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TEDx takes shape in South Africa, helping communities break barriers

At TEDxCapeTown,  speaker Kirsten Wilkins  brings up the hashtag #sorryMadiba. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxCapeTown

At TEDxCapeTown, speaker Kirsten Wilkins brings up the hashtag #sorryMadiba. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxCapeTown

There are 365 days in a year. So it feels like a telling coincidence that the organizers of both TEDxCapeTown and TEDxJohannesburg—independently organized events in two of the biggest, busiest cities in South Africa—opted to hold their events within a single week.

This confluence of timing shows just how powerful the TEDx platform is for creating new dialogues in South Africa, a country that just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid and its first free democratic elections. Since the start of the TEDx program in 2009, South Africa has become home to more than 100 events, many of them successful year after year, creating loyal communities dedicated to local ideas worth spreading.

At TEDxCapeTown, held August 16 and 17, the theme “Design Your Thinking” put the emphasis on audience collaboration. Organizer Justin Beswick and his team created a “big push for deep engagement,” starting with the attendee application process. “We wanted to make sure that people took the time to put some introspection and some of themselves into it,” says Beswick. “We want people who are going to not just be passive listeners.”

The crux of the Design Your Thinking theme was encouraging audience members to use the ideas presented at the event to reconsider their perspectives on their surroundings. As the TEDxCapeTown website puts it, “We all have our own filters and lenses through which we view the world. We all posses the ability to alter our perceptions and design the way we think.” Speakers like Nicola Jackman, a “joy catalyst” who brings laughter to children in hospitals, and Justin Smith, Woolworth’s Head of Sustainability who’s on a mission for responsible retail, provided ample food for thought. And, so that attendees could design their thinking together, a Saturday of talks was followed by a Sunday of workshops.

At TEDxJohannesburg, which took place on August 21, the focus was on the metropolis’ position as a global city. Themed “We the People,” the event drew heavily on the city’s past as well as on its current character. Kelo Kubu, the event’s organizer, explains, “The city was founded by people coming here from all over the world to look for gold. There’s not much gold left, but people are still coming from all over the world because the city is the economic hub of the continent. We want that to be reflected in the event, that the kind of ideas that come out of Johannesburg are not just specific to the city, but reflect that global reach.”

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Signage. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxJohannesburg

The event took not just a global lens, but a historical one too. Focusing on “20 years of democracy,” the event sought to reach across the generational gap, bringing together people who’d known very different South Africas. The speaker lineup included Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition in South African parliament, along with the twentysomething Mandla Maseko, winner of a sub-orbital trip into space, who was only an infant when South Africa held its first elections in 1994. “The essence was,” says Kubu, “let’s look at the people of this country and what they’ve been up to the past 20 years, and ask, ‘What can we look forward to?’”

The community that’s grown up around TEDxJohannesburg is a cosmopolitan, international one. “It’s mainly people from corporations, financial centers, more academia,” says Kubu. “It’s also a bit mixed in terms of where people come from. It’s people who are in South Africa on some short-term projects from Europe, people from the US, and people from other parts of the continent.” Both the audience and the speakers are representative of the rapid pace of change in Johannesburg. “People come and go,” she says. “People are always coming in, and then they move on to other parts of the world. So it’s not a static community, it’s a community that’s always reinventing itself.”

Kubu also organizes a second TEDx event within Johannesburg, TEDxSoweto, which takes place in an area of the city famous for its historical role in uprisings against apartheid. “It’s two completely different communities. Even though both are in geographically the same city, they address different audiences,” she says. “TEDxSoweto is younger, more on the creative side, and in our programming we look more to issues that are rooted in the community.”

This year’s Soweto event is coming up in November. Though past themes were somewhat dreamier odes to creativity and future thinking, this year has a pragmatic tone with “Silver Linings”—a call to find hope even in the country’s social and economic ills.

A volunteer mans the registration table at TEDxSoweto. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxSoweto

A volunteer mans the registration table at TEDxSoweto. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxSoweto

Though these three TEDx events may have different audiences and different goals, a powerful theme emerges between them, and a particularly South African one at that: breaking down barriers. In a country that’s in many ways still rebuilding its society from the apartheid era, dismantling those old social structures is a work in progress. “Cape Town is very cliquey,” says Beswick. “There are still a lot of silos we want to break down. That’s something that TED is able to do because it’s got different disciplines coming together.”

One big barrier to break: the line between urban and rural. When asked how well-known the TEDx movement is in South Africa, both Beswick and Kubu agreed that while it has become ubiquitous in cities and professional circles, there is still a long way to go to before the community is accessible to all. “You attract a certain demographic automatically,” says Beswick. “People who are kind of switched-on, tech-savvy—they’ve got good bandwidth. That’s not the broader demographic of South Africa.”

For Beswick, a key to spreading the TEDx mission is not only to grow and strengthen TEDxCapeTown, but to share the TEDx tools widely around the region, encouraging smaller communities to hold events. Beswick and his team are asking their attendees for help with this. “The idea is to get people to host their own events. We’re creating the tools and processes that allow people to host an event by getting all that they need from a mobile phone.”

Kubu echoes Beswick’s concern. “Most all of the [TEDx events in South Africa] have been in big cities,” she notes, “in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, Pretoria, Bloemfontein. And if not, it’s been university events.” The kind of rural events that have happened elsewhere in the world, and elsewhere on the continent, have still to catch on in South Africa. For both Beswick and Kubu, this shift is critical to helping all of South Africa have the kind of attitude-changing conversations that they’ve seen in their own communities.

For now, though, it’s just about finding and nurturing great ideas. Kubu feels that she’s learned much from her time as a TEDx organizer in South Africa, but that the core of those lessons is simple: “A lot of people have good ideas, but it’s very hard to synthesize them, to just focus in and narrow them down and say, ‘This is it!’”

Beswick’s takeaway is, most of all, the joy of doing what he does. “What I love the most out of anything,” he says, “is meeting other people, no matter who they are, who are interested in ideas that can change the world.”

The audience at TEDxCapeTown, which took place in the beautiful Cape Town City Hall. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxCapeTown

The audience at TEDxCapeTown, which took place in the beautiful Cape Town City Hall. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxCapeTown

The theme at TEDxJohannesburg? "We the People." Photo: Courtesy of TEDxJohannesburg

The theme at TEDxJohannesburg? “We the People.” Photo: Courtesy of TEDxJohannesburg

Performers at TEDxCapeTown, complete with sheep masks. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxCapeTown

Performers at TEDxCapeTown, complete with sheep masks. Photo: Courtesy of TEDxCapeTown

The audience at TEDxJohannesburg sites rapt during a talk. Photo: TEDxJoahnnesburg

The audience at TEDxJohannesburg sites rapt during a talk. Photo: TEDxJoahnnesburg