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Menings | Opinion > SeminaarKamer | Seminar Room > English

TEDx Cape Town from an undercover crew ninja’s perspective

Grace Kim - 2011-04-20

My aim with TEDxCapeTown was to give exposure to the opportunities in water and innovation.

We achieved that in a fun yet professional way, but what we saw on the day, was that the sense of community we [Capetonians] have is phenomenal.

We can achieve anything because we have each other.

– Bernelle Verster, organiser


TEDx Cape Town stage

“Agh, it’s still too low. And now it’s slanted!”

It’s just past 8 on a slightly chilly Saturday morning, and Irene, Nathan, Noelle and I are trying to figure out how to tighten the T of “CapeTown”. The other wooden letters making up TEDxCapeTown have already been successfully tied on to the wire strands on stage, but the T is sagging persistently. Noelle sighs, plucking at the fishing line with a finger: “It’s probably going to fall off during the day.” The rest of us gaze at it suspiciously, but finally, driven more by tiredness and frustration than certainty, declare it sound enough. We disperse – there’s just less than an hour to go, and we still have to set up registration tables and the outdoor stage before the programme kicks off.

TEDxCapeTown has been a much anticipated event on the local calendar, and for any TED fan living in Cape Town and its surroundings, 16 April has long been booked out. In short, TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) is a global set of conferences that is characterised by an ethos of sharing knowledge. With the tagline “Ideas worth spreading” TED has made nearly all its talks available for viewing and downloading online. Speakers have included the two Bills (Clinton and Gates), the Google Founders, Jane Goodall, Isabel Allende, Richard Dawkins, Elizabeth Gilbert, Benjamin Zander and and and. For trend-followers, idea hipsters, info magpies, we-wanna-change-the-world-ers, TED is in the same league of Awesomeness as Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek are for geeks.

TEDx Cape Town stage

Thank goodness for the 400 people at Ratanga Junction on Saturday morning that TED’s plan to Take Over the World didn’t stop there. If TED is the mother of all things intellectually cool, then TEDx events are her mushroom babies, sprouting up in cities, towns, universities, community halls all around the world. Officially, the description for TEDx is “a programme of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience”. In short, think: cool speakers, cool ideas, cool attendees, all on a local scale.

This brings us to TEDxCapeTown 2011, the third TEDx held in the most beautiful of South African cities. The TED Mothership has little to do with these mushroom events in terms of organisation (though there are set guidelines and regulations that must be adhered to, and the license to run this must be acquired from TED). Behind the 2011 event we have three primary masterminds: Bernelle Verster, James H Howell and Justin Beswick. Driven by a love of ideas, innovation, entrepreneurship and the force of MIH (Making It Happen), they’ve been the unstoppable team behind the day. The theme, exemplified in a quote by Bruce Lee, is enticingly rich: “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; you put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; you put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”


The first presentation slot is dedicated to young up-and-comings, allowing them to give a brief showcase of their projects. A few are struck by nervousness, but this fortunately doesn’t detract too much from the ideas they’re sharing. As the day progresses, and more established and experienced speakers come to the fore, TEDxCapeTown sets into a wonderful rhythm.

For many, Ard Matthews (from Just Jinger) is the highlight of the day. Standing outside on latecomers’ registration duty, I see him come in, barely distinguishable under a large purple beanie. I follow on Twitter as attendees recognise him and then are blown away by his awesome performance – apparently he used his iPad to create layered loops that formed the ultimate backdrop for the song he was singing. Smart, nè?

Although I miss that one, I do manage to hear a number of other great talks. Caron von Zeil informs us that by 2013 Cape Town will no longer be water secure.

After Tony Budden's talk on the many uses of hemp, I'm convinced that hemp is the way of the future and a visit to Hemporium on Long Street is in order.

Eran Eyal from Springleap and Evly shares that by 2020 the amount of human knowledge will be doubling every 74 days!

Claire Janisch is mind-opening as ever with her work on biomimicry, and much to the delight of the audience explains that when feeling peaceful or in love, the heart beats at a ratio akin to the Golden Mean. And there’s a very enjoyable presentation on the 10 things to do with nanotechnology. The last slide: “Waterproof Your Dog”.

There’re also a few philosophical speakers, such as Ntombiza Lingani, Kershan Pancham, and Patrick Kayton. I’ve seen Patrick’s work before (www.cognician.com) in creating software that helps people think by working through various cogs/questions, and his talk on what makes a great thinker provides some useful insights. Craig Whyte, with his appeal to “Keep conscious, be a maverick, don’t do what everyone else does”, is all the more impactful considering his history of alcohol and drug abuse leading to a life lived “in the fiery crack of the devil’s arse”.

