Africa inspired- TEDxRhodesU breaks new ground 

The Tedx RhodesU team headed by Tyron Louw. Photo:Melite Vivier

For over 25 years, millions of people all over the world have been inspired and transformed by TED Talks, made available for free online via This has inspired communities and individuals all around the world to do the same, organising independent events called TEDx ‒ Technology, Entertainment and Design ‒ with the x signifying that the event is independently organised.

This year, Rhodes University made its mark by organising its own student-run TEDx RhodesU, an initiative of Rhodes student Tyron Louw, who wanted to attend a TED conference in the USA but couldn’t afford to do so. Tyron is currently reading for a Master of Science degree in Ergonomics, having graduated at the top of his Human Kinetics and Ergonomics Honours class.

He says he has been a fan since watching statistician Dr Hans Rosling’s TED talk during Prof Roddy Fox’s Geography 102 class. Last year, he assembled a team of equally avid TED fans and they have diligently been meeting once a week ever since. This culminated in a dynamic event held on 12 August that transformed the Rhodes Theatre into a dynamic, thinking, talking space. Centred on the theme, “Africa Inspired,” the talks concentrated on ideas for changing our thinking, both as individuals and as African citizens. The speakers could interpret the theme how they saw fit, with discussion topics ranging from theatre to technology.  The talks were split up into four sections: Think, Know, Feel and Do.

Says Tyron: “As South Africans, we sometimes get too caught up in the negative aspects of what’s happening in our country, so I wanted to create a platform to explore some of the things about where we live, that we can actually celebrate. ‘Africa Inspired’ is a theme that struck me as being broad enough to encompass ideas from any discipline, but focused enough to have a core message.”

In between sessions, the participants were encouraged to converse and write down ideas on interactive boards. Nosipho “Noizee” Mngomezulu of the Community Engagement Office acted as emcee, providing links and making connections between the talks. Based on the hundreds of applications to attend, 100 people were personally selected by the team, guaranteeing full engagement.

Eusebius McKaiser Photo: Melite Vivier

The speakers ranged from theatre doyen Prof Andrew Buckland to popular blogger and political analyst (and Rhodes alumnus) Eusebius McKaiser. Prof Justin Jonas, the Associate Director for Science and Engineering in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa Project Office also presented a talk about the project. Prof Buckland presented one of the most popular talks, illustrating how our imagination is the most important characteristic of human survival. True to form, physical theatre and mime were interwoven throughout his talk.

Two speakers who pertinently challenged the status quo were McKaiser, whose talk was entitled: “Of course I don’t have a backbone- I’m a liberal- duhh!” and Dr Rob Smorfitt (MBA). Using “The Spear debacle as an example of retreat” McKaiser encouraged his audience to embrace “the value of deep disagreement as a feature of deliberate democracy” exposing the often the “deeply condescending behaviour” of people who regard themselves as liberals.  Smorfitt in turn challenged the old saying “thinking out of the box”, arguing that the very notion of the box stifles and constricts intelligent, creative thinking.

But the more experienced speakers were not the only ones in the spotlight- third year BA student Morongoa Masebe, majoring in English Literature and Politics, presented a moving and powerful speech about her beliefs as a young artistic thinker. Quoting from David Best’s The Rationality of Feeling she says it is a myth that there are separate realms for the creative and cognitive which is “disastrous for the educational credentials of the arts and sciences”.

As the ‘curator’ of the event, Louw spent a lot of time listening to people’s ideas and moulding them into a TEDx talk. “It’s not about your public profile, it’s about your idea,” he emphasised.  “The University of Southern California has six fulltime staff members, [to organise their TEDx Talks event] so I think it’s great that we could pull it off with our limited professional networks and financial resources,” he said.

TEDxRhodesU received generous support from Dean of Science, Prof Ric Bernard and the Dean of Commerce, Prof Dave Sewry. Collaborating with the Telkom Centre of Excellence, to provide a free live stream of the event, they also received support from the Discovery Centre for Health Journalism, who covered the costs of hosting and transport for McKaiser.

“It was a huge learning curve to pull off an event like this, doing something completely different from what I usually do,” says Masters in Science (Biotechnology) student Adam Kramer, who was in charge of marketing and branding. Cindy Slater, the production and logistics person, says she would “definitely do it all over again,” adding how she “loved meeting such a diverse group of people. The talks were streamed on campus, accessed in Cape Town and then ended up being released internationally, so we heard that people in Dublin had seen the talks!” she said.

The organising committee plans to make TEDx an annual event and invites staff and students to get involved and submit ideas for future talks via the website where you can also watch this year’s talks.

This article was first published on the Rhodes University website Tyron Louw went on receive the Leeds International Research Scholarship (LIRS) – to study towards a PhD in 2014 at the University of Leeds in the UK and is now a Research Fellow at the same university.

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