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Cape Town student’s story of overcoming family history of drug abuse will give you strength in hard times

  • 20-year-old University of Cape Town student Monique Tolken shares her story of overcoming the effects of an abusive past, and the challenges of foster care.
  • Through her story of resilience and determination, Monique hopes to inspire others experiencing difficult times, and encourages those in a similar position to grab every opportunity with open arms. 
  • Despite being a born into a family of drug abusers and experiencing childhood neglect, she says: “I love my life right now. It’s way better than I even thought I could be.” 

Born into a family of drug abusers, 20-year-old Monique Tolken was determined not the let her circumstances define her. With the odds stacked against her, this Cape Town teenager overcame the effects of an abusive past and the challenges of foster care, to be accepted at the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University. 

Now, a second-year Film and Media Studies student at the University of Cape Town, Monique says she is not ashamed of her past and tells News24: “It’s my story.”

Through her story of resilience and determination, she hopes to inspire others experiencing difficult times and says: “You are not the circumstances, and you are not the people who brought you into the world.”

“Have a vision of where you want to be. And don’t get too caught up or discouraged by the ‘how.’ An opportunity will present itself, and when it does, don’t shy away from it, just grab it with open arms,” she says.  

‘I called her Mother…’ 

Growing up in the gold mining town Randfontein, Monique says that as a child, she thought her family was “like any other,” experiencing both good and bad times. However, in her case, the bad always seemed to outweigh the good. Monique, raised by alcohol and drug dependent parents, thought her childhood was “normal.”

“Looking back now, I realise that it wasn’t like a family should be,” she says. 

“My dad was the one who always smoked weed. But I just thought that it was normal. He later progressed to heavier drugs like cocaine, LSD and Tik. And that is when everything just started to spin out of control,” she explains. Although he never acted violently towards her or her two younger siblings, Monique admits that he “got aggressive” with their mother. 

Her mother’s substance abuse problems started with alcohol, and “a while later, I walked into the kitchen and saw the lines on the counter,” she says. What followed was a pattern of physical acts of violence and verbal abuse by her mother.

Monique Tolken

Growing up in the gold mining town Randfontein, Monique says that as a child, she thought her family was “like any other.”

Photo: Supplied

“She once called me a slut. I didn’t even know what that meant. I was 11,” she explains, adding: “She would play mind-games with us, saying that social services would take us away. She said that everything bad in her life was because of me, and she wished that I was never born.”

Monique further details how her mother once struck her in the face, which resulted in a blue eye. In primary school at the time, she covered up the assault, telling teachers that she walked into a cupboard door. 

“I called her Mother. And I suppose that I did love her at one point in my life. But somewhere along the way, it ended, and I just didn’t like the person I saw,” she says. 

‘Money spent on parties, alcohol and drugs’

Monique explains that her parents rented a room in their Randfonetein home to a “dodgy man,” who conducted business from the room, selling various items, including gold. 

“My parents discovered the gold in his room and thought they would be clever and steal it. They told us that we were going on a holiday, but now I know that we were, in fact, running from the man who they stole from,” she says. Monique further explains: “We moved to Touws River. But the money quickly ran out, being spent on parties, alcohol and drugs.”

Monique Tolken

With the odds stacked against her, Monique overcame the effects of an abusive past and the challenges of foster care.

Photo: Supplied

Although she remembers moving around a lot, they were never homeless, but while staying in Touws River, her family came “pretty close.” “We didn’t have shoes; we barely had clothes. We didn’t have a bathtub; we didn’t have a toilet – and I realised at that moment that I didn’t want that to be my life.” 

Her father got arrested during that time, and one night her mother woke Monique and her siblings, saying they were going to see her family. The four then hitchhiked 220km from Touws River to Macassar, where they temporarily moved in with their grandmother.

‘Living in a tiny room’ 

“It was cramped,” Monique describes their living situation at her grandmother’s – who shared a single bed with her two siblings, and some nights they were joined by their mother.  

Monique stayed with her grandmother and various other family members for the following two years – with her parents drifting in and out of their lives. “My parents were staying on a drug dealer’s property, in the yard, and one night my grandmother packed our bags, put us in a car and dropped us off where my parents were staying,” she says.

They were living in this tiny room, the size of a handicapped bathroom. There wasn’t even a bathroom. People buying and doing drugs were walking in and out of the property. I looked around, my parents drugged out, and thought: ‘Where are we even going to sleep? Three children and two adults. Are we going to sleep on top of each other?

“After an hour, I had an idea and thought we could go to this lady’s house where we would sometimes stay after school. So, I took my siblings, thinking we could stay there for a day or two until we figured out what we should do next,” Monique continues. 

“My parents didn’t even try and stop us,” she says. After a 17-minute walk, Monique and her siblings arrived at the woman’s home, who let them stay the night. Her family later became their foster family, and they stayed for two years.

‘I had built up a wall’

Monique says that from a very young age, she was determined to succeed in life. “I knew this was not what I wanted, and I knew that my life would not be stuck here. I was very motivated to change,” she says.

“Primary school was very tough. I never cried. I only cried when I had to cry. I had built up a wall, no one could get in, and nothing came out,” she says. 

Although there were times she came close to giving up on her dreams of a better future, she remained focused on her academics, with the belief that an academic bursary would be her “way out.” Hard work and determination paid off when she got accepted into Somerset College in Grade 8 through their Acorn Bursary Trust, and the following year she was awarded boarding at Somerset College.

It felt secure for the first time because they couldn’t kick me out or tell me that I couldn’t stay there anymore.

Although she had a small group of friends, Monique admits that she found it challenging to “trust anyone,” and at 16, she “felt depressed.” “I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t know where I belonged. I couldn’t see into the future,” she says. 

She started seeing a social worker through to the school and was introduced to horse therapy, which improved her mental wellbeing. Grade 8 and 9 “weren’t that great,” says Monique, who was still trying to find her feet. But with the encouragement of her teachers, and friends she became more “confident in her skin,” and joined school clubs and sports teams. 

‘I love my life right now’ 

Monique applied to the University of Cape Town and Stellenbosch University in 2021 and got a acceptance at both prestigious universities. 

Currently pursuing a Film and Media degree at the University of Cape Town, Monique says in the future, she hopes to open a foster home, which can offer psychological and medical assistance to students who come from a similar background as her. 

Monique Tolken

Determined not to let her circumstances define her, Monique says: “I love my life right now. It’s way better than I even thought I could be.”

Photo: Supplied

Education provided Monique a pathway out of her challenging circumstances and afforded her an opportunity to realise her dreams. But she says, her dreams don’t end here. “I still want to help people, and I want to create a space where young people can feel safe and secure,” she says.

She also has sights set on a career in media marketing management and would like to start her own business one day. She says: “You are not the circumstances, and you are not the people who brought you into the world. Don’t be bogged down by your past; when you start living in the present and being positive, everything will start the change.” 

 “I love my life right now. It’s way better than I even thought I could be,” she says. 


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