When he was just 14, Nkululeko witnessed his aunt being chased from her home without her children because things didn’t work out in her marriage. This upset Nkululeko, who also found it unacceptable that widows who refused to marry their brothers-in-law were thrown out of their homes.
Seeing such disregard of women's rights made him want to be a lawyer.
Now he is about to begin his articles and master’s degree in labour law.
Nkululeko and his twin sister grew up with their mother – the second wife of his polygamist policeman father – in Mtwalume, near Port Shepstone on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. His father lived mostly in Umlazi with his third wife and family. But there were an average of 20 relatives living at the Mtwalume homestead because Nkululeko’s grandmother – the matriarch and a member of the Zulu royal house – loved having her family around her.
Nkululeko went to the local school, which, while badly resourced, competed with other rural schools in “producing top-class students”. Nkululeko was always the best pupil in his grade and he had a sense of responsibility to his family that ensured he worked hard, was disciplined and well behaved so as not to sully their name.
“My grandmother would encourage us to do well. If we did, she would slaughter a chicken and those who performed well at school got the biggest pieces in the feast around the fire. If you didn’t do well, you got a hiding.”
Nkululeko was an all-rounder, but had a passion for politics and history. “I want to know about the history of this country and I want my learning to be contextualised so I can understand better,” he says.
“I dreamed about going to university, but I knew my father couldn’t afford my tertiary education so I didn’t expect to go,” says Nkululeko. “Nevertheless, I studied like never before to at least stand a chance.”
He was accepted by the law faculty at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2013, with his registration fees waived because he had the top matric results in his municipality.
Around that time, his father’s third wife died and, devastated, he moved out of the house they shared in Umlazi and into a former apartheid hostel. Nlululeko had to move in with him and two of his brothers as he had nowhere else to stay while at university. “We were four in one room and I battled to study because of the noise. My father and mother’s relationship deteriorated, not least of all because he wouldn’t give me his financial documents to help secure a study loan.
“He was not interested in his children being at university and said a child should not know financial information about their parents.”
Nkululeko had learnt that the best way to get through life was to “adapt and adjust” to the given situation. So he got used to living with his dad, travelling by train and managing on little food.
In the second semester, a friend – who had a Moshal Scholarship - told him about the program and, although you can’t apply for this scholarship, Nkululeko contacted Jodi Bailey.
At 11 minutes past two on Mandela Day (July 18) that year, he got a call from Jodi. “I remember it so well. I was sitting with my mother and twin and she called to tell me I had got the scholarship. I went silent, trying to absorb this miracle,” he says. “We had just been discussing how I was going to pay for the year and the difficulties I was having. That moment changed my life.”
As soon as the money came through, he moved into student accommodation in Durban. His marks improved so much that he was admitted to the Golden Key International Honours Society (only for those students whose results are in the top 15% of the university).
Nkululeko plans to become a labour lawyer, complete a PhD and lecture in law. “I want to teach students how to become servants of our country and that being a lawyer is not just about yourself but about helping others move forward,” he says. “I believe that if a person makes it in life, it is their moral duty to give back to the community.”
He aspires to having a smaller but similar programme to that of Martin Moshal, whom Nkululeko calls his “own Moses” because he took him and others away from hardship. “He gave us freedom to learn,” says Nkululeko, whose name translates from Zulu as “Freedom” as he was born just days before the first democratic elections in 1994.
And he certainly hasn’t forgotten about his initial motivation to study law. “I will set up a paralegal NGO where we will help rural women and other vulnerable people.”