The Hunt for Black Silicon Valley

Notwithstanding his intellectual hollowness and shocking if not embarrassing disregard for Pan Africanism, mistaking it to be synonymous with corruption, kleptomania and avarice, Prince Mashele was correct in observing that the education system in South Africa teaches its citizens, particularly its black citizens, that education is a licence to a comfortable job and nothing else. In what I consider to be his best work — almost coming close to being a thinker — Mashele notes the following: ‘It is common knowledge that the overwhelming majority of pupils in our schools regard education as means to a job. When they pass matric, they desire to proceed to higher education to increase their chances of employment. It might not be declared officially by policymakers, but the desire for employment is the unofficial philosophy of South Africa’s education. In other words, our schooling system serves to whet the appetite for employment.’ It would be worth noting that this article — titled What’s the philosophy of our education — I quote from was published on the Sunday Independent on 14th January 2013. Therefore it is shameful that over three years since Mashele’s article was published the Department of Basic Education would decide that the passing mark for Mathematics should be brought down to earth — clearly it had been too big-headed so it has been reduced to 20% for Grade 7–9 learners — so that those who find adding one and two frustrating should just be allowed to get through. I imagine it would feel like playing tennis with the net down. Anyways…

After regaling the reader with the story of a French magistrate who traveled together with his friend to the US in 1831 — the latter himself a lawman — to learn about ‘the US’s democratic culture and institutions’, Mashele delivers what could be called a benevolent coup de gras. In his counsel to South Africa, and perhaps to those short-sighted folks lounging at the Department of Basic of Education, he asks: ‘In the year 2013, what can we learn from the true story of Alexis de Tocqueville?’ He was kind enough to offer us an answer. ‘The lesson is simple: South Africa must at all times maintain readiness to learn from other nations. The experiences of other countries must assist us to untie the knot that holds back our progress as a nation.’ From a supposed intellectual whose works hardly cite any African thinkers this is truly surprising. Despite his anti-Pan Africanism we should take a lot from Mashele’s instruction, thus bringing me to my question: when is South Africa discovering its Sand Hill Road to build the black Silicon Valley?

Why black Silicon Valley and not just general Silicon Valley? This is simple: white Silicon Valley already exists in South Africa and across the world. It is in Cape Town and it is deftly called Silicon Cape. I am more than happy to entertain black and white liberals’ questions but right now is not the time. This article is focused on encouraging black empowerment, not allaying fears of whites and self-righteous natives.

To borrow again from the devastatingly anti-African Mashele, as South Africans, we should always ‘maintain readiness to learn from other nations.’ The name Silicon Valley originates from northern California in the United States of America. It is there where giant technology companies like Google, Apple, HP, Snapchat, Twitter and many more were birthed. Around the world the name Silicon Valley has come to mean more than fast money, wealth, celebrity and power. The most common term usually thrown around is change. Historians, political analysts and philosophers are very much familiar with this word.

Any kid around the globe who fancies himself — it is usually a he because for some stupid reason women are considered not good enough — a computer genius usually heads for the Bay Area to seek success and wealth. Thus Silicon Valley represents an idea, the ability for anyone anywhere to conceive a better future for humanity and actually come to realise it. At the turn of the 20th century the founding father of the distinguished ANC (African National Congress) — although an argument could now be forth that it no longer occupies that glorious position — Pixley ka Isaka Seme, only 24 years of age and beaming with pride, asserted thus: ‘The African giant is awakening.’

Seitiso Ntlothebe, a dear friend of mine, wrote somewhere that the African giant of Pixley ka Isaka Seme was finally awake. Unlike the beast of W.B Yeats that ‘slouches towards Bethlehem to be born’, the giant of Pixley ka Isaka Seme, according to Ntlothebe, is full of energy, marching forth to the ancient city of Carthage to remind the people of Africa of what was once a place of envy, a continent that many years ago stood tall amongst the nations of the world as a source of knowledge and a well that nourished the thirstiest of souls.

It therefore stands to reason, if we are to lean on the premise proffered by Seitiso Ntlothebe, that is should then not be hard for South Africa to build black Silicon Valley. Why then is it not being built? Access to capital and lack of knowledge about technology is the confounding problem. In the US an entrepreneur armed with a dream to ‘change the world’ has no qualms leaving his home in rural Nebraska with nothing but a backpack on their back to travel kilometres to California to chase a dream. What about money and a place to live, you ask. The Americans have made sure that systems are put in place to cater for such ‘nuisances’, therefore as an entrepreneur your only focus is to make sure that whatever product you are developing becomes a success. Why can’t a kid from a village of Loopeng in the Northern Cape have the same experience? Shouldn’t a graduate hailing from Rebone in Limpopo have access to the same systems Americans put in place for their dreamers? Surely that should be the case.

In Silicon Valley there exists a famous street called Sand Hill Road. That is where entrepreneurs flock to if they seek money to propel their dreams of building empires. Snapchat, Facebook, Google and Yahoo! to name but a few are companies which owe their legendary status to this street. Sand Hill Road is littered with venture capitalists who moved there to help support ambitious entrepreneurs build their dreams. These money people understand that for the US to maintain its position as one of the leading economies if not the leading economy in the world, technologists should always be encouraged to work hard. Sand Hill Road plays that role very well; and it has made Silicon Valley to be where it is today, occupying a special place in the minds and hearts of technology enthusiasts: the Mecca of digital and scientific innovation.

South Africa needs Sand Hill Road to birth Silicon Valley. With an unemployment rate that stands at an overwhelming 25%, government needs assistance from the money people. Those that have made their money in other sectors — I am of course addressing black business people — should begin to familiarise themselves with technology and its possibilities. So when a young girl from Postmasburg in the Northern Cape imagines using technology to bring improvement in her community, she should never be discouraged because there is no money and other forms of backing to support her dreams, however irrational they may initially seem.

Again, why call for the building of a black Silicon Valley? History is littered with tomes of answers to respond to this question in so many different ways but at the heart of it all it is to echo one of Africa’s leading lights Bantu Steve Biko. In his compiled book of essays — I Write What I Like — Biko wrote thus: ‘The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving the world an industrial and military look, but the great gift still has to come from Africa — giving the world a more human face.’ Pula!

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