Kanthan Pillay was born in 1961 in Durban, South Africa, where he finished primary school. He completed high school in Bangalore, India, returning to South Africa to write his matric in 1979 in order to complete the Afrikaans requirement for university admission. He enrolled at the University of Durban-Westville in 1980 for a B.Sc. but was expelled along with hundreds of others during the 1980 boycotts.
He began work as a freelance writer for Post Natal and soon became a regular on the paper, covering sport, politics, and entertainment. A second attempt to enter university in 1983 was cut short by a car accident, and he returned to Natal Newspapers as Political Reporter on Post, while holding down a regular Saturday shift on the Sunday Tribune as branch correspondent (supplying the then newly created Sunday Star), and as copy taster, rewrite sub, and working the news desk. During this time, he also contributed regularly to SASPU National and SASPU Focus, Work in Progress,Ukusa, and was one of several anonymous columnists who wrote for the conservative Indian weekly The Graphic under the pseudonym "The Gadfly". He was part of the original team that put together the University of Natal's Indicator (then Social Indicator), and in 1984 compiled a supplement on the history of the Congress Movement, published to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Natal Indian Congress. During this time, he earned a certificate in journalism from Boston University's College of Communication. He was an organiser for the Media Workers Association of South Africa and a founder member of the Association of Democratic Journalists in Durban.
He left South Africa in 1986 shortly after the declaration of State of Emergency, on a scholarship to Princeton University to study Political Science and Psychology. While at Princeton, he discovered the possibilities in desktop publishing technology and was drawn to study it further, which he did by obtaining a part time job at the university's Computer Center. His expertise in connecting microcomputers to mainframes soon landed him with responsibility for the university's communication software. During this time, he also set a precedent by being the first student to guest lecture courses (conducted by Pulitzer Prize winning journalists Jonathan Schell and Jane Kramer, and by award winning filmmaker and professor in African-American studies Michael Martin). Under the guidance of Princeton's history department, he wrote a brief history of his native land called South Africa for Beginners which was published on the Internet. He was a founding member and Publicity Secretary of the South African Azanian Student Movement, a grouping for South African students in the USA and Canada across political persuasions, and edited, designed, and produced the group's newsletters for the first two years of its existence.
His growing expertise in the field of networked high-performance computers led him to take up appointment as computer systems administrator in Princeton's Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics — a tightly staffed high budget multi-discipline operation under professors from Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Chemical Engineering, Astrophysics, and Mathematics. His redesign of the network and successful integration of the Intel Hypercube i860 Supercomputer streamlined the operation so that the Program was able to beat the rest of the country to a $4-million grant for research into computational fluid dynamics from the US Defence Department.
This success prompted a visiting Italian researcher to headhunt him to set up the computer infrastructure for the new Center for Advanced Studies, Research and Development (CRS4) on the island of Sardinia — an Italian equivalent to South Africa's CSIR funded by the Italian government and IBM and headed by Nobel laureate physicist, Dr. Carlo Rubbia. He joined the centre as systems manager and completed the 3 year project in 18 months, during which time he was promoted to Senior Research Scientist in the Computers and Networks group. In his spare time, he co-designed Mirtonet, a low-cost self-help project using inexpensive PCs and modems to piggyback on the unused bandwidth of CRS4's high-speed network lines to provide Internet facilities such as news and electronic mail to Sardinia's schools.
He came home to South Africa in December 1993 and decided to stay. Cutting short his vacation to return to Sardinia to tender his resignation, he returned to Natal Newspapers as Systems Administrator in the Information Technology division. He was instrumental in the then Argus Group's decision to adopt the Macintosh platform and Quark Publishing System as their 4th Wave Editorial system, and was part of Independent Newspapers IT Steering Committee.
In 1996, he was one of seven journalists selected for Independent Newspapers' Senior Journalist Development Programme — developed for Independent by the Niemann Foundation and Harvard Business School.
He moved to Johannesburg in August 1996 as New Enterprises Manager for Independent Newspapers, which included overall responsibility for the recently-launched soccer fanzines (Amakhosi, Brazilians and the soon to follow Birds and Buccaneers), the Star and SA Times International published in London and Australia, and Higher Education Review. He spearheaded Independent Newspapers' venture into the regional and Southern African newspaper markets and had overall responsibility for the company's social investment initiatives. He represented Independent Newspapers on the board of directors of Kaya FM, the first new commercial radio station of the new South Africa. He was also appointed to the board and executive committee of Penta Publications, which published a range of award-winning titles including Tribute, De Kat, Living Africa, Big Screen, and Keeping Track.
In October 1997, he returned to his first love — full time journalism — as Managing Editor of the Cape Times in Cape Town. He continued to write a weekly leader page column, "Pillay's Perspective".
Two years later, he left the world of print journalism to become Head of Corporate Affairs at South Africa's first independent free-to-air television channel — e.tv. Over the next six years, he occupied numerous positions at the channel including Head of Technical Operations, Head of IT, Executive Producer of News, and Head of Africa Operations. He also ran the channel's journalism learnership programme.
In 2006, he left e.tv to found Nqabile Recorporations, a media and technology consulting company. During that year, he ran media strategy for Africa Aerospace and Defence 2006, the continent's largest aerospace and defence expo. He also designed and implemented an editorial production system for Mafube Publishing.
In April 2007, he was appointed CEO of GP's hottest frequency, 99.2 Yfm. In the words of the Yfm website:
As CEO, Kanthan is responsible for the strategic direction of the Yired group of companies including Yfm, Y Mag, and Y World.
Kanthan is passionate about training and development and believes the key to unlocking the country's potential is for business leaders to take personal responsibility for passing on skills to new generations. He agreed to run Yfm after the board of directors gave their full support for his plan to set up the Y Academy. He personally designed the curriculum (he is accredited as an Assessor and Mentor at NQF 5 by the ETDP SETA) and teaches classes for three hours every week.
"The single lesson I try to pass on to everyone is to choose to think. In the words of Stephen Bantu Biko, 'The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.' In the words of Robert Nesta Marley, 'Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.' "
Kanthan left YFM on 10 April 2017, ten years to the day since he joined. From May through December 2017, he was Group Head: Online for E Media Investments, tasked with crafting the Group's online, mobile, OTT and VOD strategy for ETV and ENCA among others.
He left E Media Investments in early January 2018 to pursue new startup opportunities at the nexus of technology and humanity. He continues to run Nqabile Recorporations which consults to a select group of clients.
His father, Soobiah Pillay, was an Indian classical vocalist of repute. His mother, Devagie Govender, is a well-known educationist, and a retired Member of Parliament.
Kanthan is married to Sarah Britten. He has a 25-year old daughter, Aura Devagie, who was born in Sardinia, a 11-year old daughter Mia Angella, who was born in Johannesburg, and a 3-year old daughter Raphaela Ragini, who was born in Johannesburg. Kanthan and Sarah and Aura and Mia and RaRa share a house in Johannesburg with hundreds of books, two dogs, and a feral cat.