Soweto's dreadlocked hacker pushes free software
Kgabo Sepuru says he’s passionate about freedom, and it shows. He’s been a software developer for nearly 15 years and is one of the driving forces behind free and open source software in South Africa’s most famous apartheid-township, Soweto.
The township just south of Johannesburg is famous for producing great revolutionaries, and Sepuru — referred to as a “Richard Stallman in dreadlocks” by CSIR Open Source Centre head Nhlanhla Mabaso — may be the next one. He has ideas as big as his hairstyle, and speaks of technology as the key to economic growth in South Africa.
“Our economy is crumbling right now because there is a limit to access to information,” he says. South Africa’s economy is of course, doing quite well, but Seperu says it takes one trip to his childhood home near Polokwane in Limpopo Province to see differently. There, some families only live on R170 a month — a basic child grant issued by the government — says Sepuru. “It’s devastating … I look at that and say it’s useless that I know anything about technology [if] I cannot translate that to my own people.”
So Sepuru and other local open source enthusiasts are launching the Kasi Open Source Society in May and are partnering with the CSIR’s open source centre to build technology models that they hope will translate into local capacity and skills. “It’s not just about Soweto … local communities wherever, need to organise themselves into units that are able to use common resources to further development,” he says.
Sepuru argues that if local government and big business use open technologies, which small local firms can access and support, the local economy will benefit. “Something that is proprietary, that is only known by one company, for instance, that pays taxes in some other country, that doesn’t benefit us at all.”
After sharing a wireless mesh network with other open source enthusiasts in the area, Seperu is planning a larger scale version for schools in the township. He says they are aiming to connect all of Soweto’s schools wirelessly to each other and the Internet. “If deployed properly, it really works well.”
“There is no reason why the same model cannot be done in Soweto. Technology does not cost an arm and a leg,” he says. “What is missing is an understanding of the technology. That is why we need training of people and a structure that can manage that in a meaningful way.”
“We want to create a procedure that is well-researched [and] a communication platform that can be replicated easily and cheaply. A model for South Africa to build common communication infrastructure that we can link together and show that we do not have to suffer so much just to communicate.”
He’s excited about open source taking root in the township. “Soweto is catching up, big time,” he says. Recently, while driving down the road in Soweto, recalls Sepuru, “a small kid [aged seven or eight] comes up to me and says: ‘Hey do you have a Knoppix CD?’ And I had one and I gave it to him. This is encouraging, hey?”