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Mbongeni Sibanda: From Schools SleepOut Ambassador to the main event – with Stanford University next in line

LONDON — Like their counterparts elsewhere, the older generation of South Africans tend to fret about the “big” stuff.  Yet 80% of what we worry about never happens – something young people seem to “get” more readily. Mbongeni Sibanda, a matriculant at Redhill School, offers a good example of that reality in this fascinating interview ahead of the CEO SleepOut™ on 11 July. He’ll be at the event as a guest of IQ Business Group’s CEO Adam Craker, doubtless pinging as many CEOs as he can find for their views on his plan to study in California next year. – Alec Hogg

In this edition of the CEO SleepOut™ update, Mbongeni Sibanda.

It’s good to have you on the line, Mbongeni. You are a veteran in a manner of speaking even though you’re going to be one of the youngest of those who are at the SleepOut™. Last year you were a school SleepOut™ ambassador. What exactly happened there?

Hi there, Alec. Last year I was indeed an ambassador for the school SleepOut™ and basically, what happened is that I was the individual responsible for setting up the school SleepOut™ within my school and going out there to challenge other schools as well to get behind the initiative. It’s really an experience that I can’t even describe in terms of the value it’s hand for me. Just the people I’ve met, the things I’ve learnt and the places I’ve gone because of the experience. It’s really been invaluable to me.

Whom did you challenge last year?

I challenged a number of schools. Unfortunately, I don’t have a list with me, but I really made an effort to go out there and challenge as many schools as possible. There were schools in my area, schools out of my province in Cape Town, Durban, really just all over the place and the aim was just to get as many people behind it as possible.

Schools SleepOut™ Ambassador Mbongeni Sibanda.

Was it successful?

Oh, I think it definitely was a success. Just looking at the progress we’ve made from the previous year, I think the SleepOut™ really is on the rise and even this year I can see that it’s shaping up to look pretty good in terms of turnout and support so yes, I think last year really was successful.

It was pretty cold though, no doubt.

Yes, 100%, I really felt the cold. Luckily we knew that it was going to be quite cold, so we had ways of ensuring that we didn’t get too cold.

Now the guy who’s invited you to the CEO SleepOut™, you’re going to be one of the guests there, Adam Craker says that you have to wear layers and bring beanies. Do you have any other tips to beat the cold?

I think really just cover up with absolutely everything. One can never be too layered up. I realised that last year. I thought initially that just having some gloves and a beanie, maybe a blanket would be fine, but I still managed to feel cold. I guess it is good in the spirit of really empathising with those who are less fortunate, but yes, if you’re not planning to get sick or anything, I think you can’t have too many layers.

“Empathy”, that word keeps coming through from all of the participants. Did you leave last year feeling a little different?

I definitely did and I like to think that everyone who came to my school SleepOut™ felt the same way. Although we tried to make our SleepOut™ night a little bit more fun by having focus groups, discussing many topics and making sandwiches, that kind of thing, I think there was an undertone throughout the whole evening and into the next morning, that we all knew why we were there. We knew what we were experiencing and we really just embraced the experience of that immense cold and just reminded ourselves that that’s the kind of experience that many people are facing on a day-to-day basis. This was just us on one evening with our blankets and gloves and beanies, whatever it may be, so yes, I think it really did leave a lasting impact on me definitely and hopefully to the people that came as well.

How do you feel then about the homeless people when you see them at the robots begging for food or walking by and looking pretty bedraggled? Do you feel differently than you did maybe a year before?

I’ve definitely always had a feeling of; I can’t quite say “empathy”, but more compassion towards them. I’ve always felt that they are less fortunate. There are things that they need that we have in abundance and it really isn’t too much to take a few minutes or even a few seconds out of your day to just try to help this person. However, again I really think last years’ experience really helped me to relate with them more on an empathy side than a compassion side alone.

