Ta-ta Cape Town ta-ta

Cape Town to Jozi with Alix Jane

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Yesterday I stood in a long line, waiting to vote in the 2011 Local Government Elections. I stood with a friend of mine’s 4-year old daughter, a little girl of White and (so-called) Coloured heritage.

Had she been born 20 years earlier her parents could have been arreted under the Immorality Act, and she would have been ‘classified’. This would have influenced where she could live, where she could go to school, what jobs she could do and which beaches she could swim at.

Yesterday I stood in a long line, with people of all races and walks of life, and we voted. The issues affecting that vote were largely of a mundane nature, but it reflects something much larger. It reflects the lives of Mandela, Biko, Joseph, Mahlangu, Luthuli and Fischer, amongst millions of others.

Although the act of voting is simple; how it came to be that I could be standing in line with that little girl, voting with those people, made me think how not simple it actually is.

I am sad, angry, happy, ashamed, hopeful and above all, grateful for being able to stand in that line.

Think about it.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and to see realised. But my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela, defence statement during the Rivonia Trial, 1964. Also repeated during the closing of his speech delivered in Cape Town on the day he was released from prison 27 years later, on 11 February 1990

It’s not what you look at, it’s what you see

Hal Gregson of INSEAD spoke at the University of Cape Town GSB on Monday 9th May. He chatted to a small group about a study he had conducted with Jeffrey H. Dyer and Clayton M. Christensen that looked at the innovation going on in 3500 companies.

One of the key messages for me was Henry David Thoreau’s quote “it’s not what you look at, it’s what you see”.

Beautifully illustrated in the video below:

These companies were selected for the study based on what he calls their ‘innovation premium’ i.e. the price the market pays for the expectation of the company entering new markets, launching new products etc. These included Salesforce.com, Google, Apple and P&G; often with 5 year premiums of up to 64% over NAV

(Apple aside #1: two teams were tasked with solving a creative problem, in one room they flashed the Apple logo, in the other the IBM logo. No iPad prize awarded to those who guess which room did better)

Hal et al found that the founders and heads of the companies often drive innovation. They were able to think laterally and make associations between seemingly unconnected ideas (Apple aside #2: designer of iPod scroll wheel was playing with a combination lock when struck by the idea). They were also able to ‘zoom in’ to detail on a problem, whilst still being able to ‘zoom out’ and understand the macro forces affecting their problem.

So why can’t we all be innovation genuises?


We are trained from an early age to be cogs, to accept the authority’s answer, to close our minds to other ways of thinking or doing or even being. Kathryn Schulz talks about how the fear of being affects us in a myriad number of ways, check out her fascinating TED talk below

So what do we do?

Hal suggested sitting for 5 minutes a day for 30 days and just writing questions about the problem you are trying to solve. Often, we are not asking the right question for the problem, and this depth of question will give us the insight to connect the seemingly unconnected.

He also recommended finding a 4-year old child to help develop their innovation and creative talents. This could be through answering their questions, encouraging them to indulge their sense of wonder and to never stop asking why.

Following this, I have a few questions:

  • Why do we accept the current (implicit) banking monopoly in South Africa?
  • Why does labour legislation keep millions of young people out of the workforce?
  • What am I doing about these issues?

Your thoughts?

For more, go to



The future of the library

Great article from Seth Godin (subscribe to his blog here). I think the lowered cost of books and access to information could be leveraged successfully in a country like SA, leap-frogging the need for a costly library in every school. All you need is a couple of computers, a Kindle for each learner and a few great librarians who could coordinate  books for the whole country.

It would not be a large chunk of the R189 billion allocated to education in the 2011 budget.

What do you think?

PS a completely gratuitous set of beautiful library pictures

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What is a public library for?

First, how we got here:

Before Gutenberg, a book cost about as much as a small house. As a result, only kings and bishops could afford to own a book of their own.

This naturally led to the creation of shared books, of libraries where scholars (everyone else was too busy not starving) could come to read books that they didn’t have to own. The library as warehouse for books worth sharing.

Only after that did we invent the librarian.

The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.

After Gutenberg, books  got a lot cheaper. More individuals built their own collections. At the same time, though, the number of titles exploded, and the demand for libraries did as well. We definitely needed a warehouse to store all this bounty, and more than ever we needed a librarian to help us find what we needed. The library is a house for the librarian.

