Shuttleworth,” she said. “And the reason for that is because he is here. He lives in Cape Town. He may not have had the same challenges as a child from Khayelitsha, but he’s somebody they can relate to because he’s South African.”
And if further evidence was needed as to SA excellence, I was given a fact that is mostly overlooked on the international tech stage. “One of the first self-driving cars was developed in South Africa,” she said. “It was a project at the University of Pretoria in partnership with the Nelson Mandela University in the early 2000s.”
With Africa Teen Geeks, Lindiwe and her team want to bring home to government, and specifically educational institutions, in South Africa that tech is here to stay. “Tech is a necessity now,” she said. “It’s no longer a nice-to-have. We live in a digital world. Without people learning computer science, we wouldn’t have Zoom, for instance. If you go to a doctor and they check your heart rate, someone had to code the software that enables them to do that.”
Indeed, she hopes to inspire a generation that is self-reliant and well equipped to create jobs for themselves; young people who think differently about economic growth and realise that they are the answer to creating the Africa they want and deserve.
In addition to running a world-renowned NGO, Lindiwe somehow finds time to code. Having learned the languages behind everything digital, she’s the founder and CEO of Apodytes (Pty) Ltd, an award-winning software development company that specialises in software development and game development, 3D animations, and simulations for training in the defence, transportation, mining, aerospace and education sectors.
And coding is much more than the words, numbers and symbols that drive the internet of things, she says, it may very well be your most valuable teacher. “If you are an innovative coder, you are probably going to have a thousand iterations of your work. Your first line of code is unlikely to work. Even your fifth one or your tenth one or your hundredth one might be unsuccessful. That gives you that mindset of trying until you get it right. If you fail the first time, it doesn’t make you a failure. You only become a failure the day you quit.”
At the end of our chat, I asked Lindiwe what advice she can give to budding scientists, programmers and mathematicians. Unsurprisingly, the answer I received would serve as advice for Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk as much as it would for a disadvantaged pupil sitting in a classroom in rural Mpumalanga.
“Work like your life depends on it, because it does,” she said. “And make sure that you are so consistent that you become so good that it is impossible for people to ignore you. Once you do that, you will be able to succeed.”
HOW DO YOU BECOME A CODER?
➜ Get a computer.
➜ Download Python (if you don’t have always-on access to the internet, don’t worry. Once you have Python, it works offline.)
➜ Get as many books on coding as you can. Go to libraries and search online.
➜ And then just code. The way to become a good coder is to code. You have to do it every day to become good at it.
TOP CODING SCHOOLS:
■ CodeSpace Academy – a global education institution that specialises in teaching coding and technology skills. www.codespace.co.za
■ codeX – a full-time, one-year coding programme in Cape Town that trains and places bright young talent as software developers. www.projectcodex.co
■ WeThinkCode_ – a platform for training youth in digital skills to close the skills gap in the digital sector. www.wethinkcode.co.za
■ School of IT – get internationally accredited and recognised in under 3 months. https://schoolofit.co.za/
■ HyperionDev – online coding bootcamps set apart by integrating human-led code review. www.hyperiondev.com