“We had some problems getting the name past the linguists,” laughs Professor Christo Doherty, “It’s street Zulu for ‘putting in the electricity’*. It’s also used for dancing, as in ‘increase the energy’ or ‘pump up the volume’.”
The name in question is the Fak’ugesi Digital Africa Festival, and while Doherty’s choice of pop-culture reference may give away his own age it doesn’t take away from the youthful sense of aspiration and ambition that surrounds this arts event designed to celebrate the role of technology in pan-African development.
In his day job, Doherty is head of digital arts at Wits University, but right now he’s sat in the offices of the Johannesburg Centre for Software Excellence (JCSE) on Jorissen Street and talking about the festival for which he is chair and co-founder. JCSE is based in a small part of the complex which will eventually become the Tshimologong Precinct, a full city block around the old Inc nightclub which was purchased by Wits and is currently being converted into a giant shared workspace with adjacent coffee cars and offices that its founder are hoping will become the epicentre of the burgeoning tech community in and around Braamfontein.
Inspired by tech hubs like iHub and Google’s Campus in London, Tshimologong will not only be a key venue for the festival when it kicks off in mid-August with the Agile Africa conference but has also helped to inspire the whole thing.
“We want to activate Tshimologong and the broader inner city area as a magnet for tech innovation, digital content and creativity and entrepreneurship,” says Doherty, “What we hope will attract people is that the context is very edgy and street and urban, and it’s very much about engagement.”
In its first year, the core of Fak’ugesi will be to bring together existing events such as indie gaming and geek celebration A MAZE/Interact, which took place at the Braamfontein Centre last year, and the Unyazi Festival of Electronic Music which has been running annually since 2005. In addition, Doherty and his co-founders are also bringing Social Media Week to South Africa for the first time.
Even more impressively, Maker Faire Africa is also scheduled to make an appearance as part of Fak’ugesi, although there are a few details to confirm yet. There’ll also be a program of smaller events happening in and around central Johannesburg, which will draw upon the internal talent of the five departments of Wits involved in planning and outsiders from other academic institutions and tech hubs in the city, like the University of Johannesburg and JoziHub.
The first event, Agile Africa, takes place on 11th and 12th August and the last – Social Media Week Johannesburg – finishes on 26th September. A month and a half is a long time to try and keep up momentum for a large event like this.
“We are very spread out,” admits Doherty, “But that’s because this year we’re working with what’s already there. The intention is to make it compact in the future.”
In keeping with using what’s already available to get the inaugural festival off the ground, Doherty says that he’s keen to organise events around projects that are ongoing but little heard of. Like a paleontology project within Wits to digitise San rock art for example.
“What will make this a success, though, is people attending,” says Doherty, “What’s unique about Fak’ugesi as a whole is that it’s not just about the technology, it’s about the content too.”
Doherty emphasises this because there’s no shortage of tech conferences in, around and about Africa. What sets Fak’ugesi apart is the number of open events that will appear under its banner. For many – especially around A MAZE – you should be able to simply walk in off the street and find something of interest.
Being inclusive is important to Doherty. He believes one of the biggest problems with South African education as it is is the lack of exposure children have to new technologies and its potential. Unless they know what’s out there, they can’t begin to be inspired into careers working with it.
It’s a view shared by industry organisations like Make Games SA which is open about its frustration with the lack of diversity among its ranks.
“One of the great things about A MAZE/Interact last year was that you got all these young, black schoolkids coming in and playing South African-made games,” says Doherty, “A lot of them were learning that these things exist for the first time, and that the potential to make them is right here.”
The first cohort of students on Wits’ own Games Design course is due to graduate this year.
One of the most striking events is likely to be the Cascade installation, which will be both an ongoing project throughout the festival and also a series of workshops that will produce exhibits for A MAZE/Interact. There are plans for day long hackathons and evening events too, but Doherty says that the full program hasn’t yet been finalised.
With just a few weeks to go to the launch – and not even a completed website to help with the build-up – Doherty is curiously relaxed about the state of preparations – but then he’s looking a long way beyond the end of September. While this year’s festival is looking strong already, it’s what Fak’ugesi has the potential to become if the team behind it get it right. Can it grow into an event worthy of mention in the same breath as the Edinburgh Fringe or Sundance Film Festival but with a uniquely modern and African flavour? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility in the mind of this writer. Let’s see how it all pans out.
*And also taking out the electricity by illegally leeching directly from powerlines in townships.[Main image – A MAZE Festival site]