Mandela Day – Working together is the key

by Prof Barry Dwolatzky


Today is the 18th July – Mandela Day. To mark Nelson Mandela’s 92nd birthday we’ve all been asked to volunteer 67 minutes of our time doing something that contributes to the betterment of our community. Writing this blog is my contribution. 

Isn’t that a bit of a cop-out … or even a bit arrogant? Shouldn’t I be out and about, cleaning the local park or planting a tree? I hope that by the time you’ve read this you will agree that writing this on my blog is a valid contribution in the spirit of Mandela Day. 

Before I go any further, I need to define the “community” I’m volunteering to support. I guess as a software engineer it’s valid to have a “virtual” community. I see this community as a group of people who share my passion for the South African software industry. Being passionate about our local software industry is not enough however. I’m hoping that you, as a member of this community, are passionate because you have some sort of stake in the industry. Maybe the industry provides you with an income – a job or ownership of a company.  Maybe you depend on the South African software industry to help you succeed in doing your job. Possibly, like me, you just believe that South Africa simply MUST have a viable and strong software industry. 

I believe that there are two possible scenarios facing South Africa’s software industry:

  • There’s the ‘high road’ scenario in which the industry grows and prospers. Our software industry already has a long and proud tradition going back to the 1950’s. The high road scenario sees the industry continuing to serve the needs of South Africa – continuing to be innovative and creative – and finding and filling new niches in the international ICT market.
  • Then there’s the ‘low road’ scenario. In this scenario the local industry loses out to international competition coming from Europe, North America, India and other emerging ICT powers. Our software industry shrinks and becomes primarily a source of customization and maintenance of other countries’ software. 

Those of us with a stake in the local software industry and a passion for its continued success obviously need to find ways to avoid the “low road” and travel along the “high road”. How we do this is not a simple matter. There are many interacting factors at work, many of which we have no influence over. 

There are however a few simple steps we all can take to increase our chance of success. These are: 

  1. Grow the skills base: We need more skilled people. It is easy to push the burden of skills development onto someone else. I’ve often heard people complain about the state of our schools, the shortcomings of our universities, and the failure of Government to train more IT people. We need however to each play a role ourselves. During the struggle against Apartheid there was a slogan “Each one teach one”. It was a call for everyone who has knowledge and skills to find a way to share these with someone else. I believe that everyone in the software industry should look for an opportunity to train someone. It may be someone you work with. It may be a school child or student. At the same time we should make a concerted effort to learn something new ourselves.
  2. Embrace quality and professionalism: Our major challenge in facing competition from abroad is that we struggle to develop high quality systems on time and within budget. If we are to meet this challenge we each need to find ways of acting professionally and dedicating ourselves to doing quality work.
  3. Promote the South African software industry: Many people around the world are not aware that we have capacity and a long history in producing great innovative software in South Africa. We need to talk more and talk proudly about what we’ve done and what we can do. Many software professionals in SA focus too narrowly. We “sell” our company or our region. We need to work together to “sell” South Africa. 

This 3-point call to action that I’m making on Mandela Day is not simply lip-service on my part. Through the JCSE ( I’ve been working since 2005 to develop activities in support of each of the points listed above. I am willing and keen to donate my time free-of-charge to any person, company or organisation keen to discuss what I have done and to explore any other ideas you may have. 

Our community can only succeed if we work together – and this I believe is the message to all communities on Mandela Day.

5 thoughts on “Mandela Day – Working together is the key

  1. I think your 67 minutes was well spent, Barry. While I applaud the Nelson Mandela Foundation for using the 67 minutes as a hook for getting people to contribute to their community, the reality is that we must all think in terms of giving back on a continuous basis, not “here and there”.

    A young man featured on 702 yesterday was inspirational – although he has qualified as a cameraman and producer, he has yet to secure a paid job. While he continues to seek employment, he is spending 40 or more hours a week at the Alexandra Clinic, doing anything he can to help. What I am certain of is that when he does get a job, he will not stop giving back to his community.

    I am often asked where I find the time to do the extra-curricular stuff. It’s easy – you just have to sacrifice some of your comfort zone. That may mean longer hours, less time doing “nothing”, less time with family (although the culture exists in the family, so nobody notices the “less time”), less sleep. The motivation is easy, too – if everyone serves their community in some way, we will all prosper.

    Viva Madiba!

  2. I also agree it was 67 minutes well spent in writing the article by Prof.

    The dilemma that concerns me is that I meet too many of us IT professionals with minimal knowledge. From my small investigation I noted some reasons one being that we become product specialists too early in our careers. We then expresses ourselves by naming the big IT software companies and their slogans. It is the consumerism syndrome. The question for me is how do we influence youngsters and good fellows to redirect back to the basic building blocks of technology while progressing in their careers? The bigger part of our comments and conversations are quotations by international speakers which we have not subjected to a thorough analysis. This presents possible misinterpretations. The conversations are also short and deteriorates to being about people and preference.

    It was not pleasant sitting at the SA 2010 PhD conference and hearing potential SA PhD’s that have deteriorated to being testers of tools and gadgets. I believe we need to be at the forefront and developing technology for South African needs.

    My personal mission is that we start discussions that seeks to inspire an interest in knowing the underlying components that make up the technology and our industry. To develop our own software solutions and also to minimize on being test platforms for other countries’ software.

    The best comment came from a South African Professor at a business and technologies conference held in Mpumalanga earlier this month. He said that we should not undermine our abilities as a source of new innovative knowledge and solutions. He also asked me what would have been of heart transplants today if it was not for the confidence of a South African to go ahead. This is a great lesson since by doing that we can make an impact in the world. Madiba has proven it, the world does listen and the stage is ours to share.

  3. I do agree with Adrian, a well spent 67 minutes of your time indeed Prof. I always wanted to do something for the High School where I grew up especially when it has to do with Software Engineering. Unfortunately the school is far from where I’m now having grown up in Free State.

    If you grew up in those previously disadvantaged areas, you will understand that it is almost impossible that a student will be exposed to a computer before completing Metric. That being a situation it is highly impossible that they will consider a career in software Engineering.

    I know I have to do something but I don’t know what. Would career advice in this specific field be a good start?

    Can you share some of your ideas Prof/anyone?

  4. Hey all

    Great post Prof Barry.

    There is a “domino” effect that comes into play when people become passionate about software development – our users are ultimately given better quality software, we developers have more fun while producing it. Everyone wins!

    I agree with your sentiment that South Africa has a “long and proud” tradition of development – I further believe that as the industry grows and matures, a whole pool of untapped potential will be realised. It’s an exciting time for our country in many ways, if we will only take the challenge head on and do what we should!

    @Tendani – while I believe your comment has much merit, I do think we software developers need to be cautious of extremes: becoming “testers of gadgets” as you mentioned is a problem – but exploring and knowing the sophisticated tools in our “toolbelt” is a good thing. The other extreme is a mentality that says “We must do everything from first principles ourselves”. Big business (and yes, even big software vendors!) have much to offer our industry, and learning to embrace their products, tools, even their mindset, and work with them will only enhance our professionalism and our potential. We should avoid coming across as “spurning” or rejecting the world of vendors and business; after all, many business people are ultimately our customers – or “users”, if you prefer!

    Thanks for the discussion and here’s hoping to see great things continue to happen in South Africa in future!!

  5. I believe mankind has a million extra hours a year and the tools to change the world at its disposal. Now all we need is consumerate lashings of goodwill and technologies that motivate creative collaboration.

    This post by Prof Barry is an enlightning glimpse of what great minds can do.

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