The Night We Got Stuck In A Lift While Thabo Mbeki Was Waiting For Us

Two weeks ago, on Friday 14th September, I was stuck over an hour in a Schindler lift at a venue in Johannesburg, between the 16th and 17th floor, along with an actuary, a video journalist, an investor, a nuclear physicist, an event coordinator, a project manager and an educationalist.

This happened while 300 people, including one former South African president Thabo Mbeki, were waiting for us to arrive, two floors above.

The event was a ‘Heavy Chef’ experience entitled Educating Africa: How The 4th Industrial Revolution Is Impacting Learning. My friend, Lukhanyo Neer and I had been planning this particular event for over a year. Our aim was to ignite powerful discourse on how we can change the dire challenge we’re facing on the African continent regarding education.

Consider that in 2030, South Africa will have 26 million new job seekers in the market. And by 2100, four out of every ten people on the planet will be African.

In Africa, in the next 75 years, we will face an educational apocalypse if we don’t tackle this challenge head on. This fact underpins why this was the most important event I had run, and, with President Mbeki headlining the speaker panel, certainly the most high profile.

A crew from SABC were on hand to televise the whole thing live, and the audience was a mix of dignitaries and burgeoning entrepreneurs. You can see the preamble to the event here:

Heavy Chef - which has nothing to do with cooking, by the way - partnered with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation Youth Hub to bring this challenge into sharp focus. I had registered Heavy Chef as a company late in 2016 with the vision to affect positive change by stimulating the entrepreneur sector. We offer learning experiences, such as the event on Friday night. Heavy Chef’s events and workshops bring together people who have already walked a path (heavy chefs) with people who are hungry to learn and do and share (skinny chefs).

Our three speakers on Friday night are true heavy chefs. S’onqoba Maseko is three exams away from becoming one of Africa’s youngest actuarial scientists. Sam Paddock and his little bro Rob started the disruptive education company Getsmarter. Thabo Mbeki has spent much of his life trying to inspire an African Renaissance.

Our event was due to start at 6:30pm on the 18th floor of a high rise building in Braamfontein Werf. At around 6pm, a host of special delegates from the Heavy Chef community went down to the 16th floor to greet our esteemed speakers in a pre-arranged VIP area. We all shook hands, took some photos, and then made for the lifts to return to the event venue upstairs.

Sam, S’onqoba and I stepped into lift D, along with my investor colleague Louis Janse van Rensburg, Heavy Chef’s project manager Zsuzsa Kandra, senior ranking TMF executive Tembela Kulu, Zsuzsa’s husband Faisal who is a nuclear physicist - and a plucky young videographer dude, Montsho, who had somehow hustled his way past the presidential security guards to get into the VIP room to take photos.

Side note: Montsho, how in hell did you do that bro?

The lift had one of those mechanisms where you programmed where you want to go on the outside. There were no buttons inside the lift other than close and open doors, and the emergency button.

A few seconds after we took off, the lift shuddered to a halt.

We heard a loud thudding sound, then, nothing.

We were suspended, around 100m above the ground, in a lift jam-packed full of Heavy Chefs, somewhere between the 16th and 17th floors of a motherfreakin’ high rise building.

President Mbeki and his entourage had followed shortly after us, in lift E, to safely return to the 18th floor.

The youngest members of the Heavy Chef crew, Caley van der Kolk and Siyabonga Mbaba Wilson, had been warming up the crowd in our absence. Lukhanyo took to the stage to talk about the impending launch of the Thabo Mbeki Presidential Library which will provide access to President Mbeki’s considerable collection of documents from his career.

The crowd, apparently, were getting a little restless. The host and the evening’s first two speakers had not arrived yet.

Around ten meters below, the eight of us had come to the realisation that we were properly stuck. Ten minutes passed and nothing. No movement. No sound. No one had mobile signal, and Sam, who was closest to the buttons, tried the emergency button. Nothing.

Side note: Schindler lift company, what the actual - ? Seriously guys. Your emergency button should connect directly to a central emergency line, managed by you! Day-am dudes. Get with the 4th Industrial Revolution yo.

At this stage I was not panicked, but I was worried. The protocol dictated that I was to be at the stage when President Mbeki arrived, and our two speakers were due to, um, speak.

That ship had sailed. I was now officially late, for my own event.

Sam continued to press the emergency button. Someone commented that this could only happen in a movie. I asked our group whether this had happened to anyone before. It had not. I also asked if there was secretly a John Maclane in our group. There was not.

