Outside, the Sowetan dust kicks up around a dry car park. Up a couple of flights of steps, beneath a gigantic pavilion that’s one part Sydney Opera House to two parts Beduin tent, a local band plays a lively mix of Afrobeat music while shoppers mill around traditional craft stalls.

Inside, one of South Africa’s most important inventors explains – in remarkably simple English – just what a ‘digital laser’ is. A blogger talks about why – and what – she did to spread happiness around the country as a way of coping with encroaching middle age. A teacher from Port Elizabeth shows how he’s helping almost half a million people develop skills to raise themselves out of poverty. A doctor from CAR tells the story of how he brought medicine and technology a tiny island and its isolated people, promoting a doctrine of progressive values along the way.

The Soweto Theatre - a striking and awesome location for TEDxSoweto
The Soweto Theatre – a striking and awesome location for TEDxSoweto

This was TEDxSoweto. Living up to the TED motto of “ideas worth spreading” it’s a showcase for the best of African initiatives, in the best of African surrounds. Held at the start of November, it was just one of five TEDx events held around Joburg last year. The biggest was undoubtedly TEDxJohannesburg in Bryanston, the smallest possibly TEDxJoburgCities2.0. Tonight, TED fans can come along to JoziHub for yet another TEDx event.

Organising just one of these events is gruelling: it involves searching for speakers, inviting them, convincing them to turn up and – mostly – pay for their own expenses and travel, arrange venues, organising ticket sales, coaching speakers and managing press. It’s therefore all the more impressive that it’s almost always the same team of volunteers that put together the Joburg and Soweto-based TEDx conferences. At the core of that team are two people – Ithateng Mokgoro and Kelo Kubu, and they’ve been doing this since the first TEDxSoweto event in 2010.

Kubu herself is currently in Canada at TEDActive, a fringe festival which runs alongside the main 2014 TED conference. For the initiated, TED is a week-long festival of ideas, during which a unique blend of speakers, scientists, artists, thinkers and entertainers are invited on stage to tell the world about their big idea. And they get exactly 18 minutes to do it. Entry to TED is eye-wateringly expensive, which ensures that all the great and good want to be there.

The presentations, however, are eventually uploaded online for maximum publicity.

TED – which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design – is 30 years old this year, but the current format of the conference only took shape in the early 2000s when the organisation was purchased by the founder of Future Publishing and IGN, Chris Anderson. In its current glitzy, web-savvy format, it has attracted speakers including Bill Gates, Larry Page, Jane Goodall, Andrew Mwenda and – last year – Hillbrow’s own Lesley Perkes.

The genius of TED, however, isn’t in the often eye-popping talks. It’s in the way the conference is syndicated out across the world using the TEDx brand, ensuring not only the spread of ideas, but also the brand into areas – like Soweto – which might not otherwise be aware of it. Anyone can apply for a licence to organise a TEDx conference – the official website advises you to think of it as “hosting an awesome dinner party” – and get together a group of local speakers for an audience of less than 100 people who pay less than $100 for entry. There are, however, many carefully enforced rules around the nature and presentation of the event – one of the key ones being that it has to be not-for-profit and not affiliated to a corporate sponsor.

Given the ubiquity of TED today, it’s easy to forget that just four years ago it was barely heard of in South Africa.

“For the first TEDx event we did, we had to put an ad out to get an audience,” explains Kubu, “We stuck an ad into mainstream media, and we got about 100 people along. Last year, we sold out 450 tickets to TEDxJohannesburg purely through word of mouth and social media.”

“And a billboard,” interjects Mokgoro laughing.

Outside of TED, Kubu and Mokgoro have worked together for a decade, operating as graphic designers under the company banner Gamatong Design. The firm’s history hasn’t been easy explains Kubu: it grew rapidly into a large design house with a public and private sector contracts, a plush office with a five-year lease and a large enough staff to cause permanent headaches. In 2007, the pair closed the company down in order to return to full-time employment – and then they discovered TED.

“We were tired of the way business was being done, and were looking for a platform that could host the kinds of conversations we thought people needed to share in South Africa,” says Mokgoro, “And we came across TED. There was an official TEDGlobal conference in Tanzania in 2007, and we both applied to go.

“Only one of us got invited,” he finishes, pointing at Kubu, “This one, not that one.”

Malizole “Banks” Gwaxula from the Ubuntu Education Fund at TEDxSoweto 2013
Malizole “Banks” Gwaxula from the Ubuntu Education Fund at TEDxSoweto 2013

Kubu says that she went to Tanzania with a simple mission in mind: to collar the driving force behind TED, Chris Anderson, and convince him to let her organise a South African event. Remarkably, her journey was success: after Tanzania, the two flew to London for a brief meeting with Anderson (which, recalls Mokgoro, was interrupted by a phone call from Bob Geldof) where they won the licence to produce TedAfrica.

