Maker Culture in South Africa

An extract from “Creative Superpowers: Equip Yourself for The Age of Creativity”

Issue 48 | September 2018

The Makerthon Years

I grew up in a farming town – no, wait, just outside a farming town – in South Africa. Don't panic: I won't be regaling you with long childhood stories about the times I built forts in the bushveld and under bridges next to the railway tracks. Or that time I built a plywood box at the bottom of the garden, which I insisted on 'living' in. And I won't go into detail about the 'robot' necklaces I used to make using nuts and bolts, and a big marble for its eye, all held together with Prestic, which I proudly strung around my neck on a piece of string.

But as TV-and-computer-starved children we had to resort to willing our imagination to make something of the odds and ends found in the dusty garage and, of course, at least one shiny thing from mom's cupboard. And it wasn't until some thirty-eight years later that I realised how incredibly lucky I was to live in that single mainroad town, with long afternoons spent wandering around the bushveld bored out of my mind.

Because that mix of boredom and having to entertain myself for hours on end made me a natural and accomplished maker. I was having long sessions of focused making, or 'makerthons', for hours, days, months ... In fact, it was about an eleven-year- long makerthon, before I became a Madonna/ Morrissey wannabe (yes, in one outfit) and left my childhood maker years behind me.

Making it as a creative professional

Those makerthon years contributed to my imagination running away with itself with some regularity. I had a brief run-in with compulsive lying, but that's another story. As a result, I was able to land a job in advertising. "As a result of makerthons, or briefly being a compulsive liar?", I hear you ask. Probably both. I was able to play with ideas and make them come to life. But when I made the move into digital I simultaneously rekindled my love of analogue and physical objects. All connected to digital, of course, because high-touch experiences and physical participation is what people still enjoy and are delighted by. The mix of the two is magic.

My maker mindset really resurfaced when I started working in digital communications. This was evidenced in my work, as I was always trying to inject some physical object or experience into my creative projects. For example, when I was at agency hellocomputer, we turned the Johannesburg Zoo's honey badger into their social media spokesanimal by using infrared motion sensor technology to connect its physical movements to Twitter. In fact, every creative in my team
knew they had to bring me work which bridged the physical and digital world. (Sigh. Poor guys.) So this whole element of playing and making really did set me up to think of objects (physical or digital) as tools to be used in creative ways and not necessarily for what they were intended.

I was so enamoured with the idea of playing and making just to see what happens that I approached my then exec. creative director, Brett Morris (now CEO of FCB Africa Group), who was incredibly generous in allowing me, and at times funding, these experimental makerthon sessions. (Most important was the twenty-four-hour coffee supply.)

These makerthons really brought playing and making into agency life, and there were a few projects that were carried through and developed into bigger projects. But the entire focus of my version of a hackathon or makerthon was for creatives, thinkers and developers who worked in groups together – almost simulating a mini agency – to let go of the idea of an end goal or formal brief and just play within a very broad theme to see what happens, e.g. hack for music, hack for kids, hack for holidays.

My maker mindset has really informed how I approach creative projects and has made my thinking a lot more nuanced, human and fun.

Making a Difference

After a while, I became quite involved in the maker and hacker community. I met makers from all different backgrounds, all of whom had their own particular skills which they applied to the maker process – engineers, artists, industrial designers, teachers and people who believed in the difference a maker culture could bring to people's lives and their livelihoods.

This realisation opened up a whole new world for me and showed me how a maker culture could have a higher social purpose; in a country where the education system was failing children, for instance, it could actually have a massive social impact. Maker culture was also being used to develop a start- up community to help with job creation and to mobilise a wave of entrepreneurship.

It turns out my personal maker experience is just a very small facet of a very healthy maker culture that is developing in South Africa, and in my chapter of "Creative Superpowers" I wanted to include the voices of some of the makers and hackers I have met along the way. This community is full of good people going above and beyond to make spaces, sometimes in their own homes, for people to play and create.

People like Tiyiani Nghonyama, COO of Geekulcha, and Librarian of Maker Library Network South Africa, sponsored by The British Council; Marc Nicolson, Thingking Studio, also Librarian of Maker Library Network South Africa; Mia van Zyl, Steve Gray, Tom Van den Bon, Michelle Lissoos and Robyn Farah.

With regard to being a maker in South Africa, there is huge diversity and dedication among all those involved, from the community organisers to the members. Everyone has huge visions which they are working together to achieve. One person cannot be expected to do it all, nor can one community.

Each group is expert in its own thing, and so collaborating, connecting and sharing is the key to progress and innovation.

Why is Making a superpower?

Making encourages non-linear thought and play. This helps you untrain your adult mind, which is conventionally trained to need a plan and to know what the end goal is.

This is a killer creative superpower as it gives you confidence to make it up as you go along without judgement. This is something we've lost in our competitive, goal- oriented world, which ambitious adults need to return to, because we had it, but as you enter the convergent world of immediate response it shrinks and can disappear altogether.

More about Kerry Friend

Kerry's creative life is constantly evolving. From advertising Executive Creative Director to working with a Civic Tech NGO to a Social Innovation project in the Transkei to curating events-gatherings usually involving using technology to engage and bring people together. Her career seems to be made of many parts, which combine somehow to keep it going in the same way that a whimsical and mesmerising self- perpetuating mechanical nonsense machine does.

More about the new book

"Creative Superpowers: Equip yourself for the Age of Creativity" explores the skills that we need to thrive in the upcoming Age of Creativity. It is a collection of essays edited by Daniele Fiandaca (Utopia), Laura Jordan Bambach (Mr President), Scott Morrison (Boom!) and Mark Earls (Herd Consultancy). The essays tackle and unpack four primary superpowers:

  • Making - the experimentation, practical knowledge and happy accidents that breathe life into an idea
  • Hacking - overcoming the limitations of systems to achieve novel and creative solutions
  • Teaching - finding ways to consolidate experience for yourself and others in a fast-paced world
  • Thieving - making use of what already exists to solve your problems

It features contributions from 13 authors including Alastair Barr (an architect), Hugh Garry (a storyteller), Lizi Hamer & Kerry Friend (Creative Directors), Lucas Abela (a musician), J Smith Esquire (a Hat Designer) and Nadya Powell (co-founder of Utopia).

More information can be found at

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