Tholakele Nene [MISSING PHOTO]

Manager, #MineAlert

Tholakele has always loved the written word. As the fifth of eight children, she buried her head in books. The self-confessed bookworm started with the more imaginative Goosebumps series, quickly graduating to Animal Farm and To Kill a Mockingbird.

In school, she wrote poetry and short stories. That could have been where this story ended. After school Tholakele’s plan was to work in retail because her family didn’t have enough money for her to go to university. But her stubborn grandmother — the family’s sole breadwinner — and Tholakele’s English teacher told her to go and study. God would handle the rest. After failing a journalism entrance exam, she got NSFAS support to read towards a bachelor of social science in English and sociology.

But that career path was abruptly cut short in 2010 when her grandmother died. She moved to Cape Town and got a job at a small communications company. In 2013 she took those skills and moved back to her home city of Durban, getting a job as a communications officer for the Durban climate change strategy website. When that contract ended she returned to wandering, ending up in Nelspruit, where she got into her current job, at the Oxpeckers Centre for Investigative Environmental Journalism. At first she worked on rhino cases. Now she manages the #MineAlert app, where people can track and share information about new mining.

This gives Tholakele the sort of information that she broadens by asking government for more details, which then allows her to write investigative articles for Oxpeckers. It also allows her to give information to communities which would otherwise be unable to get it. Unlike conventional journalists, Tholakele wants to make a difference in people’s lives. Just talking to people and writing stories without being able to materially improve their circumstances leaves her depressed. So she goes about her work by giving the people she works with the knowledge and tools that allow them to improve their own lives. When it does get depressing, she escapes by clamping on her earphones and listening to very loud music. When that doesn’t do the job, Tholakele sticks her head into colouring books and puzzles.

— Sipho Kings