Zsuzsa said something about the air becoming stuffy. Another ten minutes passed, and Faisal, the nuclear physicist, tried to pull the doors apart. The guys in the lift all climbed in to assist and we managed to pry a two centimeter gap. I peered through the crack and saw the bottom of the 17th floor lift doors. Just then, we heard a voice, sounding like a distracted conversation. We all looked at each other in surprise. Faisal began to shout.

Nothing.

Then suddenly, a plaintiff voice came came from above: “Are you guys… stuck in the lift?”

We all stared at each other, then shouted like people possessed. Faisal and I tried to hush everyone, so that we could hear the response. “Okay, I’m going to get help,” said the voice. “Thank %#$%” said Faisal loudly.

Sometime in the moments that followed, Louis chimed in happily: “Hey, why don’t we record a lift interview? We have a media guy right here!”

Sam and S’onqoba agreed. Hey, why not? We might as well spend the time fruitfully. We spent the next twenty minutes chatting about education, and technology - and where the challenges lie. Below is the official Heavy Chef elevator interviews, where Sam and S’onqoba share some brief overviews of their talks.

Video Credit: DBE Media

Highlights of the video include:

S’onqoba: Kids entering Grade 1 now will be finishing their metrics in 2030, by which time technology would have changed irrevocably and we have no idea what the landscape we’re preparing our children for will look like.

Sam: Education is so multi-faceted that we should not even be thinking about education, we should be talking about ‘Jobs To Be Done’. Define the things that are required, then zero in on those things so we can be accountable to teaching to those things.

Side note: S’onqoba and Sam are two seriously smart mofos.

Above us, on the 18th floor, Heavy Chef’s two young MCs, Caley and Siyabonga, had done an amazing job, under duress, of keeping the audience occupied. Lukhanyo Neer had informed the crowd of our misadventures. Lukhanyo told me afterwards that he had no idea of how to handle things - but, when in doubt, ask questions, right?

By this stage, we were over an hour past event kick-off time. The audience was divided. Most were happy to engage with Lukhanyo and share their thoughts on the evening’s topic. Some decided to leave. Only two complained.

The feedback I received was that this Q&A session was beautiful and heartfelt. Again, have a look at the video above to get a sense of it.

Behind the scenes, Caley had been sprinting up and down the fire escape to check up on us. I realised when I spoke to her later that evening, just how stressful it had been for her and Siya. No playbook in the world can prepare a young MC on how to deal with an event crisis like that, on live television.

At this stage, Steve, the proprietor of the venue, had still not been able to get hold of anyone from Schindler. Through the small gap, we suggested that perhaps a better route might be to call the Fire Department. At the same time, Marco, a scrappy youngster on Steve’s team had been trying different tools to get the lift apart.

Here’s what he found in the offices close to the lift.

20180925-HC-Thabo-lift-tools.jpg

It took Steve and Marco around 30 minutes to get the doors open, using decidedly 20th Century bits and bobs to get the doors open.

With a final creak and a shudder, the lift doors made way. When we finally saw the host of faces peering down at us, we were almost frozen with relief.

The scariest part of the evening was having to clamber through the tiny rectangular opening to the 17th floor. We all knew that if the lift shifted half a foot, it would act like a pair of scissors cutting the person climbing through clean in half.

That fear was quickly overcome by the need to get. the. hell. out of there. One by one, we were hoisted through to safety.

As host of the event, I ran up the fire escape stairs to get to the venue space, with Sam and S’onqoba close behind me. To a rousing reception, we pretty much jumped straight back into the event proceedings. S’onqoba kicked off with a succinct version of her original talk where she called for a pragmatic approach to early childhood development. Sam continued with a rousing vision of a ‘people-first, tech driven’ solution. Then, President Mbeki rounded things off with a summons to me (the “big chef” as he put it) and the other protagonists in the room, to come up with a simple, action-based plan to tackle the challenges outlined in the evening’s talks. The evening ended with a standing ovation.

Phew.

It could have been a lot worse.

Here’s the Heavy Chef video of the evening:

So, what did we learn that fateful night?

  1. In crisis, we find opportunity.

  2. The 4th Industrial Revolution is not yet upon us, really. If it was, we’d have smarter lifts.

  3. There is a helluva lot of work to be done.

  4. Generally, we trust things, until we don’t. Personally, I’m never going to take lifts for granted, ever again. And I’ll tend to avoid Schindler lifts, just sayin’.

  5. Education is a massive topic, one that cannot be outlined in one night.

  6. However, it’s not insurmountable. With people like Sam and S’onqoba leading the fray, we have a chance.

Side note: if you were at the event, let us know if you have anything to add by mentioning it on social media, hashtag heavychef, hashtag liftsurvivors.