While the compassion is still definitely there, I think last years’ experience definitely stuck with me and every time I see a homeless person, especially coming up to the winter season now, which is extremely cold, I just think back to that and think, “Okay, you know what, actually it’s not a great situation to be in” and I can almost relate to it. Of course, the SleepOut™ can’t exactly replicate what it is like to be homeless for months on end or years on end, but I think that one night really was effective in just putting that experience into my mind.

It was so interesting talking to Adam Craker and I’d like to get your insight on him as well. The fact that he does so much for philanthropy, I think he’s on the boards of something like half a dozen philanthropic organisations. Now you must know him quite well because he’s invited you along.

Yes, it’s actually quite surprising really. I met Adam Craker at the media launch for this year’s event. I don’t know him extremely well, but from this first time meeting at the media launch we just had a good chat about my plans for the future, where I want to go study. He told me a bit more about what he does and I told him about what I do at school and from there I think it was just a good relationship that we formed. I don’t know him all that well, just in terms of the length of the relationship we’ve had, but from what I’ve experienced from him he seems like he’s an absolutely amazing person. Him being on the boards of all these philanthropic companies is almost not a surprise as it’s expected of him.

IQ Business Group CEO Adam Craker at the media launch of the 2018 CEO SleepOut™.

What do you think’s going to happen on the 11th of July given that you’re going to be with a guy like him and presumably meet other people who are CEOs of other companies? Are you going to get out there and try to network a little bit?

I definitely think I will try to put myself out there. I think that’s not the main objective for me going, but it would be nice to rub shoulders with the people that are there and to get a feel of how this event looks from the eyes of CEOs. I think that I have a good feel now of how the event looks from a school event, just in terms of my own peers, myself included, but it’ll be nice to see how the event is carried out and how the atmosphere is in an older environment with all these other CEOs.

As you well know this is the Nelson Mandela SleepOut™, given that it is his centenary a week after we’re going to be lying in the cold. What does he mean to you? I’m interested to hear this because it’s most unlikely that you would’ve had the opportunity to meet him, but I’m sure you’ve read a lot about him.

Definitely, I have and I think it’s almost impossible to be a South Africa and not have some sort of understanding of Mandela’s history, who he was and what he stood for, so I think this year being the centenary of his legacy essentially, it’s really just re-embracing those values that he stood for, everything he was about and when I think about Mandela it really comes from an attitude of gratitude. Yes, it just happened to rhyme, but that’s my thinking towards him because it reminds me on a daily basis that when I look around and see all my friends at school of different races and different backgrounds, it was through his actions and the people around him as well. I think that dedicating this year’s Sleepout to him and his legacy just reminds us of all that he’s done for the country.

What do you learn in your history books about the ANC, the struggle, Madiba, and Liliesleaf, do you get a proper feel, or do you have to go out elsewhere and read books like “A Long Walk to Freedom” to get a proper understanding?

Former South African President Nelson Mandela

Unfortunately, I don’t take history as a subject anymore, but when I did, we got a brief overview of the history of the country pre-1994 of course. We understood the kind of dynamics that were at play at the time and how it was a very difficult time for most people, but I think the value does come in going out of the classroom and learning about the effects of the pre-1994 South Africa from there. Therefore, while textbook learning can be very useful within the classroom, I think really going out to see the effects, maybe even just taking a drive through town, not even anything hectic to go out of your way, but just to learn outside of the classroom. I find it’s a lot more valuable, a lot more memorable as well and it just offers a unique viewpoint to many of these issues.

So, what’s your next step?

I wish I knew as well. Obviously, I’m finishing matric this year and then next year I plan to move into university. I’m going to fly to a few local universities, but I’m planning to go study in the US. I’m planning to study computer science there, but of course, I know it’s quite an expensive and nit-picky process, so I have my fingers crossed that I can get into some good universities there. If the doors do open up then I will make my way there, come back after the four years, and then see where to go from there.

Where are you applying?

I have a whole list of universities or rather do you mean locally or internationally?

