Helping SA teens crack the code to a better future

Lindiwe Matlali believes that teaching kids to code is the best way to cultivate the next generation of innovators

01 October 2017 - 00:00
By Shelley Seid
Lindiwe Matlali.
Image: Twitter Lindiwe Matlali.

Lindiwe Matlali got into the world of computers entirely by accident.

"I was attending a conference at MIT in the States and watched an eight-year-old present an app she had created. I was inspired. I wondered why we didn't have this happening at home. Computer codes are the backbone of the modern world."

So she came home and through sheer force of will and hard work made it happen.

In 2014 she founded a nonprofit that she called Africa Teen Geeks. Matlali, who occasionally refers to herself as the "chief geek", has, through the Gauteng-based organisation, exposed thousands of children from resource-poor communities to computer programming.

Lerato, for example, is a 17-year-old who has lived in an orphanage since the age of six and now dreams about developing software that will make hospitals run more efficiently. Twelve-year-old Simpiwe, who saw his first computer in February this year, was good enough to be selected to take part in a UN-run hackathon by July.

For the past three years Africa Teen Geek has developed the skills of kids aged six and upwards, teaching coding to children who had never laid eyes on a computer.

You don't need money [to code] - it's one of the few industries that all you need is sweat capital

Matlali believes that coding can lead to a generation of innovators. "And you don't need money - it's one of the few industries that all you need is sweat capital. It is a matter of opportunity and role models."

No one knows this better than she does. Orphaned at a young age, she and her six siblings went to live with her grandfather, in Belfast, Mpumalanga. A few months later an aunt died and five more children joined the family.

It was her grandfather, a gardener who woke at 4am each day, rode a bicycle to work and earned R150 a month, who gave her the confidence and will to make something of her life. "If you study hard," he would say, "you will never remember you were an orphan."

"He was an old, traditional man but he never made me feel like 'just a girl'. He wanted me to become a doctor. If he met an orphan who had become successful he would come home and say, 'This could be you.'

"There were days when we would go to the neighbours and ask for tea or sugar or matches. It was really tough but we were inspired irrespective of our circumstances."

When Matlali got her matric, her grandfather went to Beares and bought her a three-CD music system that he paid off in instalments.

"I am who I am because of him," she says.

And it's probably why she never gave up on her dream.

She has had stickers made for all her geeks, quoting Albert Einstein: "It's not that I'm smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer."