As a child, Aphelele Emmete (18) was labelled as a stupid troublemaker. For a while he believed it until the day he decided to stop living through the opinions of others. He shares his story of finding himself and proving that his labels were wrong.
“I was born in Cape Town and lived with my mom in Khayelitsha. I never met my father, I don’t even know who he is. My mom had two other sons (seven and two) who lived with relatives in the Eastern Cape. When she met my step father we moved to Nyanga.
Growing up, Aphelele says that fear led him to make the wrong decisions.
“I had just begun school and I saw a peer bullying other child. I was in Grade R and he was in Grade 2. Because I didn’t want to be bullied I became his friend. However, being close to him meant that I needed to do what he was doing which meant picking on kids, stealing from them and giving him what I could get.”
Aphelele says that being around the bully made him feel invincible and that he began enjoying the fact that no kid at school would mess around with him. His new found status at school led him to look at similar friends around his neighbourhood.
“After school I would come home to an empty house because my mother was working, so the neighbours would look after me. Sometimes my mother sorted out food for me, other times I had to fend for myself - I would go to the neighbours and ask for food. Because there was no one at home, I started hanging out with the older boys from my neighbourhood. We would hang out after school. At first we would play fight, wrestle or pretend to be gangsters. I think it was because gangsters were the cool ones in the area, they were respected and had money so we wanted to be like them.”
“After some time the older boys told me that if I wanted to be part of their group I had to start stealing with them. I would be sent to the shops for small stuff, like a packet of chips or chocolate. I think it was fun for me because it made me think that I was a big boy.”
“In Grade R, I also stole one of the kids watches in my class. I remember looking at it and thinking that I liked it. He would keep the watch in his bag when he went outside to play so I took it one day when he left his bag. When he discovered that his watch was missing, he told the teachers who searched the school. I got scared so I gave it to the bully… but I didn’t know that one of the kids saw me taking it. The bully also told the teachers that I gave him the watch. On that same day, they called my mom to the office, and they told me to tell the truth. When we got home I was beaten.”
Unfortunately, Aphelele didn’t learn his lesson and continued stealing.
“Everyone was calling me a naughty boy and a trouble maker, and so I began seeing myself that way. My stealing caught up with me again. Me and the older boys targeted a shop. I waited for the shop owner to get distracted, then stuffed some chips into my clothes. But as I was walking out of the shop the chips fell out. I thought no one would see it, but the shop keeper did and told some boys in the shop to catch me. When I realised I ran away. It was evening, I was running in the dark and I stumbled and fell. I heard the shopkeeper behind me… I looked at her and she took off her shoe and beat me on my head with the heel of her shoe. The other boys also started hitting and kicking me. My head was bleeding and I remember curling my body and hoping that she would stop. People who saw what was happening called my family because our house was not far from where I was. When they got there the beating stopped.”
“They were so angry with the shop keeper for the way that she had beaten me. They kept repeating that I was just a child. But they said they were also angry with me for stealing and I was going to be punished.”
Aphelele was now six, and he says that after that incident, home became a bit tense. His family wanted him to change friends and they kept calling him the troublemaker because no one else behaved like him in the family. His mother also gave birth to his baby sister soon after, leaving even less time for Aphelele’s care.
“After my sister was born, my mother, sister and I went to the Eastern Cape to visit family. It was a normal visit and I got to see my older brothers which was good. We were there for a few weeks. One day I woke up and didn’t see my mother, I asked my grandfather where she was and he said that she would be back later. I noticed that it was getting late, and asked again where my mom was. I began to cry then my grandparents told me that she left for Cape Town and that I was staying with them in the Eastern Cape. I was upset because I didn’t know anything and she didn’t even say goodbye. She just left with the baby.”
“My older brothers were living there, so I felt a bit better. In the coming weeks we became close.”
Aphelele says that when he started school in Grade 1 he continued being a bully, “I was angry with the world, I did not care. We didn’t have much money at home, money was only for basics. If I wanted luxuries I would take them from my peers.”
“My grandfather was a mineworker and had a tin where he put his money. I wanted to buy something, so I took some money from the tin. Not long after, I heard my grandmother shouting about the money. When I took it I didn’t know how much it was … but my grandfather shouted that there was R200 missing. He came towards me because he knew I had a history of stealing when I was in Cape Town. He started to beat me and shouted that I must give him the money back. I was so scared, so I returned the money, but the beating continued.”
Aphelele continued to act like the bad boy his family knew him to be.
“I was playful in class, never wanting to be there. I would get into fights and copy my classmates work. Because I never concentrated in class, I was always failing my tests. The other kids started calling me ‘dom’ (dumb) because I would get five marks out of 50 for a test. Whenever the teacher would ask us questions in class…. the others would look at me and say ‘argh… he’s stupid and ‘dom’ he can’t get anything right.’ I remember feeling sad and angry, but after hearing them say it so many times, I believed them and gave up. I would go to school but not to class. The teacher tried to get me to class, but after a while they gave up and called my grandmother to tell her what was happening. She never addressed me about the issue.”
Constant lack of studying combined with a defeatist attitude made Aphelele fail Grade 4.
“At home there were five boys in the house, and I was the only one that failed. I felt terrible, I just wanted it to be a joke and that I had passed too. I saw how proud my cousins were, I wished I cared about school more. I wanted the earth to open and take me. I would laugh and celebrate with my cousins but it was all fake. It was like I woke up! I felt desperate because no one wants to fail.”
The following year, when I turned 10, my mother decided that I should do Grade 4 in Cape Town.
“My grandmother told me that I was going back home, I was excited that I wouldn’t have to face the other kids in my class. I felt it was my chance to change my life. In the new school not having friends was a blessing, there was only me and my books. I began studying and getting good marks – A’s and B’s. I would question who I was becoming, was this the real me? I was feeling excited and worked hard, people did not call me ‘dom’ and even my family stopped saying I was a troublemaker.”
“Because I was getting good marks, I was approached by others who were also doing well. There was positivity around me and I became very competitive with the new group. We all wanted to be the best in our grade.”
“I began including my mom in my studies. She would help with Afrikaans that I was struggling with and we grew closer. My mother began talking about me to her friends, I would hear her bragging about my marks and saying that I was going places.”
Aphelele is in Grade 11, he is the top achiever in his grade and has been elected as the President of the school’s Student Representative Council.
Aphelele concludes, “through my life I have overcome hurdles – mostly the ones I created myself. I allowed the perceptions others had of me to define who I was. Myself and others did not realise that my bad behaviour was not the complete person but just a sign that something was not ok. When I realised that, it was simple, I just changed.”
Aphelele is a Leaders’ Quest participant.