Born and raised in the township of Langa, Cape Town, Sihle Tshabalala is a self-taught computer programmer and co-founder of Quirky 30. However, behind this is a story of self-renewal. He shared with Nafeesa Dangor.
Tshabalala started school at the age of four, completing high school at the age of sixteen. After matriculating, he didn’t have aspirations to attend university. Instead, Tshabalala decided to follow the path of his “role models” – as they were at the time.
“I didn’t have any aspirations to go to a university. That’s when I turned to the only role models that I knew, which are drug lords, armed robbers and gangsters,” he said.
Barely an adult, Tshabalala was soon sentenced to eleven years in prison at nineteen as a senior member of the 26s gang.
“With nothing to do, I started committing crimes. I started off with petty crimes and gradually got involved in business robberies and cash-in-transit heists. And then I went to prison for about eleven years, for robbery,” he said.
During the 11 years and three months in prison, Sihle Tshabalala experienced an epiphany. Even so, Tshabalala doesn’t believe his turning point is attributable to the work of correctional services. It was his own conscious decision, he said.
Tshabalala beat the system and soon started an illicit enterprise within the prison. This ensured that he never ate prison food in the four years he awaited trial. “I literally had everything figured out,” he said.
“My profound change started when I was in prison in spite of the fact that I started off smuggling marijuana. Most people don’t believe that you can start a business in prison, but I did. For four years awaiting trial, I never ate prison food; I ate all the KFCs and Nando’s,” he said.
“They can never claim that they have changed me or rehabilitated me because I made the conscious decision myself,” said Tshabalala.
“People think that the only way to eradicate crime in South Africa is to send people to prison, whereby prison is a breeding ground for more criminal activities,” he said, explaining that “the Department of Correctional Services does not have effective rehabilitation programs to rehabilitate offenders.”
While he awaited trial, Sihle Tshabalala may have had it going well. However, this changed following his sentencing, when he was transferred to Brandvlei Correctional Centre (then called Brandvlei Prison) in Worcester, Western Cape.
“Everything changed for me when I got sentenced and transferred to a maximum security prison. When I arrived at Brandvlei, I was placed in one of the notorious sections called Afghanistan. It’s a war zone,” he said.
After a couple of months in “Afghanistan”, it dawned upon Tshabalala that some of his fellow inmates possessed high IQ scores. Growing up in townships, as many of them did, they were given undesirable nicknames that set them on the path to criminality.
Tshabalala then decided to start teaching them English and Math classes. Inspired by a student in prison, Tshabalala co-founded Quirky 30 when he returned to Langa.
“Coming back to Langa after eleven years and three months, [I realised] that nothing much has changed in this township. I could not see myself going to university to go and study for three years, so I took the easy way out teaching myself how to code using online free material.” he said.
Quirky 30 offers underprivileged youth from Langa the opportunity to learn coding with a free training programme.
“No mother gave birth to a criminal. Whenever they bring us into this world, they always have big dreams and big ambitions in terms of how we will turn out to be,” he said.