No, internationally, Harvard, MIT, are you shooting that high to these Ivy League schools?

I think I’ve really diversified my bunch. I think my reach school, if you will, is Stanford, so I will be putting in an application for Stanford, but as optimistic as I am, I have a few other Plan Bs like UCLA, Caltech, and a few other universities that are pretty good for the things that I want to study. I realise that for now my idea might be computer sciences, but it might need to change later, you never know. However, at the moment I’m really just structuring my university choices around my interests, so I have a number of universities I’m looking at.

Well, you certainly are picking the right ones, Stanford being – of course, Steve Jobs, I think he was there for – he certainly did the commencement speech in 2006. I’m not sure that he got there, but there’s a lot of his ethos in Silicon Valley. What took you into computers, what made you keen on that subject?

You know technology’s always been something that I’ve had an affinity for. I think it really started perhaps when I got my first Playstation from my dad; you know just fun gaming and everything. I really just enjoyed the experience and then from there it’s just developed more and more, so whenever I get a new phone I’m always interested in how it works and all the specs, the attention to detail and that kind of thing. I’m particularly interested in artificial intelligence, I just love the idea of it, of just automating processes potentially using computer intelligence that simulates human intelligence. I think it’s absolutely amazing, so yes, that’s the field that I hope to specialise in one day.

It sounds amazing and the South African universities, if you don’t happen to get in Caltech, Stanford or UCLA, if you were to look locally, what’s the best of the schools here?

At the moment it looks like UCT would be my best option. I definitely think that it would be an amazing experience, not only because it’s in Cape Town and there are amazing views there and everything and just how amazing Cape Town is. UCT actually did a presentation at my school last year, just telling us about their facilities and how the university works and I definitely think it’s not very far off from international standards, so I wouldn’t be upset going there at all.

Mbongeni, when you have a look at South Africa and you talk to older people – and it would be interesting to get your view on this, but you tend to find a mixture of extreme pessimism or just pessimists or, “Man, we have a lot of work to do”. As a younger person who’s going to be looking at this country for decades into the future how are you approaching it?

Well, first right off the bat I have to say I think that I can understand the frustration of the older generations. They feel the effect of the country more intensely in terms of stress and those kinds of things, but as a member of the youth I’m very optimistic that the youth coming up now will consist of individuals that can improve the country in every aspect, so I really think that we’ll have good leaders across medicine, technology, whatever it may be that can really make a tangible difference after we move out of the school space, but yes, I definitely think there is a feeling of optimism in the youth. I think that we have what it takes and I know many of my friends agree as well that once we get out of school we really have the skills that are needed to go out there and make a difference, so yes, it’s really just putting that into practice now, but I think the attitude is there.

Obviously, Nelson Mandela is a legacy and an icon for all of us, but just to close off with on the political side and I don’t really need you to get too outspoken on this, but with the change, with Jacob Zuma being replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa we saw the Rand strengthen, we saw people getting excited, we saw what is called “Ramaphoria” taking over. Is that something that impacts you as well, do you think about these things?

I think as youth, linking to what I was saying earlier, many of these changes have an affect more on the older generations, particularly adults, but as youth we definitely are aware of these things, but I think we are somewhat removed as well in that we watch the changes, we see the effect that it has, but we don’t quite feel it as much. Therefore, as much as we are aware, at this point, it is more of a spectator role until we step to the fore, then it’s our turn to lead, then yes, I think it would affect us a bit more then.

However, presumably you will vote in the next election.

I will indeed.

Mbongeni, really great talking with you. I look forward to seeing you on the 11th and hopefully it’s not too cold when we get underneath that starry sky.

Hopefully, yes. Thank you very much, Alec.

That’s Mbongeni Sibanda and he’s going to be at the CEO SleepOut™on the 11th of July as a guest this year of Adam Craker, the Chief Executive of IQ Business Group. Last year Mbongeni, as he was telling us, was a school SleepOut™ ambassador.

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