He was a boy who grew up in poverty on the Cape Flats, but that didn’t stop him from dreaming. He wanted to win the Nobel peace prize or even just have a job where he could wear a shirt and tie. Parker’s living the dream alright, as the founder of a massive social non-profit that changes lives and has gone global. By MANDY DE WAAL.
The dream was uncomplicated. In the early days when Marlon Parker was still pushing trolleys around the airport, he’d close his eyes and see himself walking to work across a big open field in the Cape Flats wearing a shirt and tie.“ I couldn’t afford to go to university so I would earn money by pushing trolleys. When people were merchandising stock I’d basically push their trolleys around, and I did that for two years after matric,” Parker tells Daily Maverick on a blustery evening near his home in Pinelands in Cape Town.
“Now very few people in my community had a job where they could wear a shirt and a tie and I felt if I did this, I could go anywhere and people would think: ‘There’s Marlon going to his office job. He’s arrived.’ While I was pushing trolleys I applied for an office job, believing I would be able to fulfil this dream. I knew the woman doing the interviews so I believed there was no way I wasn’t going to get the job doing filing and administration.”
Parker was confident but he had a back-up plan. If he didn’t get the office job he’d resign from the airport and go study.
“In two years I had saved up R1,000 which was enough to register to study for a course,” he says.
The office job slipped through his fingers. He was heartbroken, but remained true to his pact with himself and immediately penned his letter of resignation.
“I walked out of the office and the first person I bumped into at the airport was a work acquaintance who said: ‘Why are you leaving?’ I said I was going to study and he asked what I was going to study. I replied I didn’t know,” Parker says with a wide smile on his face as he remembers the story.
“This acquaintance said: ‘Marlon you have to go and study IT. Apparently everyone is talking about this thing called IT.’ I asked this man: ‘What is IT?’ and he turned around to me and said: ‘I don’t know. I heard it is information technology, I don’t know what it is but everyone is talking about it.’ That was my first career guidance,” Parker says through peals of laughter.
Now, he had watched a whack of movies growing up so his imagination told him information technology was the kind of stuff you saw the FBI doing in the flicks. “In my mind information technology was those people from the police hanging from a telephone pole and listening to information using a piece of technology. At the time I had never done anything with a computer, I hadn’t touched a PC in my life.
”The first day on campus brought a couple of surprises for Parker. “When I walked into class I didn’t even know it was a computer lab, because to me it looked like what I thought at the time was a lot of portable televisions. Those were the computer monitors.”
“It wasn’t a part of any great plan. I failed all my first term subjects, except for statistics and accounting because I was good at numbers, but then I broke my ankle playing indoor soccer, which was the best thing that could have happened to me,” says Parker who had started cutting class to go and play at the campus’ sports science centre.
“I couldn’t tell my mom I wasn’t studying. She had told everyone I was studying computers, and everyone was bringing their computers to our house. Of course I picked up some lingo like ‘you need an upgrade’ or ‘you ran out of memory’. I didn’t understand what it meant but I managed to pick up enough of the lingo to get myself out of looking at any of that,” he says.
There was one problem though. In order to pay to go to study information technology at Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Parker had bonded the only asset his family had – his grandmother’s two-bedroomed Cape Flats home.
“Coming from a difficult background has made me want to make a difference,” says Parker rather pensively. “It is this thing of ‘I know what it means to suffer’. Someone once told me that suffering fuels creativity. Having difficult circumstances at home and living in poverty means that you have to be greater than the things around you in order to survive.
”Parker was born and bred on what’s frequently known as apartheid’s dumping ground: the Cape Flats. The flat, wind-blown stretch of barren sand is where a Verwoerdian government placed Cape people classified as “non-white”.
Adjacent to the picturesque False Bay and in front of the Boland Mountains, the Cape Flats is that area cusped by Langa, Kuils River, Macassar, Khayelitsha, Mitchells Plain, Nyanga and Guguletu. The kind of places those Eurocentric, well-meaning travel advisories caution tourists not to visit.
“I come from a place call Bridgetown. It’s the usual story. A single mother, my father left when I was a little one. My grandmother raised us, and we literally lived off her state pension. We were about eight people in a two-bedroomed place, living off that pension,” says Parker.
“My younger brother got involved in gangs and drugs and that is what fuelled me to do what I do. I didn’t want another family to go what we went through – having people violently coming to your door. That’s what started me trying to do something for people in gangs and using drugs. Of course it has evolved beyond that now. The big motivation was I couldn’t see another young person go through what I went through. For me that would just be heart-breaking,” he states.
“Times were tough and, because there was no money, I often had to walk from CPUT to Bridgetown, which was basically 20 kilometres. Sometimes I had to walk to campus and back.”
With his grandmother’s house on the line, the broken ankle came as a blessing of sorts because it meant Parker couldn’t play soccer any more. Instead he sought refuge in the library.
