Athenkosi, 19, rises from troubled childhood to shining example
Athenkosi Fani walks with confidence and flashes a huge toothy grin as he shakes hands in the corridors of David Livingstone Senior Secondary School.
His school uniform is immaculate and the lapel on his blazer is cluttered with badges that catalogue his many cultural achievements at the school.
Meeting the deputy head boy for the first time, it is hard to believe that he grew up in an abusive home, nearly flunked out of primary school and struggled with alcohol abuse when he was just 10 years old.
Now 19, “Athi” has been crowned Mr Teen Eastern Cape, has served on the Junior City Council and has spoken out about the difficulties children face daily while representing the Eastern Cape at the annual National Youth Conference.
Asked how he rose above his difficult upbringing, Athi quoted his favourite Bible verse: “For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
The Herald GM Citizen of the Year 2016 youth category finalist said: “Yes, my life has been difficult, but I made a decision not to let the past get me down.
“There is a reason I am on earth and it is not to be a victim. I believe I am meant for greater things and hope I can inspire others to also achieve more than they think they are capable of.”
Born in East London, Athi excelled in primary school until his stepfather started abusing him and his mother, Boniswa, both physically and verbally.
This led to his mother suffering from depression and Athi’s grades slipping to the point where the chances of progressing to high school were slim.
Finally, he turned to alcohol in an attempt to escape his difficult circumstances.
“When my grades started slipping, my teachers at school became worried and intervened. A social worker investigated my case and in 2008 I was taken from my mother and moved to a children’s home in East London.”
When the children’s home closed down in 2012, social workers deemed his mother still unfit to look after him, and an alternative home needed to be found urgently.
Instead of fighting the decision, his mother saw it as a blessing and wished her son all the best when he left for Port Elizabeth at the age of 15.
“The day I left for Port Elizabeth my mother was crying. “I still remember her words: ‘My child, you have been given a new chance at life.’ “And I was determined not to let her down,” Athi said.
His first six months in his new city were spent at the Erica House place of safety, until he moved to the MTR Smit Childre n ’s Haven in 2013.
Once settled into his new home and school, Athi’s first step was to join the debating team, giving him the confidence to pursue other activities.
Over the past three years, he has attained multiple titles – in – cluding Mr Teen Eastern Cape, Mr PE Philanthropist, Mr Teen Mzantsi Africa Ambassador, and vice-chairman of the National Association of Child Care Workers – and has served on the MTR Smit Youth Forum, the David Livingstone Learner Representative Council and the Port Elizabeth Junior City Council.
But the opportunity to speak at the National Youth Conference in Gauteng last year was a highlight for him, and when asked what challenges children face in South Africa today, he was able to draw from his own experiences.
“Substance and alcohol abuse among our youth needs to be addressed urgently,” he said.
“Our schools and communities need to step up and provide children with positive role models. Children need mentors to help them rise above their circumstances.”
Athi found his mentor in economics teacher Ronel Smith. In her 32 years at David Livingstone, she has seen many talented children, but none have made an impact on her life in the way that Athi has.
“For some reason he chose me when he came to this school, and because of his assertiveness and willingness to improve, we developed a bond that has grown increasingly stronger,” Smith said.
She said Athi was constantly looking for positive role models, people to help him improve himself in every new challenge he takes on.
He is not too proud to ask for help, and is always striving to better himself.
“And he is always willing to share his own story. Because he understands the importance of positive role models, he is always trying to be one himself,” Smith said. Athi’s nominator for Citizen of the Year, Erica House centre manager Carmen Hearne agrees with Smith, saying that even when he came to them and needed a home, Athi immediately stood out as a leader among the other children.
“He had a lot of confidence and really stood out,” Hearne said.
“He instantly became a role model for many of the children here. Since leaving here he has come back many times, giving motivational talks to children who feel like there is no hope.