It’s Saturday afternoon in Samora Machel township in Philippi. Children are playing in the street, sharing their playground with cars and passers-by. Loud music is playing in the shebeens where most of the teenagers hang out, indulging in alcohol and cigarettes.

In these streets you count yourself lucky if you reach your destination without being robbed or asked for R2 to buy a cigarette.

Like any other township, Samora Machel faces many social problems, including under-resourced schools, crime and substance abuse.

During 2013 many young people were killed in gang violence in the area. The main gangs operating in this township are the Vura and the Vatos. Most members of these gangs are high school kids. Many are forced into a gang, because if they don’t join they will become victims to it. The gangs operate in different zones of the township and fight over their territories after school, in the streets. Armed with knives and pangas, they cause havoc in neighbourhoods, creating fear, and making it hard for children to go to school safely. Rumour has it that school kids who are part of these gangs go to traditional healers to get muti that will prevent them getting caught by police.

In a 2013 survey of residents in Philippi, 37% said they or a close relative had been a victim of violence. Two police officers were killed and another seriously injured. A group of 100 residents marched on the police station to demand more police action and protection from the gangsterism in the area. They found only two police officers on duty. They warned the police officers that if they couldn’t protect the community, the people would have to take the law into their own hands. And in 2014 this happened, with a series of vigilante killings in Philippi.

However, three students from Samora Machel have managed, despite the gangs and struggles around schooling, to rise above their circumstances to become beacons of hope.

Abel Mfundo Dantyi, 24, graduated in Public Relations Management in 2012 at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). He is one of the few graduates from Samora Machel. Abel managed to stay out of trouble till he finished high school. After passing his matric in 2008, he worked for a year as a packer and quality control assistant at Tensol Manufacturing, a solar panel manufacturing company. He wanted to make money and save so that he could study. In 2009 he was accepted to study Public Relations Management at CPUT.

Abel said the major reasons that township learners drop out of school are teenage pregnancy, gangsterism and poverty. When asked how he overcame these challenges he said: “I think I was lucky because I had my mom and my father to support me. I had control of my life and I knew where I was going.”

Another major challenge that he had to face as a university student staying in the township was transport: “Trains were often delayed. I had to walk home from the station late, and I was robbed twice at gun point.

“Socially it was also difficult for me. Back at home in Samora Machel, my friends were jealous of me because I was studying and they were doing nothing. They couldn’t understand why I was busy with my school work and couldn’t hang with them.

“I managed to overcome these challenges because I was determined and I saw a clear picture of where I was going.”

To empower the youth of Samora Machel, Abel would like to see the distribution of school uniforms and stationery for learners who can’t afford these items, greater police visibility after school and youth empowerment programmes where young people can go to after school.

Abel is currently volunteering on Saturdays for LAMPS- Language, Accounting, Maths and Physical Science tutoring program in Philippi, tutoring high school students in accounting and maths. “In my family no-one went to university, so I told myself I would break that barrier and be the first one to graduate. I want to see more Abels. In fact I want to encourage learners to do more than I did. ”

His message to high school learners: “Where you come from doesn’t determine where you end up in life. If you work hard enough and you know what you want, and also persevere, nothing is impossible.”

Nomfuneko Xabanisa, 27, is another CPUT graduate. Born and raised in Samora Machel, she’s currently teaching Technology and Natural Science at Njongo Primary School in Khayelitsha. Nomfuneko believes that the only way to encourage the youth to pursue their studies, regardless of their circumstances, is if the government can create more jobs. She would also like to see the government hosting workshops where successful graduates from Samora Machel can motivate the youth in the area to focus on their studies and achieve their dreams.

Mhlangabezu Golele, 28, is doing his B.Tech in Biomedical Technology at CPUT. He is also a Physics tutor at CPUT. Born and raised in the Eastern Cape, he came to Cape Town to attend high school. Since both his parents passed away while Mhlangabezi was in primary school, he stayed with his extended family in Cape Town. After passing his matric in 2007 he had to look for a job.

“I didn’t know anything about NSFAS and any other financial support systems that were there to support students.” He therefore worked in a number of temporary jobs to save money for his studies the following year, including factory, farm and construction work.

“If I didn’t have a strong purpose I would have given up a long time ago,” he says. “At home I was not treated well compared to my cousins. During winter I had no jersey and I never had pocket money for lunch. Even when I was doing my Diploma I had to do promotions on weekends so that I could have train fare and afford stationery.”

The lack of developmental activities and lack of jobs concerns him. “The government must not only focus on building infrastructure in the townships but it must also focus on developing people. People need to be developed so that they can gain skills and create jobs.”

Mhlangabezi says what keeps him going are his late grandmother’s words: “Uze unyamezele eskolweni mzukulwane, ube ngumntu ofundileyo.” (Persevere at school so that you can be an educated person.)

His advice to young people: “You must have a goal and a vision. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you, you must have faith that you will achieve your dreams. Always be willing to go the extra mile.”

Despite all the social problems facing Samora Machel, it is clear that there are young people who know what they want and who don’t let any adverse circumstances stand in their way.

Perhaps the time of blaming and relying on the government has come to an end. Perhaps graduates need to make sure that they empower and mentor others to become graduates as well. A great challenge facing communities such as Samora Machel is lack of information and good role models. If every graduate can become a mentor to groom others and lead by example, they can help create better communities.

There is vast potential in the township youth, and it’s possible that all that is needed is guidance. As spiritual teacher, author and lecturer Marianne Williamson wrote, “Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”