“I read about the history of computers and where software came from. Something just switched on for me – so much so that I basically managed to turn everything around,” Parker remembers.
He did it so well that in his third year CPUT asked him to become a lecturer. Eventually he learned so much about this thing called IT that in 2007, after a handful of years lecturing, he started a project called the Reconstructed Living Lab (RLabs).
The dream this time was to create a social revolution that would be marked by hope, change, opportunity, learning and innovation, that would be a movement of the people, by the people.
“I always thought that the real value would be in using what I know to change someone’s life… If I could just help one person using technology,” he says, his voice trailing off briefly until his focus returns to the interview.
Social media was beginning to pick up in South Africa at a time when violence, gang warfare and drug peddling was hitting communities in the Cape Flats like a sledgehammer. People living in lofty suburbs would occasionally see the face of this through stories like that of Ellen Pakkies, who strangled her 20-year-old son, Adam, after his tik (methamphetamine) addiction had lurched her into a seven-year spiral of abuse.??“The first group of people I got together came for counselling,” says Parker. “The idea was to use technology to share these people’s stories of hope so other young people wouldn’t go the same route. I trained the first core team of people using Facebook, Twitter, blogs, YouTube and other social networks to tell their story,” he says.
“I understood the power of storytelling and realised that people may not have their own computers, but they would have a story they could record and upload to YouTube, or blog, and learn a skill that way.
”And the people in Parker’s first group had very compelling stories to tell. One of them was the son of one of the men who had started the infamous Americans gang. Notorious for flooding the Cape market with crack and cocaine, the Americans is the biggest gang that operates in the Western Province.
In his book Gangs, rituals & rites of passage, Don Pinnock tells how the Americans base a lot of their mythology on the US. The gang’s name stands for “Almighty Equal Rights Is Coming And Not Standing” while the motto is “In God we Trust. In money we believe”.
The gang uses American symbols like the Statue of Liberty to construct secret myths known only to those who belong to what is most often a life-long career of bloody crime.
For the gangs like the Americans, Pinnock writes, “life is defined by violence which knows no limits or regrets”. One youth from the Americans gang told Pinnock about how the Americans waged battle.
“The Americans don’t fight in the daylight. We fight at night and split our team into groups of three or four. We surround our enemy and send two without guns to go and look for the enemy. When they find the enemy they start running and the rest of us come out with the guns, in for the kill. That is why the Americans are so powerful.”
Parker’s first group had people like this in it, along with drug addicts, drug dealers and someone who was involved in organised crime. “We had a very impressive criminal record, but our thinking was that if these guys could change then anyone could change,” he says.
“There was no grand plan at the time, we just went into a class with these guys and asked: ‘What do you know about computers?’ and they replied: ‘Marlon, the only thing we know about computers is how to steal them.’ But it was amazing to see the transition,” Parker says. It appeared that once they got comfortable with computers, this first group were hungry to learn.
“Today most of these guys are full-time at RLabs. One of them is a director, and the guy whose father started the American gangs has started a tourism business where he does gangland tours,” Parker says with a smile. “He’s the only person in South Africa that does gangland tours, where you can actually go and meet people in gangs.”
A non-profit, everything that RLabs does for communities like the one in Athlone is free. The thinking is that if change is to happen, RLabs must empower people with skills so that they can literally be the change in their communities.
The rapidly expanding project gets about 30% of its revenues from sponsorship, while the rest is derived from revenues that are self-generated.
RLabs’ community work includes mobile counselling for the likes of drug addicts, gangsters, prostitutes or people who are experiencing any other kind of social hardship. Then there’s free computer and technology skilling, motivational talks and programmes, and a legacy project which is all about showing people how to create a meaningful life by being change agents for social good. The RLabs academy teaches social media for social change, entrepreneurship, information literacy and software development.
There’s a business-to-business offering where RLabs offers social media services, mobile and web services, consulting, and is a technology-type service provider. The lab’s research institute delivers specialised community-based surveys, peer reviewed publications and technical reports. An innovation incubator means that many of the thousands of students and people who receive counselling and go on to start projects can seed businesses, as long as they are revenue-focused and sustainable.
Lastly, RLabs is a franchise, which means there are now reconstructed living labs popping up all over the world in places like Brazil, Namibia, Tanzania, Nigeria and Somalia.
When Daily Maverick met Parker he had just come back from India, where he spoke to people interested in replicating the RLabs model in that country. Hearing how RLabs transforms lives gives one a sense of the power of this social business. Parker tells about a member of his initial group who was one of the first Tik dealers on the Cape Flats. “I met Brent for the first time literally after he had come from a suicide mission. He held his mom and dad hostage for four hours while he was tripping. He had his mom with a knife to her neck and he wanted to kill her and his dad. Luckily the police came. But he was someone whose life was destroyed. He was a school drop-out, he was involved in gangs.”
