When Nngadiseng Motaung first heard a student on TV use the word “university” she had to look up what it meant. From that day on this small-town Free State girl was determined to study at one.
This goal fitted her mother's advice that “it is not your choice to be born poor, but to die poor is your choice because you are able to change this outcome through education”. Her mother – a furniture salesperson in Bethlehem – was a single mom and Nngadi was the youngest of her three children.
Nngadi was an exceptional scholar and from Grade 5 received certificates for being the top learner in her grade. In Grade 9 she was the school's overall academic winner.
“All around me the children didn’t care enough even to do their homework. They just wanted to finish school,” says Nngadi. But even the youngsters who teased her for being the teachers’ pet didn’t get her down. “I am a hard worker and I knew what I wanted and that it was worth the effort,” she says. “I only wished they realised how important education was and what it would mean to them if they put in effort. But instead the lack of education is tearing our society apart.”
Nngadi especially enjoyed life sciences and physics and spent most of her childhood wanting to study medicine. That was until Grade 11, when she realised that her aversion to wounds and blood might get in her way.
In Grade 12, she asked to change a subject, computer literacy, to agricultural sciences. Her teachers did what they could to dissuade her from starting a new subject in matric, fearing it might bring down her average. But Nngadi was determined and loved and excelled in her new subject. In fact, she came top of her class in agriculture and decided to study agricultural economics at university.
“Most people see agriculture as just land and farming and I wanted to see the bigger picture. It fascinated me.”
She was accepted at the University of Free State in Bloemfontein. “I knew that if I could get the money to register – about R5000 – there was a good chance I would get a bursary,” she says. “My mother came up with the money. I just cried when she told me she had it for me. I knew it was tough for her, but she always told me not to worry about money matters and to focus on my studies and make her proud.”
University was a big adjustment, not least because the only accommodation she could secure was far from the university and she had to catch two taxis to and from campus. “I sometimes had to bunk very early or late classes because I couldn’t get there, which was devastating for me. I had never bunked before and never wanted to.”
She battled to survive financially and often thought of giving up and getting a job. “My mother would get angry when I even suggested it,” Nngadi says. Her financial worries came to an end when she was awarded a Moshal Scholarship. “When I told my mom the scholarship covered everything, she cried and said she knew God would make a plan for her girl.”
Though it took Nngadi a while to adjust to university, her previous track record in academics soon resumed. In her second year, she attained five distinctions, and in 2014 she received an academic achievement award from the Moshal Scholarship Program. This year in April she was chosen as the university’s best final-year agricultural student. She was also awarded an international Golden Key Award (for those achieving the top 15% academically).
Now Nngadi is doing her Honours and hopes to follow that with her Master's next year. “After that, I will work to get experience before continuing with my PhD,” she says.
Inspired by Martin Moshal and what this “ordinary man” has done for her, she goes back to her former schools every year to speak to the pupils and motivate them to make the effort to get to university. “I want to change the cycle of their lives,” she says.
“I look forward to my first pay cheque, which will go straight to my mother, who sacrificed so much for me,” she says. Her mother was retrenched in 2014 and hasn’t been able to find a job since. “I want to make my mother’s life easier, stress free and peaceful – and more than anything, I want to make her proud of what she has done for me.”