Parmesh Shahani attended the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town last month

I got goosebumps sitting in a tiny room in a cell block on Robben Island, listening to Ahmed Kathrada or Uncle Kathy, as he is lovingly called by all, tell me and my fellow World Economic Forum (WEF) delegates about the 26 years he had spent as a prisoner alongside his close friend Nelson Mandela, 18 of them in the very block that we were sitting in. They were seven prisoners together, Uncle Kathy told us, and they had felt they would certainly be given the death penalty in what was famously known as the Rivonia Trial of 1964. Instead, they were sentenced to life imprisonment on this isolated maximum-security prison off the coast of Cape Town. Uncle Kathy was the only Indian in the group.

There was segregation everywhere, even in the prison. The black prisoners got less food and had to wear short pants as compared to the Indians, mixed race, ‘coloured’ or white prisoners. But Uncle Kathy’s particular group was united, performed small acts of resistance all the time and continued to struggle peacefully for what they wanted. So after 15 years in prison, they finally won the right to get newspapers, and after 20 years, they got television. Slowly they were allowed to write and receive more letters, and could have more visits from relatives and friends. After 25 years in prison, he was writing 40 letters a year. “Our spirits never went down. We knew we would definitely win some day.”

The worst thing about being locked up was the lack of children, Uncle Kathy told us. The prisoners would all be desperate to hear the sound of a child’s voice. But it took 20 years before he could encounter a child again. Still, he spoke to us about forgiveness. Yes, life presents us with all kinds of situations, but we have the power to change our attitude and make the best of them. So Uncle Kathy used his time in jail to earn bachelor’s degrees in history, criminology and bibliography as well as honours degrees in history and African politics from the University of South Africa.

You need discipline and endurance to survive imprisonment, he told us — and a sense of humour. “After taking cold showers throughout winter because they wouldn’t give us hot water, I am now used to it. You should try it, it is good for health,” he suggested to us with a twinkle in his eyes. When someone asked him if he knew what a selfie was, he laughed and replied that he did, because Michelle Obama, who had been his recent guest on the island, had taught him how to take one.

As a form of torture, they were made to work with just picks and shovels in the salt mine on the island, he recounted, and even though this often gave them blisters and blood on their hands, they still preferred it to being locked up in their single cells. When I heard about how Mandela couldn’t bear light for the rest of his life, because his eyes had been damaged due to exposure in the mines, I felt great rage well up inside. “Don’t you ever feel vengeful?” I asked him. “They wronged you all so much…took away a large part of your life.”

“No,” he replied emphatically. “Revenge is pointless.” To create an equal country and an equal world, he said, there has to be forgiveness and an absence of hatred. People who harbour negative emotions like anger or bitterness suffer more than the people towards whom these feelings are directed, he cautioned. “In any case a lot of work still needs to be done in South Africa and the world. There is no dignity in poverty; there is no dignity in hunger.”

After his release from prison, Uncle Kathy served in the Nelson Mandela government as a minister, but then retired from active politics to focus on his non-profit work. On the boat ride back to Cape Town, he told me about receiving the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman from the Indian government in 2005, and his recent India trip again last year to attend the 125th birth anniversary celebrations of Jawaharlal Nehru on the invitation of Sonia Gandhi. He told me that he would come back again. I can’t wait for him to keep that promise. Just being in his presence was such a blessing.

I was visiting Cape Town as a participant of WEF on Africa. It was the 25th anniversary celebration of WEF Africa, also the 21st year of South Africa as a country post the end of apartheid in 1994. So there was a lot of reflection on what it means to be both African and South African, and fittingly, the theme of WEF Africa this year was ‘Reimagining Africa’s Future’. I was able to get a glimpse of this exciting future from the panels, workshops and meetings that I attended — they spanned a range of issues like water, gender and economic inequality, financial integrity, migration, corporate governance and food security.

At my own panel, which my Yale friend, the Nigerian media czarina Biola Alabi had assembled, we spoke about the need to tell positive stories about Africa. As another of our friends from Yale, Dayo Olopade, has written in her book The Bright Continent, for far too long Africa has been seen through the lens of poverty, violence, or disease. Last year itself, the big stories out of Africa in the world media were Ebola and the kidnapped Nigerian girls. Sure, these did happen, but fixating on them ignores the rest of the exciting positive developments also taking place. So, what if we start looking at Africa through another lens?

This is why I was impressed while listening to Rwanda Finance Minister Claver Gatete as he talked about how the country is advancing gender equality. After the genocide of 1994, 54 per cent of Rwanda’s population remained female. So equality was an economic imperative but it was still hard for a woman to even open a bank account by herself at that time. The country has since put gender equity into its Constitution and its legal and institutional frameworks, and made great advances.

I encountered two amazing power women while in Cape Town. The first was Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, currently the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director for UN Women, who was formerly the deputy president of South Africa. Phumzile’s famous #HeForShe campaign last year, of which Farhan Akhtar (in India) is the ambassador, urged men around the world to take a stand on women’s rights. The second was the awe-inspiring Graça Machel — currently the Minister for Education and Culture in Mozambique and the widow of Nelson Mandela and also of Mozambican president Samora Machel. Madame Machel’s life lessons about how to strategically make change happen are still ringing in my ears.

