How a bookworm beat the odds
Athol Williams’ life is a story of triumph. Growing up in Mitchells Plain during apartheid set him back from the start. In the township built to accommodate victims of forced removals, residents endured inferior resources at every level, from their housing to their education. The latter was about more than just separation – the aim was to keep people of colour from learning and progressing. But Williams has never been one to be left behind. At every opportunity, he took matters into his own hands. “I realised that to beat the system, I would have to take personal responsibility for my life and my own education,” Williams says. His starting point? The humble book.
As a young child, Williams devoured every piece of writing he came across. His initiative opened up his life to new worlds of opportunity. A brilliant learner at school, he went on to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering. This alone was a remarkable achievement in the face of his circumstances. But for Williams, it was just the start. “I’m the only person in the world who’s completed five master’s degrees from five of the world’s top universities,” he says. Williams is an alumnus of Harvard, Oxford, London School of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and London Business School. There’s no limit to his interests, his studies ranging from politics to finance.
In the course of his academic career, Williams has continuously shared his learnings as a lecturer, social philosopher, and most notably, as a poet. “I started writing when I felt I had so much to say that I couldn’t keep it in anymore,” he says. Since the 90s, Williams has published hundreds of verses that question injustice, take on inequality, and cry out for change. Though he has an impressive list of accolades behind his name, Williams is driven by a greater purpose. “There is no joy in being a writer when illiteracy is still an epidemic,” he says. Williams co-founded READ to RISE, an initiative that writes, publishes, and distributes children’s books to cultivate a love for reading. “I think it’s very important for us as South Africans to always remember the power of sharing knowledge,” he says. While his life is a success story, one is not enough. Williams proves that curiosity and a hunger for learning can drive us all forward.