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From gangster to social justice champion

Published Nov 14, 2021


EON Hendriks knows all to well the hardships of growing up poor in the townships and the lure of drugs to escape and joining a gang to feel acceptance or a sense of belonging.

Yet after he hit rock bottom in the underworld he emerged victorious to serve as an inspiration and help to his community.

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The 27-year-old grew up in Idas Valley in Stellenbosch. Today he gives back to the community and is the founder of two non-profit organisations.

The Clay Foundation, focuses on helping poor children by providing food, education and sport programmes. And Idas Valley Community Trails, takes tourists on trail hikes and creates economic opportunities for residents. He currently employs eight people.

“There were times in my life, when it was very difficult in my household, ” he said.

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His mother had to juggle in three jobs and his father worked in construction so he lived with his grandmother.

He managed to get into Stellenbosch University in 2013 but dropped out while studying a Bachelor of Law degree, then turned to gansterism and drugs.

"I went through traumatic experiences as I lost two close friends through gang violence. It hit me really hard and so I dropped out of university," he said.

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But he was forced to look at his life after he almost stabbed to death in 2019.

"I almost lost my life on May 11, 2019. That experience changed my life. I moved out of Stellenbosch for three months and worked at De Zalze as a gardener," said Hendriks.

While carrying a spade in October 2019, he came across Diane Gahiza, a project co-ordinator at the Faculty Trust Chair in Social Justice (Stellenbosch University).

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He later met Professor Thuli Madonsela, who encouraged him to return to university. He raised funds to pay for his debt through #Action4inclusion and by hiking several mountains with Madonsela. He managed to return to university last year to finish his degree.

"I would like to thank my parents, the team at Clay Foundation and Idas Valley, Kimbell and Tootsi, Prof Madonsela, Diana Gahiza, Jeanerette Momberg, Stellenbosch University and everyone who supported me," he said.

Last year he was named as the Social Justice Champion by Stellenbosch University's Faculty of Law Trust Chair in Social Justice, chaired by Madonsela.

“We are looking for people, anyone who is championing social justice and we have a council of senior people who have, throughout their lives, advanced social justice. There are 17 of them and then the public is asked to nominate people,” Madonsela said.

An employee of Idas Valley Community Trails Etienne Basson described Eon as “passionate, empathetic with a love for his fellow human beings, in a time when people have become complacent about social injustices".

"Eon has made me realise that no matter where you come from, you can be anything you want be be in life ... he is a true inspiration to us," said his friend Mihle Ndlebe.