Writer seeks to push boundaries for justice

By Tebogo Monama Time of article published Sep 8, 2017

Share this article:

Years ago, writer Athol Williams used to have it all - money and a chauffeured car - but he decided to trade it all for charity work.

Hailing from Mitchells Plain in Cape Town, he swopped his high-flying job in finance to start a charity, Read to Rise, to encourage a reading culture among the young.

He started the charity with his wife Taryn Lock, and today it operates in Cape Town and Soweto.

Williams, who has degrees from Harvard, the London School of Economics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Wits University, admits it hasn't always been easy.

However,his hunger to achieve his dreams has sustained him through the years. “My philosophy of life is the idea of saying 'have your dreams and live them'. We are the sum of our dreams, and that’s what keeps us going,” he said.

One of his major dreams was to get his doctorate. He has now been admitted to Oxford University but needs a sponsor to make it a reality.

Williams got his first engineering degree at Wits and then went to study at MIT.

“It looks like I am collecting degrees, but that’s not what I am doing. My career has been in two parts. The first part of my career has been business. My first three degrees were engineering, an MBA and finance. That was useful for my business career,” he said.

When he turned 40, he realised that money wasn’t enough and he needed to do more to help people.

“I decided to turn my focus to public service and embarked on a new study path that concentrated on public policy and philosophy,” he said, stressing that for him furthering his studies is not about getting a better paid job.

“I love learning, and I know you don’t need degrees to learn, but I like the structural format of degrees. I also like challenging myself. I have been using my story to inspire people across the country since publishing my autobiography, Pushing Boulders. It is a story about excellence. I like demonstrating the impossible, that you can achieve your most outrageous dreams,” he said.

His is a story of outrageous dreams. When he went to study at MIT in 1994, he didn’t have a cent or know anyone in the US.

“I didn’t know anybody and I lived in the streets. I lived in public places until the university created a scholarship for me," Williams revealed.

"My last degrees from Oxford, the London School of Economics and Harvard I paid for myself. It wasn’t easy. When I retired from business we sold everything and wanted to do two things with it: invest in inspiring young children to read and be educated, and then use it for my education,” he said.

And that is exactly what he did through Read to Rise. So far, the organisation has distributed 70000 books to pupils and placed more than 230 mini-libraries in communities and schools.

“We all need to make a decision on what our lives are going to be, and for me all that wealth and power felt empty when I looked all around me and people were living in poverty.

"For a while I thought I would make a difference while I was in business but I was confined in what I could do. I also felt I was a hypocrite.

"I was driving a big BMW and would see people living in shacks. I wanted to use my money, skills and position to do good,” Williams said.

He admits that he used to be too idealistic until he realised that to do any good, you need money.

In the last few years he has pumped most of his money, including earnings from Pushing Boulders, to fund Read to Rise.

He now hopes that despite doors being closed in his face, a local organisation will give him about R1.5million to fund his studies.

“I want ideally to be funded by South Africans. All my work on community development and social upliftment has been in South Africa, so I want to do my studies and come back, but I am struggling to get funding.”

For his political philosophy doctorate Williams hopes to focus on structural social justice. “I think we lack a vision of what a great society is. We need inspired, active citizens and I want to make a contribution towards that.

"The second thing is injustices. Our systems were built during colonial times and these systems need to be rethought.

"We import all these ideas from different parts of the world and I want us to develop them in our own society.”

He hopes that after finishing his studies he can develop his ideas further in the local academic space.

His current struggle to raise funds hasn't left him discouraged.

“I’m approaching businesses, showing that this is an investment in our future. I will borrow money if I need to.

"I think it is about sharing the vision about me. This is not an investment in Athol, it is investing in what Athol will do.”

Share this article: