A lesson in systems change from South Africa's RLabs

A mobile app to support young people in crisis, developed by former drug dealers and gang members, has been accessed by millions of users. In an extract from their new book, 'The systems work of social change', authors Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici show how these app developers, like many others, undertake hands-on 'systems work' to address the problems right in front of them. 

Late one evening in 2006, Brent Williams returned to his parents’ house after a three-day binge. He went to the kitchen, rummaged around in the cutlery drawer, grabbed a knife, and headed to his parents’ bedroom. High and hallucinating, he wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing, but he had decided that he needed to make a name for himself – killing his mother seemed like a good way to get some attention. His mom recalls it vividly. “I don’t know if he was aware it was Mother’s Day, but this was the day. And I thought, God help me, I need to do something. I think the cat was in his way, he kicked the cat and at that time I got my getaway... I think I was faster than him that day.”  

Brent and his parents live in Bridgetown, a suburb on the Cape Flats of Cape Town known as “apartheid’s dumping ground.” Access to education, jobs, and opportunities is limited: too often, kids drop out of school, get involved with gangs, and become drug addicts and dealers. Brent started using drugs at the age of 21, and moved on to selling them at the age of 23.  

Although he knew deep down he needed to change, he kept falling back into his old habits of drug-using and dealing. He simply couldn’t conceive of an alternative to his current way of life. Then, Brent met Marlon Parker. Marlon was a Bridgetown boy whose dream was simple – he wanted to wear a shirt and a tie. As he described it, “Very few people in my community had a job where they could wear a shirt and a tie and I felt if I did this, I could go anywhere and people would think: ‘There’s Marlon going to his office job. He’s arrived.’ ” Marlon studied information technology, mortgaging his mom’s two-bedroom house to pay the fees. Eventually, his dreams were realised when he was offered a job as a lecturer at the Cape Institute of Technology.  

We asked: ‘What do you know about computers?’ They replied: ‘Marlon, the only thing we know about computers is how to steal them’



At the time, Marlon’s father-in-law, a pastor, was running a community outreach centre with a single computer and an internet connection. He asked Marlon if he could spend some of his free time training a few former gang members on computer skills. He recalls, “There was no grand plan at the time, we just went into a class with these guys and asked: ‘What do you know about computers?’ and they replied: ‘Marlon, the only thing we know about computers is how to steal them.’” This is where Brent met Marlon for the first time.  

R Labs South Africa - extract from The Systems Work of Social Change

Above: Former drug users in South Africa soon found a new addiction – technology – which they used to help others in similar situations (credit: R Labs)

Like Brent, some of the youth in the class were dealers. Others were addicted to drugs or belonged to gangs. Most had dropped out of school and a few had children to support. They all shared an interest in turning their lives around, but also, like Brent, didn’t know where to start. Marlon didn’t have any tricks up his sleeves, but he did know about computers. So he started with what he knew and introduced them to basic computer skills. 

Brent recalls the day they started, “The first time we ever opened up a laptop and tried to sign up to email, we were all so intimidated that our hands were shaking. Can you imagine that? A room full of hardened criminals who are all terrified of something as small as a computer!” With Marlon’s help, however, they soon got the hang of it. Before long, they were looking for new ways to apply their skills, so Marlon introduced them to blogging and social media. Pretty soon, the former drug addicts and gang members had discovered a new addiction: technology. 

Marlon wasn’t surprised that technology was addictive – this he knew from his own experience. But he was surprised to discover the ways in which these young men and women were using technology. When surfing the internet, they found stories and blogs by others who had gone through similar situations – youth in other parts of the country, even the world, who were struggling with drugs, violence, and gangs. They gravitated toward a new South African social media platform called Mxit which gave them a chance to tell their personal stories, unfiltered, something they were hungry to do.  

Jamiix was one of the first mobile counselling platforms in the world – designed by a group of ex-gangsters and drug dealers

One day, Marlon, Brent, and some of the others were having a conversation about how technology was turning their lives around. Marlon realised that the young men and women were using social media to connect the dots, to make sense of their lives. The conversation turned to how they wished they had had access to social media at their previous points of crisis – Brent, for example, wished he could have talked to someone at the moment he was having his binge. As they were talking, they were getting excited. Would it be possible to create a mobile app that would give this opportunity to others who were in similar situations, to connect to people like them when they needed some help or just to share? They decided to give it a shot. 

The mobile app was built on top of Mxit and they called it Jamiix. It was one of the first mobile counselling platforms in the world – designed by a group of ex-gangsters and drug dealers. The number of active users grew so quickly it caused the system to crash. By the end of 2013, Jamiix had been accessed 27 million times, by more than 4.5 million users, facilitating more than a billion messages. Marlon and his team decided to set up a nonprofit called Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) to formally manage the platform.  

However, they knew that the platform wasn’t really the point – the app was just the channel. It was what they were channelling that was important: a sense of connection. Among those who had similar life experiences, they could recreate the feelings of belonging that gang membership and drug addiction had provided in the past. Upon this sense of unity, these youth could envision a path forward, a way to reconstruct their lives. 

  • Cynthia Rayner is a researcher, writer and lecturer affiliated with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation at the University of Cape Town. Dr. François Bonnici is a director of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship and head of social innovation at the World Economic Forum. 
  • 'The systems work of social change', published by Oxford University Press, is available at the special price of GBP1.00 or USD1.99 (Kindle version) until 10 September.

Header image credit: R Labs