I dedicate this story to the kids from the hood, our ghetto geniuses and kasi dreamers. And to all those who have been knocked down by circumstances, remember that where there is a will there is a way. I also feel it appropriate to write this story on Freedom Day, as a symbol of letting go, forgiving the past and moving on.
I’ll start my story by sharing that I’m a regular township kid. Just like many others, I too am from humble beginnings. The schools which I attended were nothing to rave about. If one decided to google the schools, you would find at most contact details and a google map location – no website, no accolades.
I remember the year I passed matric, in 2000, I was 17 years fresh. The school had a rule that it would not grant anyone their results without paying their fees in full, and I hadn’t paid my fees for the year. So I went and hustled R50 to pay for my year’s tuition, that’s how much it cost.
Sounds like a small price to pay for education, but when you consider that we would normally struggle to put that amount together to feed the family, the whole picture takes a different dimension. And you can also imagine they joy I felt when I realised that I had achieved university exemption, knowing that my school achieved +/- 34% pass rate and under 10 exemptions out of a pool of over 100 leaners. To top it all, I also received my acceptance letter from Wits University and 100 % financial aid confirmation. I felt like I was ready to take over the world!
However the following year, 2001, I found myself studying for my BComm in Accounting at Bond University, which was an Australian private university that used to be in Benmore Sandton, thanks to one of my uncles who felt I could do with the opportunity. However things got a bit tough financially for us and I found myself back home the next year. During that year I tried out a few projects to generate money, and one them was a High School newspaper but after working throughout the year the project failed to launch. Fortunately I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket, and had decided to send through another application again at Wits University – And come 2003 I was a Wits Student.
My first year went relatively smooth; I was a BA Law student. I also joined the Wits Basketball Club, making it into the first team then going on to being one of the starting players. During that time I identified opportunities to improve the state of basketball at the university and decided to take initiative and run for the chairperson position, and in 2004 I was elected as Chairperson of the Wits Basketball Club. I immediately went to work on the vision and to identify sponsors to support that vision.
I’ve soon since learnt that the universe applauds action, and that providence helps those who help themselves. And I got some information from a Wits SRC member that Standard Bank was looking to increase its presence on campus and was considering sponsoring one of the clubs. With that knowledge I approached our Sports Administrator and presented her with the vision and asked for her assistance with providing information on the history of the club. She gave everything I needed, including a computer to work from. She was always supportive of my ideas and for that I am forever grateful. After spending a week researching and putting together a plan and proposal, I delivered it to her and the committee. The plan was well received and I submitted it to Standard Bank and they approved the sponsorship.
Without going into much detail regarding the deal, the sponsor agreed to pay the requested R280 000.00 for the first year. At the end of the year, they evaluated the impact of our relationship and I remember being told that they achieved 300% more sales on campus than they had projected. This was primarily due to the events promotions that we were hosting on campus. And as a result they decided to not only commit to sponsoring the next year, but also to increase the sponsorship to R320 000.00. They went on to sponsor for a third year, the details of which I am not certain of, but was told it was in region of the previous figures. And if we work it by using the initial figure of R280 000.00, then we are looking at a total figure of R880 000.00, which for me is almost a million.
How did we do it? The answer is through hard work, team effort and passion. I was blessed to be surrounded by people who saw the vision and were willing to play their part and go the extra mile to make it work. I am forever grateful to have met and worked with each and every one. We did amazing work.
We launched the most vibrant internal league the university had ever experienced, opening up a platform for students that loved the sport but were not interested in playing at a high level to participate in the sport. We ran an awesome high school’s tournament. And we also launched the Ashraf Lodewyk Tournament, which has grown to become a major event in the national basketball calendar. We also hosted the most attended, most talked about parties, of course, we were students.
By the end of the year, we made history. I received the Wits Sports Administrator of the Year Award (chairperson of year), as a club we received the Wits Sports Club of the Year Award, and one our players and vice chairperson took the Wits Sports Player Of the Year Award. Never before had the basketball club won all the major awards in year. Looking back, that night was the height of it all, cause instead of things getting better, they took a turn for the worst.
I’ve come to accept that I was a victim of the systematic use of racism. And this is not me throwing the race card around looking for sympathy, but rather having the courage to stand up and speak out in order to help other young people who might go through or might be going through the challenges I had to face. And I choose to use my story and how I came out of my mess as a tool. I have no problems in sharing my story because I know it is the truth, and I hope it will help those that behave in this demeaning way to reflect on their actions and the lasting effects on those affected.
I also have to add that I have no intentions of challenging the university or any of the parties involved. My matter was never taken seriously in the first place, despite that I went as far as approaching the then Vice Chancellor’s office with a detailed document requesting his intervention – to which I received no response. However I do reserve the right to speak out and I feel it is time for me to say my piece.
As a young boy who was raised to be respectful of the older generation, it was very difficult for me to identify, challenge and acknowledge what was happening. The then Director of Wits Sports Administration had a habit of making things tough for most of us. At first I thought it was tough love and I accepted it as such. However, subsequent events proved that there was an underlying tone of racial discrimination behind it, which he unconsciously expressed time and again.
