Bill Gates. Picture: REUTERS
Bill Gates. Picture: REUTERS

Microsoft founder Bill Gates may have made his billions from software, but he will leave his mark as one of the greatest philanthropists the world has seen.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he formed with his wife in 2000, has invested US$9bn in Africa in the past 15 years; and he announced this week a further $5bn in funding over the next five years.

This will go towards health research, especially for HIV/Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and malnutrition.

The world’s richest man has also convinced several other wealthy people, including Warren Buffett, to donate vast chunks of their wealth to the foundation, which has an endowment of $39.6bn and has paid out grants of $36.7bn.

Gates was in SA this week for the 21st International Aids Conference, held in Durban. He also delivered the 14th annual Nelson Mandela lecture at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi campus on Sunday.

Honorary lectures in such esteem are a powerful statement about the world. They are designed to provide a mission statement for how to make the planet a better place and, in this case, celebrate the life and work of the icon after whom it is named.

These lectures hark back to a time before the global village that is the TV networks, the Internet and Twitter — a time when there wasn’t a way to broadcast a new idea, or a scientific discovery, into the homes of billions.

British organisation the Royal Institution was famous for its high-profile lectures on science, and legend has it (okay Wikipedia, but sometimes that’s the same) that Sir Humphry Davy’s lectures were so popular that the number of horse-drawn carriages making their way down Albemarle Street resulted in it becoming London’s first one-way avenue.

Perhaps lectures of this magnitude have been replaced by the publishing of a book, followed by the author’s appearance on TV shows and the book circuit; or the concise joy that is a TED talk.

There has been some derision about the short, sometimes epigrammatic format of these wildly popular talks, which range from three to 20 minutes.

But ask anyone who has seen Sir Ken Robinson’s joyous discussion on the importance of education — or Brené Brown’s discourse on the power of vulnerability, or even Terry Moore’s life-changing, three-minute lesson on the correct way to tie your shoelaces — and they will confirm that TED talks have become the inspirational, trend-setting public lectures of our time.

But the grand old public lecture is one of the most prestigious of stages, especially when it is done to honour someone like Mandela. Past speakers have included former US president Bill Clinton, archbishop Desmond Tutu, economist Thomas Piketty and Mo Ibrahim, whose foundation rewards African governance.

Gates praised Africa for its gains and innovation — including money service M-Pesa and clever uses of mobile technology in education — but reminded the audience that there are still mountains of poverty and disease that need moving.

"It’s clear to everyone how big and complicated the challenges are," Gates said. He is still the chairman of Microsoft, which is still the biggest software company in the world.

"But it’s just as clear that people with bravery, energy, intellect, passion and stamina can face big, complicated challenges and overcome them. There is so much more work to be done to create a future in which we can all live together."

True to his tech roots, Gates said: "One of the most exciting prospects is the role African governments can play in accelerating the use of digital technology to leapfrog the traditional models and costly infrastructure associated with banking and delivery of government services."

Gates, like Mandela, believes in the power and potential of the youth. He also celebrated "the ingenuity of the African people". It’s up to us to prove both great men right.

Shapshak is editor and publisher of Stuff magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @shapshak

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