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10 Inspiring TED Talks By South African Speakers

Updated Monday, 15 April 2024

Do South Africans have ideas worth spreading? Are they talks to stir your curiosity? You bet.

South Africans, like people of every other nationality, contribute to TED, the nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas.

These contributions are short, powerful talks of eighteen minutes or less. It’s where Technology, Entertainment and Design meet, and I was more than pleasantly surprised to find that our fellow citizens are giving talks that are inspiring and funny. They make you laugh, and some make you want to cry.

Listening to them leaves me even more proud to be a South African.

10 inspiring TED talks by South African Speakers…

A bath without water – LUDWICK MARISHANE

The Limpopo student, Ludwick Marishane, responded to his best friend’s suggestion that it would be great to be able to put something on your skin to clean yourself without having to bath. DryBath was the result.

In effect, it is an anti-bacterial cleanser. One sachet substitutes a bath for R5. Not only does it help those who have no access to water keep clean, but it also saves water (and those who just don’t want a shower). Google named him one of the brightest young minds in the world.

The mind behind Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity – ELON MUSK

Elon Musk needs no introduction to South Africans. He’s managed to introduce an electric car that not only earns sustainability kudos, but is also an exciting car to own (They sold out the year’s production of Model X for 2015).

He’s also developed rockets and spacecraft for missions to Earth orbit (and soon, Mars). And whilst he doesn’t sound terribly South African, if you close your eyes you can hear the odd flattened vowel (inbetween the American and British influence).

One woman’s constitutional right to rule – YVONNE MOKGORO

Yvonne Mokgoro was appointed to the Constitutional Court by Nelson Mandela in 1994. She was South Africa’s first black female judge and devoted her time to restoring justice to ordinary people, until the end of her 15 year term in 2009.

Here she speaks about a village in Limpopo in which a woman succeeded her father. A first, only possible through the constitutional court. She advocates that South Africa’s constitution makes it possible for anyone in South Africa to bring matters before the constitutional court. Inspiring.

What I learned from Nelson Mandela – BOYD VARTY

Wildlife activist, Boyd Varty takes people out into nature. Here he brings his experiences of the bush to TED; “the simple medicine of a few camp fire stories”. He speaks about when Mandela came to stay at Londolozi, with Boyd’s family.

He describes how Mandela, having only just been released from prison, walked around in a pair of tracksuit pants in the evening, whilst Boyd watched his release on television. He also speaks about how Solly saved his life and other stories. It’s a heartfelt talk.

My wish: Find the next Einstein in Africa – NEIL TUROK

Neil Turok, who was born in South Africa, and whose parents were arrested for resisting apartheid (they fled South Africa for this reason; Neil spent his high school years in England) is a physicist who works on understanding the universe’s very beginnings.

He founded the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Muizenberg and the Hawking-Turok Instanton solutions, with Stephen Hawking, describing the birth of an inflationary universe. Here he advocates that the next Einstein will come out of Africa.

How we can make crops survive without water – JILL FARRANT

Molecular biologist, Jill Farrant, speaks about how ‘resurrection plants’- super resilient plants – could hold the promise for growing food in a hotter, drier world. Professor of molecular and cell biology at UCT, Jill explains how these plants can survive extreme drought and ‘resurrect’ when moistened or irrigated.

Resurrection plants can lose 98% of their cellular water and be resuscitated, within a matter of hours. Very few species can do this. How do they dry without dying? Jill explains.

An affordable water filter that fits in your pocket – GARY FLAX

Gary Flax founded a water filter that you can fit in your pocket. The mini-desktop water cooler comes with an affordable and easily transportable water filter system.

He’s called it the Little Luxury Vitality Cooler and filter. The 100% South African product is the first water cooler to chill water at 46 degrees Fahrenheit whilst being energy efficient and almost completely silent.

In Africa, necessity is the mother of innovation – TOBY SHAPSHAK

“I think that the gold of today is mobile. People like to call Africa a mobile first continent, but I’m telling you Africa is a mobile only continent.”

Toby Shapshak explains how cell phones have changed the face of the continent. He is a journalist who made it onto GQs 2009 list of media’s top 30 men, and knows a lot about technology and publishing.

Why invest in Africa – EUVIN NAIDOO

A fairly old talk, but no less inspiring. Euvin Naidoo is a South African investment banker, and he explains as part of Africa the Next Chapter, why investing in Africa makes business sense. He has all the facts, figures and a positive outlook.

He talks about Africa’s turnaround. He holds an MBA from Harvard and is a banker and venture capitalist. It’s people like Euvin that change people’s perspectives about South Africa.

A powerful poem about what it feels like to be transgender – LEE MOKOBE

Lee’s poem is beautifully presented. “I was the mystery of an anatomy, a question asked but not answered,” she decided to “be a boy”. Lee Mokobe is a Cape Town based award-winning slam poet who founded Vocal Revolutionaries, a volunteer-run literary organisation that focuses on empowering African youth.

She is also a teaching artist across the United States and a 2015 TED Fellow.

The genius puppetry behind War Horse – BASIL JONES & ADRIAN KOHLER

We saved the best for last. The Handspring Puppet Company is a household name in South Africa, especially after the worldwide success of War Horse.

Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler take you through their history and how their puppets are far more than the idea many of us have of ‘Punch and Judy’. The emergence of the ‘war horse’ is inspiring.