Suidoosterfees 2021: An interview with Thembalethu Seyisi

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Thembalethu Seyisi, author of 21 life lessons @ 21, will be part of the Jakes Gerwel conversations at the Suidoosterfees.

These talks are free.

Find the complete programme here.

21 life lessons @ 21
With Thembalethu Seyisi, Thuli Madonsela, Sandra Prinsloo, Rochelle Barrish and Susan Booyens
Date: 27 April 13:00
Duration: 60min
Venue: ATKV Innovation Lounge
Free entrance

Which pearls of wisdoms did you wish you had when you were 21? Thembalethu Seyisi, a dynamic law student at Stellenbosch University, posed this question to 21 successful South Africans. The result: a compilation of stories by prominent personalities about hope and determination. Just the inspiration you need for 2021!

Hello, Thembalethu. Let us start at the beginning: There you were, 21 and not throwing a party. Instead, you published a book with 21 life lessons for people who are 21. How did that happen?

There is indeed a bit of a story to the birth of my book 21 life lessons @ 21. My mentor, the journalist and media expert Hannelie Booyens, has been making lists of life lessons for her milestone 40th and 50th birthdays – most of them entertaining titbits, but also some pearls of wisdom. At the beginning of 2020, I decided that I also wanted to compile such a list for my 21st birthday in December, but then the COVID-19 pandemic happened and dumped us all into an existential crisis. Throwing a big party wasn’t an option, so I decided I wanted to do something meaningful instead. I also felt a need to “pay it forward” – over the past few years, I have benefited so much from amazing role models in my life, and I’m deeply grateful for the unique opportunities I’ve had, such as the Ciucci Bursary awarded by the Stella Foundation, which enables me to study law at Stellenbosch University. I wanted other young people also to experience the love, grace and inspiration I have benefited from. I realised that at 21 I hadn’t experienced enough of life to share my own insights, but I’d been fortunate to have met wonderful people whose experiences could be a source of inspiration for young and old in the difficult times we face. Another big consideration was raising money for causes I feel passionate about, such as helping students pay outstanding university fees so they can graduate.

You dedicate the book to “all young people with big dreams”. You clearly are one of those?

Indeed. It has been a dream to publish a book; I just didn’t know the opportunity would come so soon! With that dedication, I hope to show young people that big dreams do come true. The stories of the diverse group of South Africans featured in 21 life lessons @ 21 show that there are many roads to achieving success and there are different ways to overcome obstacles.

You got 21 prominent people to participate. How did you manage that? I mean, Thuli Madonsela, Sandra Prinsloo, Edwin Cameron, Haji Mohamed Dawjee and many more. I am sure you did not casually pop a WhatsApp and say, “Yoh! Sandra! Let’s chat, gurl!”

One of the lessons I’ve learned early in my life is that there is no harm in asking. It took some networking to get the contact details of some of the role models I wanted to include in the book. In some cases, it was simply a WhatsApp message. For some, it was a call or reaching them through social media. For others, it was asking in passing and hoping for the miracle “yes”. After that came the process of explaining what I wanted to achieve with the book and discussing deadlines, which was quite a challenge, as I started the process early in October and had to have the book at the printers at the end of November last year. There were a few anxious sleepless nights, but luckily everything worked out, and I also managed to pass all my third-year law exams! Everybody I approached was so excited to be part of the project, and it wasn’t difficult to convince them to join the cause. It was a huge privilege and honour to meet people I’ve always admired.

Rochelle Barrish says, “Stop being sorry.” (There is no “sorry” button on Zoom calls, she says.) Neo Mokone says: “You are the monarch of your own story.” Wonderful advice, even to an old man like me. But somehow, in order to have created this wonderful book, there had to have been something of these things inside you already. What did you gain from the book?

I believe that I have gained immeasurable wisdom worth gold from truly inspiring people. For me, the book confirms the value of ubuntu (I am because you are) and how prosperous a nation we could become if we could all work together towards a shared goal. Compiling and editing the book was a steep learning curve, but in the process I learned to challenge myself to get out of my comfort zone and to embrace new challenges.

To add to the question above: You are donating profits from this project to charity, so you did not even do this to get rich?

No. It is my small way of paying it forward and a way of showing gratitude for the privileges life has afforded me thus far. One of the most profound lessons in the book comes from Justice Edwin Cameron, who shares a very moving childhood encounter of a stranger who gave his struggling mom an envelope with a ten rand note, which made a massive difference to their lives. He argues that “interventive kindness” can radically change lives. Even though charity is no substitute for political action to remedy social injustice, we should all endeavour to do whatever we can to help those in need. This book is my way of trying to achieve the kind of “distributional interventions” Justice Cameron describes that make the world a better place for all.

I am a runner. Your father’s story, therefore, touched me deeply – I have just never been as fast as he was. And, of course, Wim de Villiers also is a runner. Sandra Prinsloo dared you to experience nature. I would be daunted by all the advice from your heroes. Have you found your inner hero yet, as Sello Hatang has suggested you should?

No. Not yet. I am still struggling to come to terms with the grim fact that we live in a world full of bigotry where people are killed for their sexual orientation, gender or race in some instances. Yet, there is so much goodness in the same world. I think true wisdom is finding a way to channel your energy and talents in a productive way and actively to search for inspiration so that you don’t become despondent. The wisdom contained in 21 life lessons @ 21 has reminded me that your “inner hero” isn’t a cartoon character – it’s someone of flesh and blood that will sometimes falter and feel lonely. But when you actively look for the common humanity we all share, you realise your struggle is not unique and you’re much stronger than you think you are. And that always brings me back to ubuntu – knowing that collectively we can support each other through enormous hardship, and change what is wrong in the world.

Let us move to the impossible. If you could have asked one or two dead people to have contributed, who would you have liked to ask? Your mom, perhaps?

My mom. Definitely. Because she birthed me and nurtured me for the first 13 years of my life with so much unconditional love. She will always inspire me. And also, former president Nelson Mandela, for his stellar contribution to our country and the world.

On 27 April, you will join Thuli Madonsela, Sandra Prinsloo, Rochelle Barrish and Susan Booyens on stage at 13h00 in ATKV Innovation Studio at the Artscape Centre as part of the Jakes Gerwel conversations. What can the audience expect from the talk?

A frank, intergenerational conversation. We will flirtingly touch on the other contributors’ stories, but will particularly zoom in on those of the panellists. Susan Booyens writes about forgiving our parents – we will zoom in on that. We will also unpack Thuli Madonsela’s letter, which is packed with themes of self-acceptance, the notion of justice and ethical leadership.

I am an old man, more than twice your age, and I have learned much from your book. Have your peers paid any attention to it?

Yes. I am overwhelmed by the heart-warming DMs on Twitter and Facebook. Just last week, a Facebook friend bought the book as a gift to himself, and I was able to surprise him with a 10-minute one-on-one conversation with the UCT vice-chancellor, Professor Phakeng. Other young people have shared their financial challenges, but still support the cause by sharing my posts regarding the book. People who want to buy the book can order a copy on www.21lifelessons.co.za in PDF format (R150) or as a printed version (R250).

Also read:

Persverklaring: Aktuele sake onder bespreking by Suidoosterfees

Suidoosterfees 2021: An interview with Adam Cruise

Suidoosterfees 2021: ’n onderhoud met Johan Fourie

Kalender: Suidoosterfees 2021 ‒ Die leuen van 1652

Suidoosterfees 2021: ’n onderhoud met Deon Meyer

Suidoosterfees 2021: ’n onderhoud met Coenie de Villiers

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