Sitting on an old leathery chair, across from his mentor, Tshepo faced Professor Tendai Muzhingi. Separated by a relatively large desk, brown and still holding for its age, they were discussing the progress of his thesis project.
Unlike his friends, Tumelo and Yonda who were majoring with Power Systems, Tshepo had opted for the complexities of Computer Systems. Ever since he saw a hacker in a Hollywood film performing miracles with a computer when he was still a young boy growing up in the village of Dithakong, Tshepo knew that is what he wanted to do, even though he did not know then what that was. He also chose to find his own project instead of being handed a project as it had come to be accepted as the norm. He knew any project handed to him like the artefacts of a dead person would not excite him. In the eyes of senior lecturers this was a blatant act of defiance and it did not impress them.
His punishment came in the form of the professors refusing to mentor him; a requisite if he was to earn his degree. Frustrated that majority of the faculty would not mentor him, he informed Tumelo and Yonda that due to his project being rejected by senior lecturers, he thought it wise to leave university and try his luck in corporate.
Tumelo would not hear of it. He asked his friend to try Tendai Muzhingi. This was a new name to Tshepo.
Professor Tendai Muzhingi originally hails from Zimbabwe, Tumelo said. When the political situation in the Great North was about to turn ugly, Tendai Muzhingi, by then an accomplished engineer working for the state, relocated to South Africa and enrolled at Wits University for his doctorate in Electrical Engineering.
‘Chief, go and see him before you decide to join private sector’, his friend Yonda urged him. ‘Yes chief, go. I know you very well. After six months you will be bored in private sector and you will be cussing out white people’, Tumelo chimed in. He was right. Tshepo was notorious for his impatience. He agreed to meet Tendai Muzhingi and asked him to be his mentor.
After two days of frequenting the best and dingiest of Cape Town’s watering holes, Tshepo finally managed to drag himself to Professor Muzhingi’s office. Short, slim and exquisitely dark in complexion as if to make a mockery of Tshepo’s Africanness, Professor Muzhingi welcomed Tshepo with open arms. He was particularly taken by the young fellow’s keen views on the continent and where Africa ought to be. The young lion roared with confidence and passion, qualities that resonated deeply with the professor. He explained to Muzhingi that he wanted his research to focus on financial technology – a nascent concept by then that had potential to bring simplicity, affordability and convenience to commercial trading. Muzhingi was impressed. Not only with the idea but with the defiant spirit of this young man sitting across from him. Senior professors snubbed him and instead of kowtowing to academic bureaucracy, he chose to rather leave – something that would have been unfortunate.
In his thesis Tshepo wanted to explore how financial technology would benefit the continent and improve trade between Africans. ‘Professor, this would be an intersection of economics and engineering’, he said as he gestured with his hands. In addition to submitting a written thesis he intended to also build a working prototype for his idea. The professor was sold. He agreed to mentor Tshepo even though he knew this radical decision would put him at odds with his colleagues, most of whom outrank him in seniority.
Here he was over a year later in Professor Muzhingi’s office. ‘Tshepo, you are almost done. Have you given any thought to taking your idea to a large market?’ Muzhingi was correct.
To prove his concept, he had launched his idea at three nightclubs and four spaza shops across the city. With the help of Muzhingi, he convinced an emerging bank to act as holder of the money, or a digital wallet as he preferred to call it. Utilising their cellphones – feature and smartphone – consumers could transact without physical cash. The consumers would pay only 50 cents for each transaction they made that was equal to or higher than R20. Anything less than R20 the consumer was not charged for the transaction.
In his presentation Tshepo argued that this would revolutionise and simplify global trade. For the benefit of the bank, he argued that his concept would also attract customers from other banks to the nascent bank, as well as enticing the majority of potential customers out there who are not using banks.
‘Remember, this is just a test and you will not be doing much except providing me with a wallet as a licensed bank. The 50 cents on each transaction performed will be yours. All I need is the data to prove the concept.’
Sitting in the boardroom at the headquarters of the new bank, supported by his mentor Tendai Muzhingi, the young chap reasoned emphatically for his idea. The headquarters were situated in the middle of what was previously a vineyard, now converted into a business campus just south of the central business district of Stellenbosch. Beyond the glass windows, far away in the distance the mountain range piqued the senses of an appreciative eye, complementing the green of the vineyards and the serenity of the location, making it impossible to believe that such a beautiful town could be dominated so much by an ugly history of hate and discrimination.
‘Gentlemen, let us be honest. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain from this proposal. Imagine if, no scratch that… when this idea blows up. It will put you on a grand scale on the globe. And I would like to believe that is where you want to see your business.’ The bankers from Stellenbosch nodded. Muzhingi was hitting home.
‘Alright gentlemen. We shall grant you four months to collect your data and assign two of our engineers to work with you’, said Stefaan Kruger, the bank’s CEO and cofounder.
Kruger and his team already liked the idea. Tendai Muzhingi had spoken with a former colleague of his from Wits about Tshepo’s project, and he insisted that he get in touch with Stefan Kruger, CEO of KD Bank whom he knew from their university days in Stellenbosch. Muzhingi’s colleague would set up the meeting. Unbeknownst to Muzhingi and his young, bristling protégé the Stellenbosch boys were hungry for the idea. On the day of the meeting they were playing hardball because they did not wish to show their hand. In their heart of hearts, they loved the idea.
Contracts were signed and sealed allowing Tshepo to test his concept with the backing of KD Bank, thanks again to Tendai Muzhingi. To sell his payment system to merchants, Tshepo used his connections to convince nightclub owners. Due to limited funds he could only afford to install two systems at two of his favourite watering holes: one at his beloved Scrumpy Jack in Observatory and one in Zevolis where he was a resident DJ.
