Ex-con opening windows of opportunity to make tech hubs out of SA townships

A Langa ex-convict has gone from raking in ill-gotten cash to dishing out skills that he hopes will make townships the tech hubs of South Africa.

Sihle Tshabalala, 36, is the founder of Quirky 30, a non-profit company which offers free technology skills training for high school dropouts.

The computer whizz is self-taught. He learnt coding from free online resources on a computer bought from Cash Crusaders after his release from prison.

Born and raised in Langa, about 12km outside the Cape Town city centre, the top achiever completed matric at 16 but had no aspirations to go to university.

With nothing constructive to do, he turned to crime. By the age of 18, he had been involved in a dozen armed robberies and cash-in-transit heists.

“I was successful. I owned two cars, rented an apartment in the city, I wore designer clothes… the good life,” he recalled.

Shortly before his 19th birthday, he was caught during an armed robbery at a Sea Point bottle store.

He spent four years at Pollsmoor prison awaiting trial.

High-ranking gang member

“That’s where I started my business. I smuggled dagga. I never ate prison food – I had KFC and Nando’s. I had four prison officials on my payroll. I had everything figured out from production to supply chains, product and market. I didn’t have an MBA or a marketing degree but I knew how to do it – ghetto hustling,” Tshabalala said.

“Business was booming.”

A high-ranking 26s gang member, he has three tattoos proving his membership.

He was street smart, Tshabalala said, and continued to rake in the ill-gotten cash.

After his conviction, he was transferred to Brandvlei Correctional Centre to start his 13-year sentence.

He was sent to the notorious “Afghanistan” section, a “war zone and dumping site for all the troublemakers where no prison official wants to work”.

“A couple of months in, I realised the reason inmates behave the way they do is because no one has taught, inspired or motivated them to look to a different future. You are told: ‘You will never be that, you will never do that.’ But being from a disadvantaged background doesn’t determine your end destination. You have the grandest weapon called choice.”

He, along with a few other inmates, decided to start a “school”, and Tshabalala became the maths and English teacher. He had no training, but had excelled in these subjects in Matric.

Their initiative became the now registered NPO Group of Hope, a prisoner-initiated project that he believes changed the face of rehabilitation in prisons.

No prison success story

“In SA, there is the mentality that the only way to eradicate crime is to send the offender to prison, which is a breeding ground for more criminal activity. People go in there for pickpocketing, and meet inmates who make them aspire to do bigger things. They get schooled in doing wrong.”

He argued that this is the reason for the high recidivism rate.

“There are no effective rehabilitation programmes. In democracy, we were too quick to move from prisons to rehabilitation centres and correctional facilities. We still use the old system and expect a different output.”

He is not a success story of imprisonment, Tshabalala insisted.

“Correctional services can’t say they rehabilitated me. I rehabilitated myself. I made a conscious decision towards my own journey of change. The project was a vehicle to allow me to be as creative and innovative as I wanted.”

He served seven of his 13 years and was released in 2013 with only two underpants, two vests and a tracksuit.

Realising his criminal record would make it near impossible to find a job, Tshabalala moved back to his mother’s home and started to think about his options.

“Once you are released, you have to become an entrepreneur. There are no jobs, because when you apply they will do a criminal check. The only means of survival is to come out and start something.”

Outdated skills

His interest in tech education was inspired by one of his inmate students, who asked “Teacher” Tshabalala what study options he had that would be relevant once he was released in 10 years’ time.

“When I was released, I researched what 21st century skills would be in demand. I wanted to challenge the status quo and do something extraordinary that had not been done in black townships before.

“Every government and private sector initiative is always targeted at high school or university graduates. IT and computer-related programmes in the township is doing end-user computing and International Computer Driving License – those skills are outdated. [Many] people have those certificates but are still unemployed.

“Every training initiative that is brought to the township is always labour-orientated, teaching people trade skills like carpentry and brick-laying. You still perpetuate labour forces where there are no jobs. We need different approaches. Like Albert Einstein said: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.'”

After his release, family members who hadn’t seen him in years would visit and give him money, which he saved to buy a second-hand computer from Cash Crusaders.

“Every morning I would travel to the Cape Town CBD and visit the library to plug in at the free Wi-Fi zone and download free material, which I would study at home.”

Within six weeks, he was able to write code in three languages.

Tshabalala decided to do something “different and audacious” – he would teach children to code.

The business of selling hope

He used his self-taught skills to design a programme that teaches technological expertise to those who did not complete their schooling as he believes that youth at risk of turning to crime are mostly high school dropouts.

His “coding school” is called Quirky 30.

“Quirky means unusual and the 30 refers to the UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030,” he explained.

The non-profit company teaches underprivileged youth coding, design, graphic design, online digital marketing and entrepreneurship skills in a free year-long course with the aim of helping them find jobs in the field or start their own businesses.

He speaks proudly of one of his first students who took part in the programme in 2014.

The young man now works for a leading advertising agency, despite only having Grade 11.

“People ask me what is my aspiration and vision, and I tell them I am in the business of selling hope. Kids come here with tarnished dreams, some of them think they will never be something in life and I teach them how to see life in 3D – dream different dreams.

“I try to provide windows of opportunities to allow them to explore and view the world differently.”

Award nominations

He hopes to challenge the idea that a university degree guarantees a better life.

“How many graduates completed degrees hoping for a career that is not in demand? They end up as cashiers and in call centres still having to pay off student debt. The future revolves around tech. Google was my university.

“There are limited prospects for townships if we are not technologically orientated. Accessibility creates opportunities. But government is rolling out broadband fibre in CBDs, not the township where it is needed. We need to drive innovation right to grassroots level.”

Tshabalala said his programme was not accredited as the Services Sector Education and Training Authority doesn’t have accreditation for coding.

But he measures his success by how many of his “graduates” get jobs in their field. Through employment partnerships, this number is on the rise, Tshabalala said proudly.

His inspiring story and work has also seen him nominated for prestigious international awards and travel as far as Singapore and Dubai.

‘We must start thinking about the future’

“From the dusty streets of the township, to prison and now a global leader. I am a special ex-con,” he joked.

After operating from a facility which could only accommodate up to 25 people at a time, Quirky 30 this year moved to the Love Life Centre in Langa, which, after a revamp, will allow them to host up to 100 participants at a time.

The makeover will be costly, but Tshabalala already has a floor plan of the renovated facility.

He believes in his programme and the possibilities it will bring to people who have lived a life of poverty.

“We must start thinking about the future. If we want to create inclusive economy, our approach must be different.”

To become an employment partner, assist with the revamp, or donate your old PC to a needy student, email [email protected]

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