Industrialists (particularly Andrew Carnegie) funded the modern American library. The idea was that in a pre-electronic media age, the working man needed to be both entertained and slightly educated. Work all day and become a more civilized member of society by reading at night.

And your kids? Your kids need a place with shared encyclopedias and plenty of fun books, hopefully inculcating a lifelong love of reading, because reading makes all of us more thoughtful, better informed and more productive members of a civil society.

Which was all great, until now.

Want to watch a movie? Netflix is a better librarian, with a better library, than any library in the country. The Netflix librarian knows about every movie, knows what you’ve seen and what you’re likely to want to see. If the goal is to connect viewers with movies, Netflix wins.

This goes further than a mere sideline that most librarians resented anyway. Wikipedia and the huge databanks of information have basically eliminated the library as the best resource for anyone doing amateur research (grade school, middle school, even undergrad). Is there any doubt that online resources will get better and cheaper as the years go by? Kids don’t shlep to the library to use an out of date encyclopedia to do a report on FDR. You might want them to, but they won’t unless coerced.

They need a librarian more than ever (to figure out creative ways to find and use data). They need a library not at all.

When kids go to the mall instead of the library, it’s not that the mall won, it’s that the library lost.

And then we need to consider the rise of the Kindle. An ebook costs about $1.60 in 1962 dollars. A thousand ebooks can fit on one device, easily. Easy to store, easy to sort, easy to hand to your neighbor. Five years from now, readers will be as expensive as Gillette razors, and ebooks will cost less than the blades.

Librarians that are arguing and lobbying for clever ebook lending solutions are completely missing the point. They are defending library as warehouse as opposed to fighting for the future, which is librarian as producer, concierge, connector, teacher and impresario.

Post-Gutenberg, books are finally abundant, hardly scarce, hardly expensive, hardly worth warehousing. Post-Gutenberg, the scarce resource is knowledge and insight, not access to data.

The library is no longer a warehouse for dead books. Just in time for the information economy, the library ought to be the local nerve center for information. (Please don’t say I’m anti-book! I think through my actions and career choices, I’ve demonstrated my pro-book chops. I’m not saying I want paper to go away, I’m merely describing what’s inevitably occurring). We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now, (most of the time) the insight and leverage is going to come from being and fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks.

The next library is a place, still. A place where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together. Aided by a librarian who understands the Mesh, a librarian who can bring domain knowledge and people knowledge and access to information to bear.

The next library is a house for the librarian with the guts to invite kids in to teach them how to get better grades while doing less grunt work. And to teach them how to use a soldering iron or take apart something with no user servicable parts inside. And even to challenge them to teach classes on their passions, merely because it’s fun. This librarian takes responsibility/blame for any kid who manages to graduate from school without being a first-rate data shark.

The next library is filled with so many web terminals there’s always at least one empty. And the people who run this library don’t view the combination of access to data and connections to peers as a sidelight–it’s the entire point.

Wouldn’t you want to live and work and pay taxes in a town that had a library like that? The vibe of the best Brooklyn coffee shop combined with a passionate raconteur of information? There are one thousands things that could be done in a place like this, all built around one mission: take the world of data, combine it with the people in this community and create value.

We need librarians more than we ever did. What we don’t need are mere clerks who guard dead paper. Librarians are too important to be a dwindling voice in our culture. For the right librarian, this is the chance of a lifetime.

– Seth Godin

Food and identity at the FLF

I was lucky enough to go to the the Franshhoek Literary Festival over this wintry weekend, and attended a panel discussion titled A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread:

Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse – and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
And Wilderness is Paradise enow

Omar Khayyám (1048–1131)

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Anna Trapido (Hunger for Freedom), J-P Rossouw (Tasting the Cape) and Michael Olvier (A Restaurateur Remembers) chatted with Hillary Biller of the Sunday Times about food, restaurants and simple cooking. But the enduring thought for me was of the strange case of South African cooking.

We cook incredible food – in our homes. But we shun it at restaurants. In fact, the only ‘South African’ restaurants are of the Afro-Disney variety

Anna Trapido’s take on this was that we need to “sort out our national identity before it can manifest itself on a plate”. She tells of how amasi made in the traditional way is almost impossible to find because the sale of unpasteurised milk is illegal, yet how it is a highly popular South African food.

Why is it that we embrace the cuisine of other cultures, but not our own? What is our cuisine?

Also, does this matter?

PS if you know of any restaurants serving great SA food, please let me know!

