Silicon Valley in Africa

On January 14, 2013, just after the release of the national Matric results, the Sunday Independent published a brilliant if not an enlightening article by the scholar Prince Mashele, titled ‘What’s the philosophy of our education?’ Evidently disturbed by the results of the Class of 2012 and those of prior classes, Mashele relates rather beautifully the story of the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, his journey to the United States of America and the book he would later write, propelling him ‘from a somewhat obscure public servant into an international celebrity’; and of course etching his name permanently into the records of history.

Mashele writes of how impressed Tocqueville was with the system of democracy in the US that upon returning home to France, he quit his job as a magistrate to write a book, Democracy in America. Mashele writes thus of how Europe began to view the New World after the publishing of Alexis de Tocqueville’s incredible book: ‘Given the political progress registered by Americans then, Europeans increasingly viewed the New World as the fountainhead of lessons to inform the urgent task of reordering their troubled polities. Thus was the importance of Democracy in America.’

In the second part of the article, perhaps to explain why he prefaced his thesis with the story of Alexis de Tocqueville and ‘…the importance of Democracy in America’, Prince Mashele brings his argument home. He poses an important question and takes the liberty of providing an answer. He remarks thus: ‘In the year 2013, what can we learn from the true story of Alexis de Tocqueville? The lesson is simple: South Africa must at all times maintain readiness to learn from other nations. The experiences of other countries must assist us to untie the knot that holds back our progress as a nation.’

Now perhaps the reader is wondering as to why I have borrowed so much from Prince Mashele’s article. Let me liberate you from your assumptions. Just as Mashele so eloquently puts it, ‘South Africa must at all times maintain readiness to learn from other nations.’ We still have a lot to learn, and in this case we need to broaden our outlook and focus on Africa. The continent needs to maintain that readiness to learn from other nations that Mashele speaks of. Just like Tocqueville took with him critical lessons from the New World to share with his compatriots back home in France, and in extension Europe; perhaps the African continent should make a journey of their own to learn from the US.

What am I talking about? I am talking about San Francisco. I am talking about Silicon Valley, the technology hub of the world. Since the invention of the worldwide web by the British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet has come to dominate our lives. Guided by the rare gifts of innovation and vision, Americans were and still are at the forefront of every major technological discovery or invention made in the twilight of the 20th century and the current century; and at the heart of this was the city of San Francisco, or Silicon Valley to be precise. It was not by mistake that Americans led this technological movement, because as Mashele implies, the New World invested very well in their education.

Well, since the question of the quality of education leaves a lot to be desired on the continent, particularly in South Africa, a country unofficially entrusted with setting an example for the rest of the continent, I will leave this one to the experts and pundits. My argument is one: Africa needs its own San Francisco. The continent needs its own Silicon Valley. Countless young people around the world leave their home countries each year for San Francisco to see their ideas realised; and these ideas benefit the economy of the United States. Some Africans have also left the continent in their large numbers to immigrate to the US because here, at home their ideas are not taken seriously. Well, that has to change. If the leaders of this continent are not willing to learn then the youth should perhaps yank the baton from these fossils and spearhead the movement to propel this continent to greater heights themselves. Granted, the US is no longer the superpower it was once was, particularly after recently being leapfrogged by China to become the global economic superpower; but that does not erase the fact that Africa can benefit immensely from the wealth of knowledge the New World still possesses. Remember that before their leap to economic heights, countries like China, Japan and South Korea first had to learn from other nations. Their children were sent to the West to learn the workings of the modern economy and how best to apply those lessons to benefit the growth of their own countries.

In the late nineties the 21st century was declared ‘Africa’s century’. From the World Economic Summit, the G20 Summit and just about every summit you can think of, Africa has been sold as ‘the next kid on the block’. Public Relations agencies have made tons of money selling this narrative. Hell, everybody has benefited except for the people who are supposed to be primary beneficiaries of this PR stunt, Africans. Again, the time has arrived for that to change. Africans need to stand up and say: ‘Hey, enough. We can speak for ourselves.’

In a world dominated by technology it is only fair that Africa build its own with Silicon Valley. Not only will this help attract and market some of the best minds the continent has to offer, Africa will benefit from the economic profits that come with being a source of technological discoveries and stop being the world’s basket case. Those who left the continent for ‘greener pastures’ should perhaps consider coming back to help build this dream of Silicon Valley in Africa. In the next ten years this is what we should say as the proud people of the African continent: Thank you Silicon Valley, but we will take it from here.

Of course some might argue that Cape Town, known in some corners to culturally resemble San Francisco, has already begun cultivating that dream. But let us be honest: that particular dream seems to be only exclusive to some people. What this continent needs is an inclusive incubator of ideas, not one that is encumbered by discrimination and prejudice. Who knows, maybe, just maybe, this dream, besides economic growth, might help Africa with its education problem. It took four men to invent Twitter, three to found Intel, two to conceptualise Google and one to give the world Facebook; and in a continent with a staggering population of over one billion people, how many brilliant minds do we need to invent the next big thing? All we need is a centre to incubate those minds. Kgotsong!

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