The first challenge was that he would not agree to pay me an honorarium for my efforts in pursuing the sponsorship. I first raised the subject to him during the time when I was compiling the sponsorship document. I felt that the money would help alleviate the financial challenges I was facing at the time since my family couldn’t afford to send me money. That in fact I was the one sending money home from time to time as a student. His response was that he would consider it if and when then sponsorship comes through. When the sponsorship came through, he said my efforts were for the club and the university and there was no ground for the university to pay out an honorarium to me. So I received nothing.
We faced our second major challenge when our team had to go compete in Mozambique, both male and ladies first teams. We spent months arranging for the trip and the funds for it were already budgeted for in the sponsorship funds, but he felt that the players should also pay an amount of R600 as a contribution towards the trip. Normally we wouldn’t have a problem with this arrangement; however our challenge was that most of the players couldn’t afford that much. In any case, what was the point of having a big sponsor if the players had to worry about raising more money? We were already in the habit of raising funds for the club through our parties. The players that could pay paid. But there was a substantial number that couldn’t. So a day before the trip, when the funds were to be released, he called us into his office threatening to cancel the trip if all funds were not received.
An argument ensued and in the midst of it he just went on to say “you black kids take things for granted. You live in impoverished conditions but want to wear R1000.00 shoes” (remarking about the cost of basketball sneakers). I remember the committee member I was with chirping back and saying “and white people buy yachts, so maybe it’s so bad that we wear expensive shoes”. In any case we had a heated debate that lasted about 3 hours and by the end of the meeting he agreed to release funds for the men’s team only and basically cutting the ladies team out of the experience because only 7 girls pitched. Now normally a coach can run with 7 players as a minimum, but our director felt otherwise.
This then resulted in a rift between me and the ladies team, who also made a major part of the basketball committee. They blamed me, and I understood why. I was the chairperson and they believed in me. The trip was a reward for their efforts and they felt I should have done more. In a few hours I had a disgruntled committee that wouldn’t hear anything from me. Looking back, I should have stayed behind with them, as a leader should under such times. But I didn’t know better, but I do remember it being one of the worst trips due to the amount of guilt I felt and the experience I had with our director.
I continued to finish my second term under difficult conditions and at the end of it I was voted out. I accepted it as a penalty of leadership and decided to focus on my studies, which were already taking a knock. A side note – The work and the stress associated with my extra-curricular activities had already started affecting my studies negatively. I moved from a BA Law major to International Relations and Politics and what’s unfortunate was that I couldn’t see myself doing either as a profession. By this time I found myself just wanting to pass and get my degree.
The third and final blow – Now during my terms as chairperson of the club and as a first team player, I was awarded a government funded bursary in addition to the bursary fund I had created through the sponsorship. So in principle I had enough money to complete my studies without a challenge, and that’s all I wanted to do. According to the government funded sports bursary, I was entitled to a nutrition allowance and some extra money for toiletries and such, to which I never received, and in addition I found myself having to beg our director to pay up the difference in fees at the end of the year. The next year, my final year, I not only had to hustle to get back into Wits, I didn’t have residence and had to travel from Kwa-Thema to Johannesburg (about 50 km away) daily using public transport.
I reluctantly approached him to talk about this issue and his response was simple and direct “You kids don’t appreciate hard work, everyone form the township wants a hand out. Back in my day we had to work hard for what we wanted. It’s time for you to take responsibility for your fees and find a job to support your costs”. I remember how those words pierced.
I tried to get help and reached out to few people but things were not that easy. A few people tried to help, including the Dean of Students, but she also had to throw in the towel when things got too tense. My last resort was to approach the Vice Chancellor, but as I mentioned, I didn’t even receive a letter or email of acknowledgement.
I continued traveling to school from home, but that got too costly for me, so costly that I often found myself having to squat in another student’s room. However, that also became unsustainable and I eventually decided to get a job. I lost faith and accepted that my options were very limited and I had lost the fight. And that’s how I walked out of the university owing money as opposed to the other way around. Many other challenges were still to come and to be overcome, and I share some of those stories in one the chapters of my book “Thinking Ghetto Entrepreneur – A Practical Personal Guide to Entrepreneurial Development”.
How does one lose everything and maintain his sanity? How does one learn to bounce back from complete defeat over and over again? I found battling with these and many other questions for a very long time, and when I found the answers I was able to change my life for the better. As I said in the beginning of this article, my aim is to show that where there is a will there is a way; that when one door closes it is to allow another to open. No matter how bad the circumstances, with persistence and initiative things do turn around. Our tragedies make for good content, regardless of whom we are, where we come from, or the colour of our skin.
I see my story as a necessary foundation to my journey. In less than 10 years from the time I left I left the university and with no stable financial support system I have managed to write and self-publish 3 titles (Beyond Democracy – Igniting the South African Renaissance/Thinking Ghetto Genius/Thinking Ghetto Entrepreneur); launch a high school youth entrepreneurial development and personal development project (The Ghetto Geniuses Project); launched a youth dialogue platform (Ubuntu Sessions); develop into a great speaker; became a Skills Development Consultant(BEE Corp); develop into a Social Entrepreneur (8een Concepts); and grown to become decent performing artist (Writer/Rapper/Poet). I am also currently in the process of completing my coaching qualification.
I doubt I would have done so much development work if things didn’t work out the way they did. I probably would have continued to focus my efforts on making money, and providing for my family better. As noble as this may be, I believe have gained a much richer experience with development work, and I now have a really awesome story to share. In any case, Richard Branson once said, “Do good, have fun, and the money will come”.