Wandering the streets and living off of scraps in the slums of South Africa is a life that few of us can even comprehend. That was the life of Thalente Biyela, living rough in Durban as a teenager.
His is a story of success against the odds. It’s not yet riches but there’s plenty of rags, and bucketloads of talent and determination. Through his talent on his board he managed to build a reputation as one of the stars of the burgeoning South African skate scene and eventually crossing the ocean to skate to tear it up in the Mecca of skateboarding, Los Angeles USA.
Broken Home: 2000-2002Thalente in front of his Mural (iamthalente.com)
In 2000, prior to life on the streets, Thalente lived in a broken home. His parents sold drugs to make ends meet and when they split up, Thalente’s new stepfather used fraud and deception to put bread on the table. The Biyela’s life was hard and Thalente often went hungry. Things went from bad to worse in 2001 when his mother passed away; the young South African was practically orphaned at just 11 years old. Distraught, he ran away from home and was forced to live on the streets.
After carving out survival and living rough for a year, Thalente’s destiny was changed for good when he received his first skateboard and discovered that he was a natural. Skating gave Thalente was more than just a way to pass the time, it gave him hope and a goal in life other than finding his next meal. More and more of every day was spent on his board and he began to dream of one day turning professional.
Discovering Skateboarding: 2002 – 2009
Durban’s skatepark became Thalente’s new home as he skated there relentlessly and slept in the bowl at night. Over time he honed his skills and was soon recognised as one of the most talented skateboarders in the city.
Thalente was embraced by the skatepark community due to his easy going personality, charisma and immense talent. Learning of his situation, a park regular Tammy Smith, would take him to her house every Christmas to give him a square meal, support and a taste of a family environment that he’d been robbed of.
Having not been at school since he was eight, Thalente was illiterate and struggled with the most basic maths. Smith and several of his new friends at the park helped him get a tutor and he quickly proved to be almost as talented in the class room as he was in the park.
I AM THALENTE: 2010 – 2012Thalente Embracing Beach Park in Durban (Photo by Jacqueline Burgess)
South African documentary maker, Natalie Johns learnt of Thalente’s and his dream. Tammy Smith, a friend of Johns, had told her about this incredible young kid and was looking for a way to get him off the streets. Natalie’s plan was to document Thalente’s life and bring it to a global audience and in 2011 I Am Thalente was released. The first donation to the Thalente Biyela cause arrived shortly after and the trickle turned into a torrent as the video was viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
At this time Tammy Smith asked Thalente to move in with her family so he could maintain his fundraising site. For the first time in years Thalente had a stable living environment and a roof over his head as his fundraising campaign began to take off.
Watch Talente’s documentary to see the start of his fundraising drive and the first stepping stone to his pro career.
Meeting Kenny Anderson: 2012 – 2013
As Thalente’s inspirational story reached around the world, his talent and drive attracted the attention of iconic pro skater Kenny Anderson having been contacted by Natalie Johns, the director Natalie Johns.
Kenny agreed to mentor Thalente and they exchanged emails with each other. Thalente’s story was published all over the major skate websites as his fundraising went on and his skateboarding and his story began to achieve fame and his dreams were slowly becoming reality.
Kenny and Thalente eventually met up when the young South African finally got to travel to Los Angeles. It was the first time he’d ever been on a plane. The pair hit it off immediately and Kenny became a role model for Thalente and introduced him to the world of professional skateboarding. For the first time in years Biyela had a positive role model who supported him in pursuing his goal.
Arrival in Los Angeles: 2014
Since 2011 Thalente’s rise has been meteoric. Just three years after I Am Thalente started filming he is now living in LA and has picked up his first sponsors including big hitters like Element Skateboards, Thunder Trucks, Spitfire Wheels and LRG Clothing.
Just a year ago Thalente was in Durban, borrowing boards from locals and sleeping at the skatepark. Now he’s killing it in America as a globally recognised professional skateboarder.
Thalente is still in regular contact with Kenny Anderson, who along with Tammy Smith and Natalie Johns was instrumental in saving Thalente from the streets. His journey isn’t over and he and Johns are currently working on a finalised full length version of their documentary, so stay tuned for more from Thalente – the kid who proves that your upbringing is no limit on your dreams.