“We pitched, and we won that licence,” says Mokgoto.

“And that was 2008,” sighs Kubu, “And we all know what happened in 2008.”

One of the clauses in the licence was that TEDAfrica had to be funded through local sponsorship. Bringing in US money to get it off the ground would have undermined the themes of local empowerment. Despite the problems this caused, Kubu maintains that it was still the right idea to be insistent on the point.

“We were in those boardrooms and trying to pitch for sponsorship,” says Kubu, “And only one company had ever heard of TED.”

“You had to give them some idea,” explains Mokgoro, “That people who founded Google spoke at it. That it was like World Economic Forum, but for creative people.”

“And they looked at us and said: ‘How much?’,” says Kubu, ruefully.

Ultimately, plans to host a grand TEDAfrica conference fell through. And that wasn’t such a bad thing in the end, says Kubu. TEDAfrica would have commanded a $3 000 entry price: by focussing on smaller events using the TEDx brand, the pair say that they’ve also kept the conferences accessible. Indeed, this year they’re considering downsizing again and hosting more ‘TEDxSalon’ events – which are more informal and more like a drinks evening – and just the main two larger events (Soweto and Johannesburg).

They’re also keen to devote more time to their company, Gamatong, which has been resurrected as a smaller freelance design agency with fewer overheads. Mokgoro explains now people are familiar with the TED name, it’s not such a difficult sell to potential speakers.

“TED is so mainstream now,” he says, “That people are trying to pick holes in it. There’s a definite conference culture that it’s helped to cultivate, and suddenly it’s cool to be anti-TED.”

The pair understand the criticisms of TED – not all the speakers are top drawer inventors, some are unprepared and disappointing, or disarmingly polished and lack authenticity. But on the whole, they say, the balance is good.

“Chris [Anderson] compares it to Wikipedia,” says Kubu, “Some bits are good, some bits are bad but in the end the best filter through.”

“We’ve done this often enough now to know that if we haven’t seen the guy rehearsing, we cancel them,” adds Mokgoro.

The idea of TED conferences creating conversations and raising important questions is important to Kubu. Some have criticised recent conferences for not having enough tech-related talks, but she explains that their objective is to raise locally relevant issues. Exposing these through TEDx talks helps to raise them to the global stage too: many speakers from the past four years have gone on to appear at official TED conferences.

Thati and Kelo, TEDx and Gamatong combined.
Thati and Kelo, TEDx and Gamatong combined.

As might be expected, the pair are hardened digital evangelists too. They get animated when talking about the lack of broadband connections into areas like Soweto, for example.

“Why are we still defining what broadband means in 2014?” says Kubu, in response to a question about the new National Broadband Policy, “There’s something we’re missing as a people, that we’re not understanding. I don’t see anyone protesting about the cost of the internet and broadband. In Soweto, there’s a huge issue around fibre. The entire fibre infrastructure is there as part of the World Cup legacy. There’s a massive pipe into that stadium. Yet there’s no way of getting on to that if you actually live in Soweto.”

“People don’t understand that there’s no internet in Soweto,” says Mokgoro, “One of the conditions of the 2012 World Cup was that we had to stream feeds to New York. So they installed a base station for it, then turned it off after the competition finished.”

The conference that didn't quite happen.
The conference that didn’t quite happen.

“There’s not even phone reception in most of Diepsloot,” Kubu adds, “It posits the question: do the government not want people to have access to the internet?”

One dream scenario, Kubu continues, would be to take a tech hub environment like JoziHub, with its high-speed internet connection – before JoziHub, the live TED streaming events had to be hosted at the US embassy as nowhere else had enough bandwidth – and transplant it to Soweto.

When it comes to TEDx, though, both are enthusiastic about the coming year. They maintain that even though you could spend every working day in a conference on tech somewhere around Joburg, TEDx remains unique – as much for the experience of the speakers as it is for the audience.

“People are amazing,” says Mokgoro, “They can be really profound. You say to people that you can change the world, and help them frame their idea in a way that moves people from here to there. And at the same time, they move from here to their and it changes what they do to.”

“It’s getting people to focus on what really matters to them as humans and not what I do for a living,” says Kubu, “It’s important to take people out of the corporate environment and personalise what they’re passionate about. We don’t praise ourselves enough, but in 18 minutes there’s not enough time to talk about everyone else, you have to focus on the role you play.”

For the future, Kubu and Mokgoro say that they want to focus on making the talks more accessible to everyone, and not just those who can afford the entrance fee and the time or have an internet connection fast enough for video. They express admiration for the way NPR presents TED talks as radio programs, and believe that there could be potential to do something similar with local broadcast media too. And while they may say that their focus is on building their business up this year, it’s clear that a lot of the next few months will spent doing one thing.

“You can get caught up in the world of TED,” nods Kubu, “But that’s a good thing.”