From Prison to Programming: Meet Africa's Most Caring Convicts

We planned to find work for our students. Work found us. Small township businesses and NGOs quickly began approaching us, asking our motley bunch of students to build them websites.
01/22/2015 04:01 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Only where failure is forgiven can creativity and innovation flourish. Cities everywhere are scrambling to foster Silicon Valley's fertile culture where those who start and stumble can start again. But what of those who have failed even before they start?

This was the quandary faced by eight South African men, characters in a book I am writing, who in 2002 learned about HIV/Aids. Information and treatment were then scarce or unavailable. The president, Thabo Mbeki, questioned the syndrome's very existence as tens of thousands died in isolation and ignorance.

The men became desperate to do something. But these men had failed spectacularly: they were maximum-security prisoners -- murderers and armed robbers -- incarcerated in what was then the nation's most violent prison. They had no money, no freedom of movement, no reason to be trusted with the resources of others.

Like many unlikely innovators, they got lucky with a backer, a prison social worker called Jacobus Pansegrouw. An Afrikaner, Jacobus was raised under apartheid. He served in the South African army, policing the black townships during the unrest in the 1980s. There he watched good men, himself included, do deplorable things. When, years later, he was approached by these eight black prisoners, he did not believe they could do what they dreamed. But he believed that to ignore their plea would be hypocritical: their mistakes, as his own, born of brutal context.

Risking his career -- and as bold as any venture capitalist -- Jacobus invested his trust in these prisoners. To start, he found an orphan: an 11-year-old boy, with both Aids and spina bifida, desperate enough to welcome help from prisoners. Inspired by this trust, the prisoners found ingenious ways to help the boy. These included cutting up their civilian clothes, their prized possession, to make him clothes. This gesture won them the right to plant a vegetable garden.

Within a few years, the men, calling themselves the Group of Hope, had saved or changed the lives of hundreds of children in nearby townships. Every month, scores of orphans, from toddlers to teenagers, would visit the prison. Leaping from the old school bus that delivered them, they would run to the soaring prison fence, rattling the mesh in excitement. This image -- beaming children trying to break into a prison -- is one of the most stirring I have seen. It is also an arresting reminder of a lesson these prisoners have taught me: that sometimes those most excluded by society hold solutions to society's most elusive problems.

Two years ago, together with two ex-offenders from the Group of Hope, I founded Brothers for All, a social enterprise with a mission to end the cycle of poverty and crime. We provide technology and entrepreneurship opportunities to offenders, ex-offenders and at-risk township youth: opportunities that compete with crime, in coolness and earning potential.

Last year, we launched a coding centre in Langa, Cape Town's oldest township. This year we will open coding centres inside South African prisons. In our centre, we help those who have had some schooling or work opportunities but have fallen by the wayside: ex-offenders, teenage gangsters, school dropouts, young mothers. Given their backgrounds, I am often surprised by how quickly and competently they learn to code. My co-founder, Sihle Tshabalala, an ex-armed robber, is never surprised. "People in the townships have lost their dignity," he explains. "Ex-offenders know the struggles that take their dignity. So we can give it back. We can give hope."

We planned to find work for our students. Work found us. Small township businesses and NGOs quickly began approaching us, asking our motley bunch of students to build them websites. Again Sihle was unsurprised: "Many black people in South Africa think technology is just for rich white people," he says pithily, while I wince. "They don't think they can go online."

Nelson Mandela said that "no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but instead its lowest ones." I believe this treatment is not just about humane conditions or even basic education; it is about trusting that even when one has failed spectacularly in life, one can still spectacularly succeed.

It is the fair thing to do. It can also be the smart thing to do. As anyone from Silicon Valley will tell you, skilfulness often lies hidden in failure. When Nelson Mandela died, many South Africans commented on his extraordinary memory for details about people -- their names, their loved ones, their dreams. They admired his "politician's mind." Sihle emphatically disagreed: "That's not politician's mind," he said, "that's prison mind." I don't know if he is right. I do know he remembers the names, hopes and struggles of everyone who comes to our coding centre. And I know they come back.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2015 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 21-24). Members of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship represent a select community of social entrepreneurs who are engaged in shaping global, regional and industry agendas in ways that improve the state of the world. Read all the posts in the series here.