There’re two presentations that I’m particularly interested in, because they speak on issues close to my heart. Theresa Mallinson from Free African Media (www.freeafricanmedia.com), a project developed by the ever-irreverent but ever-relevant people at Daily Maverick (www.dailymaverick.com), announces that all news and articles from Free African Media will be run under a Creative Commons license, allowing other organisations and individuals to republish and reproduce them as the need arises. This decision is based on the current status of media on our continent (and in the world) – she explains that there’re only five countries that have complete media freedom in Africa. (If you were wondering, South Africa is not considered one of them.)

Hot Water

The other, my favourite talk of the day, is Anthony Turton on the levels of radioactivity in South Africa. Even as I’m typing this, I’m hoping that I misheard his numbers because if they’re true, they present a very, very scary future for some of our people. One example: a township in Jozi – the Tudor Shaft area in Gauteng – receives an amount of radiation per year equivalent to the total amount of exposure during the Chernobyl tragedy. Anthony Turton is also the only speaker who makes mention of the current environmental scandal in South Africa – Shell’s possible plans to frack for gas in the Karoo. He ends his talk to much applause, and takes off his long collared shirt to reveal a “Frack You Shell” shirt.

For a conference that focuses on technology, it’s unfortunate that the biggest problems of the day are caused by a misbehaving projector slide. At times it stalls; at other times it runs too fast forward (and backwards). I also find that some of the ideas presented lose their impact because of a presenter’s ill-prepared speaking skills, or a lack of time (there’re 30 speakers scheduled to speak in just more than 4h 30 mins, with presentation durations predetermined at various lengths). Many of the speakers manage admirably, though. Overall, there’s a good mix of completely fresh ideas and old ideas rearticulated in interesting ways. Overall, one of the stronger themes present is an advocation of a more holistic approach for self and for humanity being in the world. “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless ... Be water, my friend,” I’m reminded.

TEDx registration table

The success of TEDxCapeTown lies not only in its line-up, but in the little extras: Skyrove provides free wi-fi in the courtyard. Nokia gives away N8 phones. As entry ticket every person gets a black badge and beaded bracelet. In the reception area cum food area cum bands area tables are set up with huge ArtLab posters for people to share ideas, thoughts and scribblings. Between sessions, local bands entertain the crowds – HotWater, the Nomadic Orchestra, and the Bone Collectors. And the food passes my standards in both quantity and quality with muffins and sandwiches for tea breaks, and yummy vegan curry for lunch. (James remarks, dryly: “It turns out Ratanga Junction’s a catering company with a theme park on the side.”)

Overall, the day’s great value for money, which is confirmed by Bernelle: “The financial analysis alone says the value of the tickets was closer to R600, more than double the retail price.” She adds, “We will continue to undercharge!”

From the buzz at teatimes and lunchtime it’s clear that people are enjoying themselves immensely. Gaathier Mahed, an attendee, says, "I feel that the meeting of great minds and sharing of ideas, across disciplines, has opened a world of possibilities." Strijdom van der Merwe, prominent landscape artist, is shorter with his praise, but just as enthusiastic: “Inspiring, motivating, refreshing, without a doubt – ideas worth spreading.” From the other side of the stage Kershan Pancham, one of the speakers, explains his commitment to the TEDx event: “As human beings we have to share the knowledge that we've learned from our various paths.” I also had the opportunity to ask Theresa Mallinson about the Free African Media announcement. Calling TEDxCapeTown “the ideal place” for this announcement, she explains that it “ties in with the TEDx philosophy of ideas worth spreading. We wanted to emphasise that the Free African Media website isn't a single idea, but a platform for sharing ideas from all over the continent.”

Later that afternoon, as the buzz quietens down and the delegates and speakers have left, it’s just crew, organisers and a few friends pulling off Xs and posters off chairs, tables, and walls. I realise at this point that “tired” is an understatement. It’s more than a physical tiredness, though – it’s the more pleasurable sort brought on by having a mind stretched, pulled, expanded by new ideas; ears that have captured streams of different voices and topics; and a heart encouraged and challenged by the reminder that there are people doing inspirational things in South Africa. This is the magic of a TEDx done right. And now my mouth, my hands, my feet – they’re itching to become part of the revolution. After all, as a wise old man with a broken English accent said in one of the final videos of the day: “People is the problem, but people is the solution.”

PS. For those curious about the T – it held.

For more information on TED, check out www.ted.com; TEDxCapeTown at www.tedxcapetown.org.

The TEDxCapeTown talks will be available from the website, or from www.iono.fm.