Photo caption: In one room in Cape Town, disadvantaged students are learning how to use social media technologies in order to find work. Here is Table Mountain on World AIDS Day 2010 on Dec. 1, 2010. It is under a red spotlight to promote awareness of the ongoing fight against the AIDS epidemic. (Carl Fourie/Getty Images)
CAPE TOWN, South Africa — In South Africa, Saturday mornings are a bustle of bank lines, grocery shopping and other household errands that need to be wrapped up before most businesses close for the weekend.
For the past year, a group of mothers in Athlone, a mixed-race township, have instead carved out a few hours for themselves. They meet in a dark corner room kitted with 10 laptops for what is essentially a social empowerment program wearing the cloak of a computer skills and training program offered by RLabs.
Education and employment opportunities are hard for adults to come by here. Those with a high school diploma still face bleak unemployment rates of at least 25 percent. RLabs offers sessions for groups that might not seem obvious candidates to become social media mavens or entrepreneurs. For working moms, reformed drug addicts and senior citizens, computer proficiency falls outside the realm of necessary, or even desired skills.
Even with the free Social Media for Social Change classes geared to meet community needs, the single classroom is often not filled to capacity. Sixteen moms made it to the year-end graduation ceremony recently, but less than half that many were able to juggle responsibilities to get to class in the past few weeks.
Apartheid-era education — and recent efforts in economically depressed areas like Athlone, for that matter — generally failed to encourage the kind of critical thinking that fosters lifelong learning. To that end, RLabs' curriculum is, for most students, as much about awakening and changing patterns of behavior as it about maneuvering social media.
"It's not so much the tech," said RLabs Director Rene Parker. "It's the opening of the mind. 'I realize I can do something. I can do anything I want to.' It's the mindset that needs to be changed."
Melanie Willie is one of the students seizing the chance to expand her world. Early on a recent Saturday, she met a colleague to pick up a flash drive with pictures from her job at a car dealership. While at her Mom's 3.0 class at RLabs, she uploaded the images on her blog Mel3kids, typed up her post, logged onto HootSuite and informed her Facebook friends and Twitter followers that she had new content up.
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Chatting online about Volvos is not part of her job description, but she's hopeful that in the future it might well be. For now, she's thrilled with the process, the new connections with South African and global car enthusiasts and the sheer ability to communicate about her passions. She segments her interests onto different pages: cars on one account, spiritual journey on another.
When it comes to social technology, says Willie, "I'm addicted."
It's not an unusual term around RLabs, where many of the students and teachers either had a drug problem or had a family member with one.
Monique Ross, co-founder of "She's the Geek," which won the Best Science & Technology Blog at News24's 2010 South African Blog Awards, and an RLabs grad herself, readily compares her current and former addictions.
For Ross, the geek conversion process happened right after she quit a bad crystal meth habit and found Jesus. "I was introduced to social media, and found the freedom to express whatever I was feeling," she said. "I can't picture my life without technology."
Ross, Parker, and the rest of the RLabs team are emphatic about RLabs graduates becoming instructors themselves.
Building on existing ties with Cape Peninsula University of Technology, there are plans in the works to create RLabs Academy, adding software development and a university-credit bearing course to the mix.
RLabs has numerous other community-tech-empowerment projects, such as mobile phone counseling, which reaches thousands of people. Still, the one-on-one, small sessions in the classroom offer the sort of personalized learning and discovery that is virtually unfathomable in overcrowded schools nearby.