World Class SA – Marlon Parker: The phone ranger

2014-05-25 14:59

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Marlon Parker speaks in terms of “social revolution”, “economies of hope” and “currencies of people”.

His company RLabs operates in troubled communities providing counselling, training and skills development through social media and mobile technology, and his aim is to reach 2?billion people, a quarter of the world’s population, in his lifetime.

It’s a big dream for a man raised among eight people, living off a single state pension in his grandmother’s two-bedroom apartment on the Cape Flats, where life is governed by gangs and poverty, and defined by drugs and violence.

But given what he has achieved so far, the word ‘impossible’ is not part of Parker’s lexicon.

To hear him tell it, Parker’s beginnings are classic nonfiction fodder for stand-up comedy, imaginably delivered with a thick Cape coloured accent straight from gangland in the typical bathos that comes from surviving hardship with humour, dreaming in what he then considered the ultimate tropes of success: a suit and tie, and his own office. Parker was tipped off by a colleague at the airport where he pushed around trolleys of branded merchandise to study “this thing called IT”.

Imagining hanging off telephone poles listening to bugged conversations between bad guys, Parker enrolled at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where on his first day he mistook the computer lab for “a room full of portable TVs”.

But there was a not-at-all funny reality superseding the slapstick: his younger brother had fallen victim to drugs and brought the surrounding violence into their home. Parker wanted to help.

So he upped the ante on his studies so much so that by his third year he was lecturing at the college. In 2007, having intuited the transformative power of storytelling and the ubiquitous accessibility of social media, Parker launched RLabs.

His first group was filled with drug addicts, dealers and even a member of organised crime. The idea was to use prevalent platforms – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – to share these people’s stories of hope so that other young people wouldn’t go the same route.

Today, RLabs is a global franchise, active in 21?countries from Africa to Asia, providing: mobile counselling for drug addicts, gangsters, prostitutes and others suffering hardship and abuse; computer literacy, free technology training and social media skills; motivational talks; a legacy project whereby those counselled learn to “pay it forward”; a business-to-business offering; community-based surveys and peer reviews; and innovation incubators supporting seed businesses that are revenue focused and sustainable.

Parker is now an honorary faculty member of the International School on Digital Transformation and an alumni of US President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative Network. In March, he was announced as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader for 2014.

He might not be hanging from telephone poles, but through “this thing called IT”, he has given millions of marginalised people real hope and a tangible lifeline.

Changemakers & crusaders

Khalo Matabane

Documenting reality

Khalo Matabane managed to secure some heavyweight interviews – the Dalai Lama, Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger and Wole Soyinka, to name a few – for his documentary, A Letter to Nelson Mandela.

The film went on to win a Special Jury Award at Amsterdam’s International Documentary Film Festival in November last year.

Since 1996, Matabane has been exploring South Africa’s sociopolitical landscape, touching on subjects such as exile, Aids, refugees and how the past haunts the present.

His career making catalyst was the self-financed, experimental Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon (2005).

Matabane is now angling his lens at the attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, and on a feature film based on ­Jonny Steinberg’s book The Number (about prison gangs in South Africa).

His unblinkered outlook will ensure he keeps showing the world what it needs to know.

Dr Olive Shisana

People’s powerhouse

People who don’t know her name reap the rewards of her decisions. Under Shisana’s direction, policies have been implemented that have revolutionised South Africa’s health sector.

With more than 30 years’ experience as part of special projects for Unesco, the UN, the EU and the World Health ­Organisation, and as the first black female president and CEO of the Human Sciences Research Council, her place in the history books is reserved. But she’s not done yet.

Shisana wants to bring about even more positive change in Africa. She promotes relevance of research in the social sciences by serving on various boards, councils and ministerial advisory groups, including that of the minister of economic development since 2010.

In November last year, the Academy of Science for SA awarded her a Science for Society gold medal, while her speech at the Gender Summit in Washington that same month secured South Africa’s reputation as an incubator of forward-thinking practices.

» This series is supported by Play Your Part, which is a nationwide campaign to inspire and celebrate active citizenship. Each South African is encouraged to offer their time, money, skills or goods to make a collective difference to the lives of those in their communities. Start following @PlayYourPart

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