Brent went to RLabs’ academy, became one of the non-profit’s first mobile counsellors, and was one of the first people to start working in the academy. “Today Brent is one of the directors of our labs. For the last two years he has been invited by the European Commission to talk about the role of ICT in combating narcotics,” says Parker.
“Five years ago nobody would have given this guy the time of day. Today he’s travelling to Nigeria and Namibia to set up other RLab hubs, and he’s good friends with his mom and dad. He taught his mom to use social media when we set up our ‘Geeky Moms’ programme,” Parker says.
The drug of choice for Cape Town is Tik. It is the drug that’s said to fuel abuse, child neglect and crime with long-term use of methamphetamine delivering uncontrollable rages and violent behaviour. It also cripples the mind with depression, hallucinations, confusion, paranoia and memory loss, together with changes in the actual brain structure and function.
It seems inconceivable that a Tik user can change, but Brent did. And not because of the technology, says Parker. “It is about creating the space where there are people willing to give you an opportunity. We are people who say: ‘So what. You’ve done some things in the past but let’s see what we can do together to bring about change.’ Technology becomes the draw card for people so that they can share their stories and learn new skills. In the journey they learn that the skills they are acquiring are incredibly good,” he explains.
MXit has played a big role in RLab’s business model and growth. “When we started the mobile counselling, MXit allowed us to plug into their system and was one of the big players that came on board and supported us. We’ve been using MXit since 2007, when all the bad things were happening on it, and I guess that was one of the reasons why they picked up on what we were doing because we had ex-gang members and drug addicts helping people with their social problems,” says Parker.
MXit gave RLabs an opportunity to reach people on a massive scale, because the free instant messaging application has such wide reach. It is the largest social network in Africa and about 750 million messages are sent using MXit each day.
Parker was initially nervous when he heard that Alan Knott-Craig had bought MXit from founder Herman Heunis and Naspers. Heunis was invested in RLabs: MXit had given the social entrepreneurs their first and only donation of free computers, and MXit was the backbone that much of the services and community support programmes had been built on. But Knott-Craig got to chat with Parker and, after hearing what RLabs was doing, offered Parker the opportunity to run MXit’s non-profit, which is called MXit Reach. This means Parker uses everything he’s learned to accelerate social organisations who use MXit for similar projects, while Parker’s wife and the other directors of RLabs continue running the successful social experiment, which is gaining global traction.
“The mandate for MXit Reach is to create African solutions to African problems,” says Parker. “There’s a massive opportunity because MXit has proven itself as an African innovation that has penetrated and achieved mass reach. MXit has this enormous potential, and my goal is to help community groups, NGOs and social entrepreneurs to reach their objectives using MXit.”
Parker has a good team that understands the capabilities of MXit’s technology and who will be building on RLabs’ accessible toolkits so that NGOs and social enterprises can literally plug-and-play solutions they need. An example of this would be reminder systems for people to take their ARVs, education on ARVs, or support for people with HIV and Aids.
“The biggest challenge for NGOs is normally the development cost of technology. We’re taking that headache away and give them a proven platform they can use to achieve a wide range of goals to really turn things around,” Parker says.
“We also want to create an environment for social entrepreneurs who can make money for themselves and create jobs while changing the world.” A case in point is the Uusi project, Uusi being the Finnish word for ‘new’. I remember the time the person who started it came to me. He said that the biggest problem in the Cape Flats was unemployment and that 70% of the people here are unemployed. His problem was that he had been unemployed for a number of years. I told him that it was the best thing I had heard. He thought I was crazy. I told him that in any other industry five years’ experience would make him a consultant. I said he should become an unemployment consultant. Who best to understand unemployment than him?” Parker says with a quintessential positivity that seems to be part of his DNA.
A social network for people who are unemployed or don’t have degrees or the kind of career cred that would make you instantly hireable on LinkedIn, Uusi is a mobile and web employment, education and business hub. “Now, not only is the person who started this doing social good by providing people with jobs, but he is at the point where he has enough money to sustain his family, and he has money to pay his developers. He is running a sustainable business,” says Parker.
Parker’s mandate for MXit? “Enable. Impact. Sustain and scale,” he says with exacting clarity. “It is all about starting social enterprises from scratch and developing them into powerful agents for change. That, and helping NGOs and other change agents to leverage MXit to do what they do better, or on a much wider platform.”
When Daily Maverick met Parker in Pinelands in the Cape he wasn’t wearing a tie. He says he’s been there, done that. But that dream to stop others from hurting – the dream to change people’s lives for the better and to be a force for good in this world – well, that dream’s alive, growing, and taking on new shapes and forms. Every day. DM
[Editor’s Note: Alan Knott-Craig is the CEO of MXit and the CEO of World of Avatar, which is invested in Daily Maverick and iMaverick. Knott-Craig is also a Daily Maverick and iMaverick shareholder in his personal capacity.]
Photo: Marlon Parker. DAILY MAVERICK/Jonathan Pienaar.
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