South African writer and poet, Athol Williams, born and raised in Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats, has obtained five master’s degrees from five of the top universities in the world: Wits, Harvard, Oxford, MIT and the London School of Economics. The 49-year-old also received a distinction for his latest thesis at the prestigious Oxford University in the UK, and is currently studying towards his PhD in political theory at Oxford.
Athol is also currently a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, and says he hopes to empower, uplift and inspire disadvantaged communities with the knowledge he has obtained over the years.
As he says in his own words: “By my words and deeds, I wish to enable and inspire others to thrive.”
Athol tells more about his career.
Athol, you are a South African writer and poet. Please tell us more about yourself, your work, where you grew up and what you believe your purpose is.
I grew up on the Cape Flats during apartheid. By the time I was nine, I was in my third primary school, because the Group Areas Act caused us to keep moving. I grew up in Mitchells Plain, where I completed primary school and high school. I’ve captured my life journey in my autobiography, Pushing boulders: Oppressed to inspired, published in 2016.
The personal mission that I set for myself is: “By my words and deeds, I wish to enable and inspire others to thrive.”
My career can roughly be split in two: the first career focused on business, in which I worked in South Africa, the UK and the USA. This was a period of pursuit of wealth and personal freedom. I had incredible experiences advising multi-billion dollar global corporations in many parts of the world. I got to travel to all corners of the globe and to exotic places. I was a millionaire in my 20s. By my 30s, I was running my own niche strategy business, advising the CEOs of some of South Africa’s major corporations. At one point, I owned six cars, which included a Rolls-Royce, Lamborghini, Jaguar, Mustang and two high-end BMWs.
My second career started about 10 years ago, when I decided to turn away from indulgence and materialism, and look to enabling the freedom of others. I have a view that personal freedom is a new slavery, unless we all are free, and so this is the nature of my work now – to work to inspire people and to change the social structures that stand as barriers to socio-economic freedom for all. I do this through my writing, my work with Read to Rise – the youth literacy NGO that I co-founded in 2013 – my advisory work to CEOs, and lecturing of ethics to business people.
You have published multiple books and poems, as well as won multiple literary awards. Please elaborate on this. Also, what inspires your writing?
I’ve published four books of poetry, my autobiography, six children’s picture books (the Oaky series) and one children’s novel, A girl called H, which I’ve just published. All my books are self-published. Initially, I self-published because my manuscripts got rejected (except for one poetry book in the UK), but now I choose to self-publish, because all proceeds of my book sales go to Read to Rise to buy new books for children in need.
I’ve had over 100 poems published in literary journals around the world, and I’ve been blessed with invitations to share my poetry in many countries, including France, the UK, the USA, Ireland and India. I won a poetry prize at Oxford University, received the South African Independent Publishers Award for my book, Invitation, and was a runner-up for the South African Literary Award for my book, Bumper cars. I won the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award twice, becoming the only poet ever to do so.
My writing explores two broad and unrelated themes, those of social justice and inspiration. Social justice looks closely at living conditions in South Africa and the world, and seeks to shed light on the atrocities and offer hope. I see poetry as both a mirror and a window. The mirror asks us to reflect upon our lives and our society, and asks, “Is this really how you want to live?” The window allows us to look out into hope and possibility. The theme of inspiration explores beauty and spirituality, if sometimes abstract and mystical.
Through my poetry, I explore myself, my being and my place in the world. It is my laboratory for new ideas, and also a place where I step back from myself in reflection.
You received a distinction for your latest thesis at the prestigious Oxford University in the UK. What does this accomplishment mean to you?
The distinction proves how limitless humans can be. That someone from the Cape Flats can achieve such results at the top university in the world shows that we are limited only by our vision and determination.
I went to Oxford at the age of 45, when all my classmates were in their early 20s. Oxford had rejected me twice before, and only accepted me on the third attempt. I had always dreamed of studying at Oxford, and so was determined to get in. Not only did I get in and succeed, but I developed a theory that earned me a distinction and was published in an international journal. I’ve also had the opportunity to present my ethical theory of corporate responsibility to conferences at home and abroad.
This distinction followed a distinction at the London School of Economics, where I earned the highest mark for my thesis; and it also followed Harvard, where I received an award (the Littauer Award) for academic excellence.
You hold five master’s degrees from five of the top universities in the world. Please tell us more about these various degrees. Why did you decide to pursue these various master’s degrees?
The degrees reflect my two careers. For my business career, I studied engineering at Wits, an MBA at MIT and an MSc in finance at the London Business School. For my career as a social philosopher and social justice advocate, I studied public policy at Harvard, political theory at the London School of Economics and political philosophy at Oxford.
I chose the top universities in the world, because I wanted to pursue excellence. I wanted to learn from the greatest minds in all my fields of interest. No one would pay for my last three degrees, so I sold my house and many other belongings to pay for these degrees, which cost me many millions. I did not study at Harvard, the London School of Economics and Oxford to get a better job or higher pay, because I won’t; I followed this journey because I wanted to equip myself to be a leading thinker in these fields globally, and more importantly, I wanted to be equipped to contribute to the social change I want to see in South Africa.
No one else shared this vision, so I needed to bet on myself yet again, just as I had done before. When I first went to America in 1994 to study at MIT, I had nowhere to live and no money, so was homeless in Boston. I didn’t care – I was determined to gain the education that I dreamed of.
You are also currently studying towards your doctorate degree. Please tell us more.
I am completing a doctorate in applied ethics at Oxford, as a continuation of my master’s degree there. The doctorate further extends my research into social justice and the roles that corporations ought to play to advance justice. The degree will open useful academic opportunities for me.
What are the highlights of your career thus far for you?
My highlight is establishing Read to Rise, which has already worked with close to 100 000 children in poor communities and distributed 200 000 new books. We employ full-time staff, and work to ensure not only that children have access to books, but that these books are inspirational and uplifting.
What are the challenges you are faced with when doing research and conducting studies?
In recent years, the biggest challenge has been funding, but I think most people face this challenge.
What advice do you have for South Africans wanting to further their studies, but who find themselves struggling to finish a degree or research project?
I think there are two factors to consider. A: Determine what you are passionate about, and take courses in those areas – this will help you through the difficult times. B: Focus on what career opportunities open up after the degree, and do what it takes to get through. Ideally, you want A and B. When things get tough, I always turn to these two factors – remind myself either that I am very excited about what I’m studying, or that getting through this struggle will pay off with great opportunities afterwards. You have to be clear why you’re studying, and keep reminding yourself of this.
What is your message to the youth of South Africa?
Identify what you are passionate about, what you love doing. Then, do this! If you can’t do it immediately, pave a way to get there eventually. We discover our power in our passions.
What does the future hold for you?
I want to write a lot more, particularly texts that offer tangible ideas to develop our economy and society, including books on ethics and social justice. And I’ll keep writing children’s books and poetry.
- Photos: provided