Today is the official start of the South Africa Bloggers Roadshow, which means that this is my last post for the next ten days not related to the roadshow.

The young bloggers from Kwa Mashu continue to inspire me. I hung out with them all day on Friday. Once again, I expected that they would get tired after three or four hours of workshops, shooting video, and editing, but instead they were pestering me all day long to learn more skills and wouldn’t let me leave until well after 5 o’clock.

thandanani

Kwa Mashu is the largest of Durban’s three townships. It’s located in the province of Kwa Zulu Natal, as in Newcastle, a smaller city about four hours away by driving. It was in the Madadeni township on the outskirts of Newcastle where in the 1970’s 16 computer terminals were installed and connected to other computers around the world on an online network called PLATO. I learned about all of this from Dave Lyons of Mutant Palm who writes, “Before Global Voices and the Internet, there was PLATO,” the world’s first online global community:

There were several other installations at educational institutions in South Africa, among them Madadeni College in the Madadeni township just outside of Newcastle.

This was perhaps the most unusual PLATO installation anywhere. Madadeni had about 1,000 students, all of them black and 99.5% of Zulu ancestry. The college was one of 10 teacher preparation institutions in kwaZulu, most of them much smaller. In many ways Madadeni was very primitive. None of the classrooms had electricity and there was only one telephone for the whole college, which one had to crank for several minutes before an operator might come on the line. So an air-conditioned, carpeted room with 16 computer terminals was a stark contrast to the rest of the college. At times the only way a person could communicate with the outside world was through PLATO term-talk.

For many of the Madadeni students, most of whom came from very rural areas, the PLATO terminal was the first time they encountered any kind of electronic technology. (Many of the first year students had never seen a flush toilet before.) There initially was skepticism that these technologically-illiterate students could effectively use PLATO, but those concerns were not borne out. Within an hour or less most students were using the system proficiently, mostly to learn math and science skills, although a lesson that taught keyboarding skills was one of the most popular. A few students even used on-line resources to learn TUTOR, the PLATO programming language, and a few wrote lessons on the system in the Zulu language.

So incredible to think that 35 years ago people were working in Kwa Zulu Natal, basically trying to do the same thing that I was on Friday: use new technologies to help a community that has long been ignored find its voice using new technologies.

When Dave emailed to let us know about the PLATO program I immediately wanted to hop in my rental car, drive to Madadeni, and do a week-long investigative report to find out what happened to the people involved in the PLATO project there. Who wrote the software programs in Zulu? Did they gain any valuable skills from the project? Was there a lasting impact?

I hope someone does eventually do the story. And, if they don’t, maybe I’ll return to Durban to do it myself.

break

Another interesting intersection with Friday’s workshop is a podcast I listened to this morning in the gym from Radio Lab. It’s all about the heaviness of choice – one of my favorite topics ever since reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And it features sociologist Barry Schwartz, one of my favorite commentators on the subject. Highly recommended.

If you speak Zulu, then one of the things you’ll hear in the video at the bottom of this post is two janitors describing how greater freedom since the end of apartheid has corrupted South Africa’s Black communities. Ever since Nelson Mandela won the presidential election in 1994 ‘freedom’ has been interpreted as what car you can buy, which clubs you can go out to, what type of liquor you want to drink. Young people today aren’t grateful for the struggle of their parents before apartheid, they don’t understand what they were fighting for, the janitors say.

It’s a topic that gets picked up again in an amazing conversation among Thandanani, Zwelithini, and Sinempilo that I’ll post tomorrow or the next day. Anyway, I highly recommend watching both the video that they produced and the episode of Radio Lab about choice. It’s an hour very well spent.