PPS Go to Dutch East in Franschhoek, it may not be SA fare, but it is a religious experience

The Girl-Effect

A slightly contrived but still important video: interventions in providing access to education and healthcare for girl children at around the age of 12 have a tremendous impact over the long-run.

Check it out, let me know what you think and maybe even do something!

Some of the people that crossed my lens in India

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Why we need more Funny Money

Smile for change is the tagline, but there is a lot more going on here than just that.

Funny Money is a single A4 page of jokes and quotes and is distributed at traffic lights across Cape Town, in exchange for a donation.The pamphlet is written and printed by a printing shop in Cavendish, Top Copy, and all donations go to the sellers themselves, generally destitute people.

So why do we need more of this? Well, Top Copy have a small advert in each edition, and as a copy shop it is a minimal extra cost to print a few thousand black and white pages. In return they get their name distributed across Cape Town, gain brand goodwill and help people earn an income.

They also offer advertising space, requesting payment made in groceries to the Claremont Night Shelter.

This small initiative illustrates what I believe are key things to consider in any companies CSI strategy, whether they are a local copy shop or a national bank:

Help yourself first: advertising and building brand equity rolled into a genuine corporate social responsibility programme

Do what you do best: printing is what these guys focus on, there is no extra overhead (think CSI personnel, making mistakes because you have no idea what you are talking about etc)

Clean up your house first: the project is local and benefits local people and businesses, it’s not a huge national feel good campaign that actually achieves little.

So, any thoughts on this? Do you know of any other Funny Money type projects?

I think it is an incredible idea!

PS advertise in Funny Money here



Hendrik Coetzee and the crocodile

THE LONE AFRICAN EXPLORER drags his kayak ashore and begins to collect firewood from around the little beach on the left bank of the White Nile. It’s April 10, 2007, and the day’s descent of some of the continent’s most powerful rapids has worn him to exhaustion. But he can’t sleep. Not without fire. He’s also careful not to stray beyond the jungle’s green curtain—this is Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park, after all, home to the world’s densest populations of hippopotamus and Nile crocodile, one an extremely territorial 4,500-pound vegetarian with six-inch dagger tusks and the other a voracious 12-foot-long opportunist.

The explorer is Johannes Hendrik Coetzee, 32 years old, five feet eleven, with a thick build and a receding hairline shaved to skin. He’s a former South African Defence Force medic and a giant in the world of whitewater exploration, having organized and led a historic source-to-sea descent of the Nile in 2004. Though he’s charismatic and charming, the kind of guy who changes the gravity in any room he enters, he now prefers to travel alone. Four elite teams have descended Murchison’s two-day section of Class V water before now, and Coetzee was on three of them. But nobody had ever tried it solo before this trip.

Now he sparks his fire in the quickening equatorial dusk, a lonely prick of light in a nearly 1,500-square-mile “chunk of untamed African savanna bisected by the mighty river Nile,” as the park’s literature proclaims. Below him, the river drops ferociously over a roughly 30-mile stretch before abruptly reaching the unrunnable 140-foot Murchison Falls itself, at the edge of the Rift Valley escarpment. The only humans this deep in the park are the rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which controls the right bank of the river and has, since 1987, been attempting to replace the Ugandan government with a strict Christian theocracy.

Hendri, as he’s called, is an obsessive chronicler of his adventures. He takes mental notes that he’ll later type into his laptop journal. Across the river, a big storm that’s filling the sky is approaching. It’s still far off and I sit and watch the lightning until it reaches me.

Barefoot as always, he feels vulnerable, but not afraid. I ask myself, Are you ready to die? I give it some serious thought. I believe I am. I look back on my life, and I feel satisfied.

Read the rest here: Hendrik Coetzee | OutsideOnline.com.

DON’T give money to beggars

Rather, give them this:

And they will get food, a shower, clothing, a bed and Social Work Services. In addition, they are offered assistance in finding their family.

It only costs R10 and is available from The Haven Night Shelter head office at 2 Napier Street, Green Point. There are also Havens in District 6, Paarl and Kalk Bay. People living at these centres are involved in crafts, cement block making, cleaning and carpentry.

For all my belief in minimal intervention and individual choice (challenged by Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle and George Soros, but more on that later), the Haven provides a brief respite for people in a desperate situation and gives them the opportunity to improve their lives.

Perhaps the R100 million spent by the NYDA could have funded  few more of these sort of organisations

Go here for more

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