Sibusiso Molteno grew up wanting a gun, fast money and to be a drug kingpin. He was on a fast track to a life of crime that would have ended either in prison or death. “That was life on the streets of Alex (Alexandra township in Johannesburg) — if you have a gun, everything is easier,” says Sibusiso, better known as Sbu. Now a second-year law student at Wits University and a Moshal Scholar, the 19-year-old has changed not only his own path but that of many others in Alex. So much so that he was chosen as Talk Radio 702’s Youth Hero of April 2015 for his work in his community.
Sbu was raised by a single mom and all he knew of his father was a name. He went to four different schools in Alex, but put little effort into learning. Still, he made it to Grade 10, when he was elected president of the learners' council at Minerva High School.
His new position helped change his thinking. “I just thought that as president I had to lead by example and I couldn't if I was failing,” he says. “Bietjie biejtie maak meer (a little at a time grows into something big).” Soon after that, in 2012, the Columba Leadership Academy came to recruit at the school and, after he gave them a hard time, specifically asked that he do their six-day leadership course. I didn't have a choice.” Sbu went back to school a different person. “There was a lot of introspection. I realised I couldn't be a part of the rot,” he says. “I understood the value of education and became an ambassador for it. I realised that not having a father figure couldn’t be my excuse for choosing the wrong path.I needed to be my own father and a good father figure to other kids and my own one day.
His Grade 11 marks were the best in the whole of Alex and he came second in his matric year. He and his friend Marvin – one of Sbu’s “cabinet of bad boys” and who attended the leadership academy with him - collected clothes and food from learners to give to the needy.
The following year Sbu and a few others created an organisation that has become a movement, called Making Incredible Change. They listed the problems in their community and considered the solutions. “We realised that, for the most part, education was the solution but we needed to create events to get this through to people,” says Sbu.
They teamed up with the Columba academy for campaigns, getting business sponsorship and advertising the events on local radio stations. “We got teens who have had children to come and talk, and others to talk about what they had gone through with drugs and alcohol. “People heard them and it has made a real difference,” Sbu says.
At schools in Alex, they created committees that set positive objectives for the week. Those who excelled at certain subjects helped others. Sbu gave geography lessons. They created study groups. “There were times when I didn’t have much time to sleep because I was running these programmes but also had to study. I had to do well to be a living testament to what I was telling others.”
Sbu says his mother is his driving force. “She used to tell me she didn't like my lifestyle and she wanted to me to focus on my studies and just be clean. She was there for me through thick and thin (but) she kept on crying … I just wanted to put a smile on her face. I knew one day she had to smile.” Sbu wanted to study law, partly because he believed it would make his mother happy. “Doing law will also enable me to bring about justice for the rich and poor. It will allow me to give back to society.” He knew his mother couldn’t afford university fees, but he wrote his matric exams believing that if he did well enough, he wouldn’t be turned down by universities. Sbu got three distinctions and just missed a fourth. Columba Leadership suggested he apply for a Moshal Scholarship and a week before his last matric exam he found out that he had received one. “I screamed and cried because this was something positive happening to me,” Sbu says. “I saw myself wearing a suit in my house, living with my mom. I saw all the beautiful things in life.” At Wits University, he made new friends, some from private schools, and initially spent most of his afternoons with them. “I couldn’t work out why they were still able to answer all the questions in class the next day until I realised they were going home to study while I wasn’t,” he says. He decided his new best friend was the library - and got the top mark for his next exam. “That was a big lesson. I didn’t need to be great to start; I needed to start to be great.” Sbu can’t stop trying to help others now. At Wits this year he launched an organisation that involves township kids in research in order to build a love of education in them.
This year (2016) he plans to get Alex pupils to prepare tours for visitors to the area. His desire to help people is fuelled by the Moshal Scholarship Program. “The fact that someone who doesn’t know me is willing to pay my fees and give me any help he can is so inspiring. This gives me tools to pay it forward.”
Sbu believes that in 10 years' time he will have a number of companies and one will be youth leadership-based, much like Columba. The others will generate money, much of which he will pump into the Moshal programme to help people like himself. “There is nothing more important in life than education and whatever I can do to guide people to get educated I will do.”