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THE ACTIONISTS

‘The only thing you owe us is your success’ — Thulani Madondo’s mantra for empowering Kliptown kids

‘The only thing you owe us is your success’ — Thulani Madondo’s mantra for empowering Kliptown kids
Activist Thulani Madondo. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Through his youth programme, Thulani Madondo and his team give local children access to tutoring, school fees and uniform support, a food programme, computer labs and performing arts, culture and sport programmes, among many other things. And they’ve been doing it for 17 years.

Sitting in Thulani Madondo’s bright office with the Kliptown Youth Programme’s (KYP) 2025 strategic goals on the wall, it is easy to forget that it is in one of the most impoverished and neglected areas in Gauteng. 

Madondo (42) knows the circumstances of the 1,402 children who benefit from the KYP all too well, since he was born only a few metres from the building housing the programme he and a group of friends founded 17 years ago. He grew up in a one-room shack with his mother and seven siblings. 

The modern building with a computer lab, numerous classrooms, a gender-neutral bathroom, an indoor football pitch and a large kitchen stands in stark contrast to the corrugated iron shacks and rubbish-strewn gravel paths that surround it. 

“Our impact is really amazing,” he says with a beaming smile. “I lived here in this squatter camp, no electricity, no running water, everything communal. Today almost 99% of our team no longer live here in Kliptown. As we develop the organisation and empower the kids, we were also very fortunate to empower ourselves. 

“We have five of our alumni working full-time for the organisation now, with two of them in managerial positions. That is something to be extremely proud of,” Madondo says. “I always tell the kids: ‘The only thing you owe us is your success.’”

Occupying a significant place in South Africa’s history, Kliptown was where the Freedom Charter, which paved the way for South Africa’s democratic goals and ideals, was adopted in 1955. Despite the charter’s lofty aspirations, residents of Kliptown were left behind and neglected for decades by the apartheid regime and 30 years of democratic rule. 

Residents lack even the most basic of human requirements such as schools, healthcare facilities, running water, electricity and proper sanitation. Due to extreme poverty and little to no service delivery, the children of Kliptown are often the most vulnerable, with school uniforms, shoes, food and reading material inaccessible to many. 

No one chose to be born in poverty, but how we respond to that and the challenges that come with poverty, is the most important.

Madondo and his friends saw these needs and came together almost two decades ago to do something about the grinding poverty and desperation their community faced. Since then the KYP has grown, catering to more children every year and providing more services to the entire community.

These days children have access to tutoring, school fees and uniform support, a food programme, online learning through computer labs with an internet connection, a vocational programme, performing arts, culture and sport programmes, a library and psychosocial support, among other things. 

“All the work we do here, it is not for fame. It is to help people, especially children, to rise out of poverty. No one chose to be born in poverty, but how we respond to that and the challenges that come with poverty, is the most important. There are so many opportunities for people, but it’s how they respond to them. That is what we are trying to do, to help people with the mindset to succeed in life,” Madondo says. 

It is not only children who benefit from the KYP and its many programmes. Anyone from the community can use the computer labs to prepare for and apply for jobs, and there are dedicated staff on-site to help people apply for social grants.  

“The best thing we can do as an organisation is to give full ownership of the centre to the community at large,” Madondo says, adding that residents of Kliptown were given job opportunities through a lottery system during the construction of the new premises. Unemployed residents can also earn some money by cleaning and helping maintain the site weekly. 

Madondo says that despite never going to university and giving up on his dream to become an accountant, he has championed more than R10-million as alumni of the programme enrolled for tertiary education over the past 17 years. “Today some of our alumni are living lives way, way better than myself and I am okay with that,” he says.

“That was always the dream. The more successful the children become, the better I become. I sleep very peacefully knowing very well how many people’s lives I’ve touched. And not myself, it’s a collective effort of course. I am constantly humbled, motivated and inspired by our alumni.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

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 engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected]

This story is one of a series of articles produced by The Actionists to highlight the incredible work of organisations and activists across South Africa in their pursuit of justice and equal rights for all.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R35.

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