World Class SA – Sir Stuart Ntlathi: Spirit of invention

2014-05-18 15:00

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Ordinarily, someone with a self-appointed knighthood would be the object of quixotic ridicule, impaled on the windmill of his own weighty expectations. Not so for Sir Stuart Ntlathi (and Sir is his real name).

Never one to passively accept what is (“why wait for the queen?”), Ntlathi has the mettle and imagination to create the realities he dreams.

As a teenager, he invented the world’s first recycled microwave-griller combo, formed a club of four like-minded peers in a community that largely considered maths and science a no-go career route for black kids, and established a science fair in Klerksdorp.

Thirteen years later, his club is the North West-based Stuart Ntlathi Science, Engineering & Technology Institute. It has won local and international awards, and offers training programmes for more than 30?000 pupils.

Some of its patented inventions include a battery-operated shoe polisher with changeable colour cartridges, a 14-in-1 microwave and an autocooling umbrella. The science fair is now called the International Innovation Indaba.

In 2012, it awarded bursaries to all 100 delegates tasked with building models of sustainable transformation, and won Ntlathi the community builder of the year award.

Like many original thinkers, Ntlathi decided not to study after school. “I left without hesitation,” he says.

“I’d spent my entire childhood tinkering with electronics – I was not learning anything new. For example, I was taught there are two types of circuits, series and parallel, and that the two should never be combined. I did just that with my griller and it worked. So-called ‘laws’ limit our imagination.”

Ntlathi is currently working on an umbrella the size of a memory stick that deflects rain by surrounding the body in laser beams when activated.

“There is no university in the world that offers a qualification in innovation,” he says.

Ntlathi has strong views on why the South African schooling system is dysfunctional, especially when it comes to science and technology. He is a vociferous advocate of interactive learning.

To this end, his institute cultivates a landscape of innovation from technical support to financial sponsorship and patent protocol. His mission is to “give young people a platform to be part of the developing world” – or, as he calls it, The Infinity Dream.

His goal for 2015 is to establish an Infinity Park, “a launching pad for science-based business and academic development in Africa”.

Ntlathi is an example of the power of magical thinking, a metaphysician whose boundless belief stretches the limits of possibility. At the age of six, having never ventured beyond Klerksdorp, he told his grandparents his intention was to one day go into space.

In Grade 11, after reading To the Edge of Space by Sir Richard Branson and Colin Prescot, he wrote the entrepreneur a letter stating his wish to be part of the next-generation space race. In 2011, he received an invitation to accompany Branson on the first Virgin Galactic mission later this year.

But Ntlathi is already thinking beyond our galaxy. “We’ve reached Mars,” he says. “We can go even further.”

For Ntlathi, it’s “To infinity?...?and beyond!”

Other heroes and mavericks

Gift Ngoepe

In another league

Up until his arrival in the US at the age of 18, Mpho Gift Ngoepe had lived his entire life, literally, in the clubhouse of amateur baseball team the Randburg Mets, where his mother cooked, cleaned and ran the tuck shop.

He started playing the game at the age of three. At 10, he represented South Africa at the junior world championships in Brazil; and later in Mexico and Cuba.

In 2007, Ngoepe was scouted for his raw talent and offered a place in the minor leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates, making him the first black South African to sign a professional contract in the US.

It hasn’t been easy –?he has had to adjust to the US’s highly competitive baseball culture, and the ­Babylonian mix of languages and nationalities it comprises. But Ngoepe is known for the huge energy and positive spirit he brings to the game. Plus, he’s got his eye on the prize: Major League.

Nico Dekker

Creating South Africa's Hollywood

Where most people saw a desolate wasteland off the N1, Nico Dekker saw a film studio.

A hi-tech, state-of-the-art, world-class film studio: 17?000?square metres of indoor production facilities, including five hectares of back lots and four stages (with two more in the pipeline).

Large-scale productions include Dredd, Safe House, Long Walk to Freedom, Mad Max: Fury Road, Chronicle and the much-hyped pirate TV series Black Sails.

Denzel Washington, Stephen Fry, Tom Hardy, Ryan Reynolds, Charlize Theron and Hilary Swank have all worked at Cape Town Film Studios.

The trade and industry department puts production spend since 2010 in excess of R1.6 billion. Dekker likes to couch it in more socialist terms, calling the studios “a film factory with a huge manufacturing element”.

His ultimate vision is to develop interactive gaming at the studio. “The movie world and the gaming world are already touching. In future they will merge.”

He believes it’s lights, camera and game on.

» 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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