There were some inspiring men as well! Paul Polman, the global CEO of Unilever, spoke about how corporations can lead social change. This is something I’m also proud of enabling through my company in India, Godrej, and it was very inspiring to hear Polman talk about public-private partnerships and purpose-driven corporations. While facilitating change, Polman said, “There’s no use in trying to convince everyone. Just spend your energy with 20 or 30 people who can create catalytic change.” I plan to use this advice with intent.

More than anything else, my time in Cape Town was about making new friends, like Ashish Thakkar, the young founder of the Mara group, one of the continent’s most exciting business conglomerates. Or Lisa Heydlauff, founder of the Delhi-based Going to School — a media trust that produces books that reach 10 million Indian students a year and educational TV shows that reach 100 million Indian children each year. Or Sharanjeet Shan — the maths teacher and visionary from Johannesburg who has helped educate thousands of students. Sharanjeet was one of the winners of the Schwab Social Entrepreneur Award this year and her own story — of being denied the right to marry her lover in India, because he was a Muslim and she was a Sikh, of being forced into an arranged marriage with a person she did not love in England, of then negotiating her own freedom, and finally her success as an educator in South Africa — should be made into a movie.


I absolutely loved meeting Marlon Parker. Marlon is the founder of the brilliant RLabs — or Reconstructed Living Labs, an NGO that uses technology to empower communities. They provide counselling, training and an ideas incubator. Marlon has also co-founded JamiiX — the backbone to one of the largest mobile chat counselling networks in the world, with more than three million people being reached since its inception. His most recent initiative is co-founding the Kukua Fund, an early stage investment company seeking to invest in high-growth social entrepreneurs in Africa.

As a child growing up in extreme poverty on the Cape Flats — an area of Cape Town where the previous apartheid governments had dumped all the people they considered non-white or ‘coloured’ — Marlon’s only dream was to have a job where he would wear a shirt and tie. After studying IT and clawing his way out of poverty, he started RLabs and today, their model has been replicated in 21 countries, incubated 22 social enterprises, and employs 80 people — most of them in Cape Town.

More than four million people have accessed support services through RLabs. He told me several stories of success, especially with people who were former gang members or drug addicts but who, after attending  RLabs, had been able to completely turn their lives around and now have stable jobs and lives.

Marlon took me to see another project he has started — youth cafes. These are hang-out spaces, often in very poor neighbourhoods, that have learning centres situated within fun cafeterias. The only way you can eat, drink or use the Internet at the cafeteria is to use a virtual currency — called zlatos — and the only way you can earn zlatos is if you attend a lecture in the classroom attached, or do community work in the neighbourhood to make it a better place. What a brilliant idea! So simple, and so smart!

“These youth cafes are hope networks,” Marlon told me as he showed me around. I was especially moved by the toilets. The youth had been empowered to design these themselves. So the girls chose to have a chandelier hanging in their toilet, while the boys chose a library theme. Both toilets were sparkling clean. When you empower young people, then they take on responsibilities willingly. “Our toilets have loads of selfies taken in them,” Marlon told me with a smile. “They’re that cool!”


Another friend I made was Lewis Pugh — the world’s leading extreme swimmer, who has swum literally everywhere, from the North Pole to Antarctica. Lewis is now the UN Patron of the Oceans and the world’s leading ocean advocate. On my first day in Cape Town, we workshopped together with Lego Blocks at the Cape Town Creative Academy, a hip interdisciplinary school located within an old biscuit mill in the grungy-cool Woodstock area of the city.

I also enjoyed spending some time with David Adjaye, one of the world’s leading architects today. Whether it is the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, the Moscow School of Management, the headquarters of the International Finance Corporation in Dakar, or in creative art — for example, the architectural collaborations like in the design of the 56th Venice Art Biennale — David’s work is deeply rooted in an idea of contemporary Africa.

Many of these people I hung out with in Cape Town were other WEF Young Global Leaders like me and the WEF organisers had planned private sessions for us around the larger forum meetings such as the memorable Robben Island visit with Uncle Kathy. On our last day there, we unwound at the beautiful Anthonij Rupert wine estate, L’Ormarins, in Franschhoek near Cape Town. The estate had Rodin sculptures lying around, an extraordinary private car collection and stables, among several other delights. It was sublime.

Hanneli Rupert, who was our host that day, is one of the continent’s most exciting fashion entrepreneurs. I simply had to squeeze in the time to visit her uber cool Merchants on Long concept store, where I bought myself some Okapi stash. Okapi is Hanneli’s brand that produces ultra luxurious artisanal handmade-in-Africa bags and accessories. Think springbok fur cuffs and blesbok heat-pressed totes. She also curates some of the continent’s other cutting-edge brands — like Ethiopia’s Lemlem and Cameroon’s SAWA, and stocks them in her beautifully laid-out store.

What I appreciated about Hanneli most of all was her humility — her family owns the Richemont group —which has brands like Cartier under its umbrella, but Hanneli was happily schlepping along with the rest of us, taking Ubers and squeezing us all in to drop us back to our hotel after a long night of partying. I can’t wait to show her around Mumbai when she visits.


*This blog post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder
that appears in Verve magazine each month.