‘A hug to my eight-year-old self’ – Thato Mphuthi’s journey from bullied school kid to activist and educator
A disability inspired this campaigner to start her own non-profit organisation, which aims to teach children to take good care of each other, their bodies and their communities.
Thato Mphuthi is a powerful voice for the rights of people with disabilities. At eight years old she was diagnosed with tuberculosis of the right hip. She had to rely on crutches to get around and took a long time to adjust to her new way of moving. Not only was she in pain and drastically restricted in her movement, but she also became alienated from her friends and fearful of being picked on.
For a year her classroom was on the first floor. Only being able to cope with navigating the stairs once a day, she had to stay upstairs for the whole school day, unable to join in at break time or enjoy lunch with her friends.
I am so grateful for the experience that came with having this condition because it changed my outlook on life and opened me up to different things.
In high school, the bullying got worse and she became introverted. She wrote a poem, Imizwayami (My Feelings), for an assignment and performed it in front of her class. It was a raw expression of her experiences as a person with a disability. The performance prompted a change in attitude from many of her fellow students and lit a fire in Mphuthi, proving that she had the ability to change people’s perceptions of her.
After leaving school, Mphuthi slowly started to engage with activists. She was introduced to the Young Urban Women’s Movement, Activate Change Drivers and the One in Nine Campaign, working with survivors of gender-based violence.
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“I am so grateful for the experience that came with having this condition because it changed my outlook on life and opened me up to different things… I often say to my friends that this feels like a hug to my eight-year-old self who could not speak for herself at the time. The work that I am doing, as much as I am passionate about it, is also my way of healing.”
In 2020, Mphuthi started her own non-profit organisation, Enabled Enlightenment, as a way to educate children about issues relating to disability, encouraging them to live as good examples to others in their communities. Once she started to run workshops in schools, the programme was broadened to include issues of consent, body autonomy, gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health. DM
The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who don’t just talk but who take direct action. They’re the people you can go to when you don’t know where to turn, who won’t stop working for the change they want to see in the world. The Actionists is also a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa.
Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles a wide range of people around the country who are providing vital services, intuitive solutions and unrelenting activism.
Through the website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide tangible ways for people to get involved. The intention is to inspire and inform, to challenge the idea that nothing is being done, to create a network of Actionists and to bring people who need help together with the people who can provide a solution.
Nominate Actionists in your circle at
www.theactionists.co.za or email
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.