PUBLIC INNOVATION: AN ACTIVATOR SHARES HER STORY

When Siphelele Chirwa took the stand in front of nearly 200 other young South Africans  at an innovation showcase outside Johannesburg last month, her words rose above the glorious thunderstorm breaking outside. Imagine, she asked, getting to the end of your life and nobody has ever asked you what your big dream was.

Inspiring, honest and clear, Chirwa set a great example of the power of humility and the mighty potential that can be ignited when community members become active citizens and say ‘what if’ instead of ‘if only’ …

JAY NAIDOO PASSES THE BATON ONTO THE NEXT GENERATION

Struggle stalwart Jay Naidoo has called on young change-makers in South Africa to not fall into the trap of pursuing individual success at the expense of their communities.

Addressing a group of young ‘activators’ who wish to lead South Africa into an era of innovative thinking for the public good, Naidoo said,

“As a generation, you will not be judged on your individual success but rather on how you thought in terms of ubuntu and your communities.”

And, he added, “We have to ask ourselves what we have to do today to be the world’s leading country and continent with a narrative that speaks about ‘sailing’ together. We have the dubious honour of being one of the most unequal societies on earth, and it is up to you, the young change-makers of the land, to make sure we have accountable leaders.”

SMALL INNOVATIONS, BIG CHANGES

How could a lunchbox change a life? How could a rural matriculant know the sky is the limit when nobody has given her career guidance where she lives?

As 2013 goes into full swing, a group of young innovators are riding high on the acknowledgement of their brilliant ideas which could benefit whole communities.

At the event late last year, organised by civil society organization Activate, young innovators showcased their ideas and projects based on a principle of public interest. Those present, including well-known television and education personality Pat Pillai, said they had been ‘blown away’ by the scope of ideas and projects presented by young people who came from rural areas and urban areas alike.

The winning project, which received a start-up cash injection to begin implementation, is called The Lunchbox Project and was chosen by the panel of judges because it was an easy-to-implement intervention that would nonetheless change the lives of many school-going children. Tebello Rampo, the young woman behind the innovation, said, “We have seen a decline in the number of children who queue for food that has been prepared for them as they are sometimes teased for having to do so. My idea was to design a conventional lunchbox to be carried by every learner at school. This product will restore the school’s unity by having all learners carry their lunch box and eating at school. As the learners will all drop their lunch boxes at the kitchen while they are in classrooms nobody will know who brought food from home and who got food that was made for them in the kitchen.”

Other winning projects included an initiative to build postboxes in townships where correspondence goes unread and litters the streets as the postal services has nowhere to put it, an initiative to bring career guidance to rural youths who often lack the social capital to think beyond working in the civil service, and a social media app that connects young people who are working towards bettering their communities.

Speaking about the training that the young ‘activators’ have undergone, facilitator Injairu Kulundu, said, “It is inspiring to witness how the conversations move from a pessimistic view to one that opens up opportunities. What gives me hope is the feeling that we can boldly and collectively choose to move forward together.” She added that a major challenge for young people was “negotiating and navigating a very persistent and rigid system that blocks out the efforts that young people make” but how important it is to craft a vision and have resilience.

Nobontu Webster, who was the master of ceremonies at the event, said that the gathering of young change-makers had given her hope that the “sacrifices of those during the struggle had not been in vain, and that the young ‘activators’ who are in the programme are not just dreaming about change but are activating it.”

BEN OKRI: WHAT DO WE DO WITH OUR FREEDOM?

Literary Nigerian treasure, Ben Okri, has called on South Africans to find innovative ways to heal the wounds. At his speech (click to hear podcast) at the Steve Biko memorial lecture event last year, he said that for most of his life it seemed unthinkable that Apartheid would ever end. “It seemed like an unalterable fact, like fate, or the moon, or hunger.” He described apartheid as a long, nightmare-laden sleep, and the democratic era as a new day.

“With awakening, a new question is posed. The nightmare is over, but what do we do with the day?” People go about healing in different ways, he said. For some, healing is “probing the wounds, seeking causes and redress”. For others, “healing is dreaming…a chance to transform themselves out of all that trauma”.

And in that process, the youth are a vital ingredient to be tomorrow’s leaders who are looking forward.