Even though the odds were against him, Thulani Madondo refused to let his poverty-stricken background bully him into surrender. By Nwabisa Ngumbela
Thulani Madondo’s future seemed anything but bright. He was born in the slums of Kliptown, Soweto, to a single mother who already had seven other children. The family occupied a one-bedroom shack without the basic necessities, let alone food to feed the nine hungry mouths. ‘We very often had to go to school without breakfast,’ recalls Thulani.
Triumph over adversity
Given the difficult circumstances under which his life started, Thulani could well have fallen into a life of crime in order to make ends meet. However, his desire for a better life was much stronger than any challenge he was facing. He had to work in a variety of odd jobs just to get through school. After matriculating, he worked as a tour guide and eventually found himself participating in a number of community development projects. These, ultimately, prepared him for the work he would need to do in order to address some of the problems facing the youth of Kliptown.
Helping others to help themselves
Every day, Thulani was confronted by the social injustices in his community. Teen pregnancy was quickly becoming the norm, young people were dropping out of school at an alarming rate, those who could finish matric had no way to study further, and there was a lack of job opportunities. The idea of starting an organisation began to germinate in his mind and after conducting a survey among the community – and receiving overwhelmingly positive feedback from them – the Kliptown Youth Program (KYP) came to be. Its goal was simple: Thulani was going to help people turn poverty into opportunity.
Finances, however, were a challenge. ‘We started out with nothing. Our first office was a dilapidated house without a kitchen. But then, with more sponsors jumping on board and with the money that came with the awards I won (see ‘It’s an Honour’), we were able to build a kitchen, six classes, an office, a TV room and two computer labs,’ he says.
While the centre’s primary focus is on academic work, there are several other activities that the teens can enjoy, such as gumboot dancing, soccer, netball and township dance styles like isibujwa. KYP also gives all its pupils new school uniforms every year.
A typical day starts at 6:45 am, when the children all come in to collect their breakfast before going off to school. Later in the afternoon, after they have changed into their everyday clothes, they come back for lunch. Then their two-hour academic support starts.
‘We asked those who had finished high school to tutor the juniors and to help with homework,’ explains Thulani. The tutors arrive at 3:45 pm to prepare for the class. Every Wednesday, they all have to attend a compulsory class, where they receive training in ways of dealing with the difficulties they come across while teaching.
As of this year, KYP has already helped 23 local young people get into various universities – and 123 have internships. ‘We are currently serving 460 youths and we have a workforce of 17 people backed up by an independent board of directors.’ Thulani says that, had it not been for the dedication and humility of the staff members, the organisation wouldn’t be where it is today.
On a personal level, he says his background has played a vital role in the development of KYP. ‘Growing up in dire poverty taught me a lot about being able to understand how the world works. It helped me to understand the importance of treating all people with respect, regardless of their background or financial position. The other lesson I learnt is that the world has enough resources for everyone – people just need to find their calling.’
It’s an honour
Thulani’s selfless efforts to help those in need have earned him quite a few accolades. In 2012, he was named one of the top 10 CNN Heroes (out of 45 000 nominations from more than 100 countries), and he followed that up with a Humanitarian of the Year award from Turkey Worldwide Visibility and Feather Awards Role Model of the Year in 2013. Later that year, the City Press named him one of their 100 World Class South Africans, and he was also singled out as one of the 200 young South Africans making a difference in the country by the Mail & Guardian.
KYP starts accepting applications from learners from Grade 1 all the way up to Grade 12, and also offers a post-matric programme, in which it helps to empower young people. ‘We accept new members every January, but that’s mostly done based on the number of students leaving or graduating from KYP.’