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Culture, Reality

A Way To Be

by Ts'eliso Monaheng / 19.12.2013

If Lebogang Nkoane ruled the world, he’d probably declare ideas to be tradable currency. He’d build technology hubs, not in bustling city centres where basic amenities are within reach, but in remote areas where a space for ideas to flourish is needed. For leisure, he’d erect a monument poking fun at the Department of Basic Education’s decision to standardise software tools for their computer applications technology and IT curriculums, a move which effectively makes it illegal to operate open source software in government schools (the department has since defended its decision in a memorandum stating that only two subjects in grades 10 and 12 would be affected).

Nkoane has had minimal sleep over the past few weeks; balancing client work and passion projects has proven especially taxing with the relaunch of his latest project. A prolific twitter user, his feed suffered; my timeline became a lonely hideout – my timeline went from receiving daily tweets about ‘the lion awakening’ and power cuts in Alexander where he lives with his mother, to lacking any of Nkoane’s elegantly-crafted musings on the social network. He was busy optimizing algorithms, presumably, but the truth is something else. “I had nothing to say”, he offers in-between sips from his glass as we seat at a restaurant one afternoon.

Before quitting his job, selling his car, and deciding that he prefers Cape Town over Johannesburg, Nkoane was fiddling with computers at a computer lab in SOMAFCO (Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College) which was in Morogoro, Tanzania, where his mother had been exiled. “I was arrogant when I was young; it was a self-defense mechanism” he admits. Nkoane’s mother worked elsewhere in the east African country. For him, arrogance was one of the many implements in his survival toolbox. “We had to learn how to be self-sustaining, my sister and I,” he says.

Nkoane’s aspirations to become a pilot took a tumble the day he stumbled into a computer lab. “There was no chance of that narrative happening with my sister or mother, or my friends, because nobody spoke about it” he points out. “We were actually gonna go get some mangoes, and we walked past this thing and just had to check it out! And it was fascinating!” he says with conservative excitement, as though he were questioning the chronology of event.

Nkoane wrote his first program using LOGO. It was 1988. He was eleven years old; together with other geeks in his age-group, they’d formed a crew called MTJ and would partake in geek contests with another local crew called MMM.

It was as a freshman at Wits that Nkoane found his calling. He remembers being intrigued by the three Ws which appeared as part of the end-credits on television. No one could tell him what the letters stood for. It wasn’t until he stumbled again, this time into a computer equipped with Netscape Navigator and a modem for Internet connectivity, that he got to try out the combination. “At the time, the only thing I could remember was mtv.com. The first video I ever saw on-line was The Fugees’ Ready or not. That one moment was a milestone for him; “How did they get that tv in there?” he asks rhetorically.

As a lecturer, he spent close to a decade imparting ideas to students at Tshwane University of Technology and the National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa. As a developer, he employs his sharp understanding of programming to create idea incubation labs such as 2LMN R+D. He’s also a design enthusiast who, along with partner George Matsheke, started the on-line cult magazine Studio83; a photography geek responsible for 75, an invite-only platform started by photographers for photographers; and an urban nomad whose quest to get from one point to another inspired awtb (pronounced ‘a way to be’), a web-based application which assists commuters in getting from point A to B – and the project which had been keeping him busy.

Underpinning awtb is the concept of idea clusters moving easily from any one point to another. An efficient public transportation system, Nkoane argues, facilitates the swift dispersal of those ideas. But the platform depends on data from the department of transport in order to function properly, something he says hasn’t been easy to obtain. It’s also a factor which stops potential uptake from markets outside of South Africa. Currently functional in Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Cape Town, awtb’s ultimate vision is to provide public transport routing in other regions in South Africa and across the continent. He foresees this happening by the middle of 2014.

Prior to working at Eskom, Nkoane had never held down any job. His first assignment was a six month-long project which he completed in three weeks. “Then I became idle. I had to quit! I was fresh out of varsity, my mind was miles ahead” he says. During his honours year at the University of Pretoria, he realised that his mind operated outside of preset industry frameworks. He wasn’t satisfied with becoming another Computer Science graduate who ends up as ‘the IT guy’ doing mind-numbingly rudimentary tech support for big businesses. Nkoane then decided to teach.

“My idea was that I cannot be the only person that [has] this knowledge” he reveals.

Nkoane’s a renegade developer; a kasified coding extraordinaire; and the archetypal perfectionist. He took awtb offline shortly after re-launch because he wasn’t satisfied with certain functionality. It is now back on-line. He stated in an interview that he hasn’t been checking up on the numbers, so it is hard to ascertain awtb’s uptake.

We spoke on topics ranging from Internet privacy in a post-Snowden era (“for me the biggest loss is trust”); the inspiration for 75 (“when the idea came about, my grandmother was 75”); and how the business climates differ between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Nkoane reckons that start-ups have a better chance of making it in Johannesburg because “someone engages you,” and adds that “they listen to your idea and give you a better understanding of where flaws are in your planning. The biggest flaw that I see is not so much that the ideas are bad or that [they] don’t have money-making possibilities, but that nobody tells you when you go wrong.” And we left it at that.

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