A Reflection on #BeSomebody

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 There is a scene in Beyond the River, the South African movie about an unlikely duo who team up to paddle the Dusi Canoe Marathon, in which our young hero, sitting on the riverbank, is asked the quintessential question, the question we are only really asked when we are young, and the world lies wide and waiting in front of us. What do you want to be? What do you want to do with your life?

He gazes into the waters for a moment, and then he answers, shyly but firmly: "I want to be a somebody." That line resonated with me - nobody grows up wanting to be a nobody - and I thought of it again this week, when I met and interviewed a group of South Africans, aged from 20 to 31, at the head office of Student Village in Houghton, Johannesburg.

The occasion was a shoot for a social media campaign and travelling photographic exhibition called #BeSomebody, aimed at inspiring students and post-grads to, well, be somebody. To chase their dreams, make their mark, leave a dent, as Steve Jobs put it, in the universe.

My good friend and colleague Marc Shoul, who is always a pleasure to work with, shot the pics, which are warm and striking in their monochrome simplicity. Then I chatted with the BeSomebodies and listened to their thoughts and stories.

I met Noxolo Ntaka, who was brought up by her single mother, a domestic worker, in Durban, and who is the first member of her family to go to university. Now she holds two degrees and is a candidate for an MA in African Studies at Oxford.

I met Ryan Canin, who runs a fintech startup called DocFox, which makes compliance software aimed at combatting money-laundering and corruption. He told me of his core value, which is "unreasonable ambition", and how he wants to build a company that creates a thousand millionaires who can go on to create jobs and companies of their own.

I met Smangele Mbatha, who started a foundation to tutor pupils at the worst-performing school in Alexandra, where she stays. I asked her whether she had a role-model, someone she looked up to, and she said, "My epileptic sister. She's 18 and bed-ridden. When I look at her, I draw the strength to carry on."

I met Lerell Holmes, an entrepreneur and pilot, who is putting in her hours for her commercial license. She told me what she believes: "I believe in 12 streams of income. All you need to start a business is data, an Instagram account, and a unique product to sell."

I asked these young South Africans - I interviewed 17 in total - how they felt about the future of their country, and the more I asked the question, the more I began to realise it was the wrong question to ask, because the answer was sitting right in front of me. To be is a verb; to be somebody is what you do with it. And what you do with it, one way or another, is what brings the future rushing forward to meet you.

Here below is Thabang "Tipi" Manyelo, a Loerie-award-winning copywriter at FCB. We spoke about the campaigns he's worked on, and I asked him how he would sell himself, if he was a brand. He flashed his fingers open, like fireworks, and said, "I'd be wow."

Then I asked him if he had a big, crazy, dent-the-universe dream, and I expected him to say, in the manner of advertising copywriters, that he wanted to make a movie and win an Oscar in Hollywood. Instead, he said: "I want to capture lightning."

I thought that was a great metaphor for the creative process, and I told him how, when President Woodrow Wilson first saw a motion-picture in the White House, in the early years of the industry, he said it was like seeing history written in lightning. But I had misread Thabang's ambition.

No, he said, leaning forward, suddenly serious. "I literally want to capture lightning." He was working on a plan, together with his brother, to harness the lightning from highveld thunderstorms, and use it as a form of renewable energy.

The lightning-catchers. I can't think of a better way to sum up the hopes and dreams of this remarkable generation, these somebodies who will find ways to make South Africa work, long after we have run out of reasons to explain why it doesn't.

*You can see the full set of pics from the #BeSomebody campaign over here.  

 

Relax a little