He would also use his mini celebrity – owing to his talents on the decks – to promote his concept which for the sake of marketing, he called it Theko. Perhaps not the best of names but it was better than a long, haughty academic title he would give to his paper later. Within a month the data was coming in and the boys from Stellenbosch could not believe what they were seeing. Between the two establishments, 15 000 transactions had gone through Theko. They were not making as much money, a problem that could always be solved later, but for now Theko was proving to be what it was hyped to be.
One Friday morning, rising from a night of what was called amongst a circle of his friends, an accepted and usual worship at the altar of debauchery, Tshepo opened his laptop to check his emails – an hourly ritual in the 21st century. There was a curious email from one Stefan Kruger. He opened the mail to read:
We have been monitoring the data from here in our offices, and I must say we like what we see. For an idea that is meant to be a university thesis and never really marketed to a large audience, Theko is proving to be quite a remarkable revelation. So myself and my partners here at KD Bank were thinking that we should provide you the necessary equipment to install in five more business establishments, preferably in townships to see how the different demographics respond to this system. Please let us know so we can arrange for the equipment to be bought and delivered to you as soon as possible. Additionally, we would also like to provide Tshepo with a small of amount of money to help him in promoting the concept and so on for the next three months.
That way we would all be able to see how far Theko can run. Congratulations once again gentlemen on this brilliant project.
Stefan Kruger, KD Bank CEO
Reeling from a hangover the size of Table Mountain, Tshepo was initially excited until he came across this line: ‘…preferably in townships to see how the different demographic respond to this system.’ He was slightly ticked off. The hangover was not helping.
‘These bastards…Whenever they want money suddenly an opinion of natives matters’, he mumbled. ‘Huh?’ A girl next to him answered. He had forgotten that he was not alone.
Last night, or rather this morning, after partying a storm in Long Street, he suggested that the party be moved to his flat in Observatory. Present as always were loyal members of his crew. The usual suspects: Yonda, Mohau, Tumelo, Pule. Olwethu chose not to come.
‘Chaps, unlike you I still have classes to attend’, he said to Mohau when he invited him yesterday afternoon to join them in Long Street.
Together with Pule they were not as fortunate as the rest of the group, pursuing their postgraduate studies. So instead of drinking like a pirate, especially during the week with lads who would soon be submitting their dissertations for master’s degrees, Olwethu chose to focus on completing his undergraduate studies at the end of the year.
Pule could not care. Where there was alcohol and girls, like a loyal pastor devoted to his congregation, he was always in the midst of things. Sleeping on the floor next to Tshepo’s bed, here he was sprawled in between two girls who looked like they were ready for more partying.
The memory of Thursday night came to him as he registered the young lady sandwiched between him and Yonda. At two o’clock in the morning when most nightclubs closed for business, escorted by an army of girls, they returned to his flat; but not before they stopped over at Aunty’s Place – a dodgy shebeen situated in the heart of Salt River known and visited only by the most accomplished of drinkers – to buy alcohol for the party ahead.
They arrived at his flat two hours after leaving Long Street – a small distance that normally takes thirty minutes in traffic – courtesy of Cape Town’s hardworking metered taxi drivers. Instead of continuing the party that commenced late afternoon on Thursday at Cape Town’s most famous and beloved street, the group was too drunk to even lift a beer can.
One by one they began disappearing into the two bedrooms that constituted Tshepo’s flat. Some passed out right in the middle of the living room. The last man standing was no surprise. Tumelo had been watching everyone submit to the will of their bodies, exhausted from taking in copious amounts of alcohol. He even laughed at Mohau who passed out on the couch while holding on to a quart of Castle Lager. ‘Monna, o senya jwala’, he preached to Mohau who was now fast asleep and almost dropped the bottle.
Awaking from the bed to find privacy to make a call, Tshepo found Tumelo sitting comfortably on the couch as if last night didn’t happen. He sat watching television in the living room, eating takeaway food they had bought earlier on their way to the flat. And next to him on the floor was a cold quart of beer. Mohau was still fast asleep on the couch.
‘Moer! Ke bolawa ke babalase’, Tshepo moaned, his hoarse, deep voice reverberating through the house. His head pounding, he immediately bent down to grab the beer. ‘E tla bolaya jwala mchana’, Tumelo teased his mate who was now drinking profusely from the bottle as if he expected to cure his hangover right away.
Tshepo had known Tumelo from first year, and almost six years later he had never seen his friend passed out. They always left him standing while they succumbed to the might of the bottle. When teased for not passing out, often accusing him of his stomach being a brewery, Tumelo would respond with a cheeky, lighthearted answer. ‘Nna le jwala re metswalele, lona lo bashaanyana.’
The hungover lad put the bottle down, took out his cellphone from the pocket of his short pants, excused himself and stepped outside to make a call. The city was awake and a chorus of gaatjies dominated the atmosphere, shouting to lure potential customers. ‘Salt River, Woodstock, Caape Town!’ ‘Mowbray, Claremont, Wiineberg!’
For a third day in a row it had not been raining in the Mother City. The mountain was not dressed in the table cloth and the weather had been surprisingly pleasant.
‘Good morning professor’, Tshepo was speaking to Tendai Muzhingi who was on the other side of the phone. ‘Did you see the email from KD Bank?’ He enquired from the professor. Yes, he had seen it, Muzhingi answered. ‘What do you make of it?’ As much as that line from the email annoyed him, Tshepo thought the offer was generous. ‘It is a good offer Tshepo. I think it makes sense to accept it and focus on completing your degree.’ He needed to hear this. He trusted and honoured Professor Muzhingi’s judgment. ‘Alright professor. I will respond to the email and say we accept the offer.’ Tshepo said goodbye to his mentor and hung up the phone.