The ‘Fees Must Fall’ protests, which severely disrupted university attendance throughout the country last year, wreaked havoc on students’ performance and Nomakhaya Mkuzangwe thought she was going to be one of the casualties.
“It was a very uncertain time and I was worried I wouldn’t finish the year. Because of the protest marches, we didn’t finish the syllabus so, after university closed, I had to write exams in December,” says the 19-year-old B.Com (general accounting) student at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth.
Not only did Nomakhaya pass all her first-year modules, she did it with three distinctions. “I just stayed focused,” she says.
Nomakhaya grew up in Kamvelihle in Motherwell and, unlike many of her friends, had both her parents in her life, as well as her grandmother and other relatives. Her father worked as a shoe repairer at Multiserve and her mother was mostly unemployed, selling sweets on the street.
“My parents have always struggled financially, but they showed me unconditional love. Somehow my mother being unemployed was a blessing in disguise because she got the time to teach me to be independent, which has given me the strength not to feel I have to ‘fit in’ with a group.
“My parents equipped me and my younger siblings with the skill of knowing when and where not to pay attention to other people's criticism. They taught me to be myself at all times, and I realise now that having that support is rare. I’m grateful that God chose them to be my parents,” says Nomakhaya.
She was an average pupil at school. “Until I reached matric I thought a C was as good as an A.
“I had a vague notion once about being a forensic expert, after watching Medical Detective on TV, but I was never sure what I wanted to be,” she says.
Once she reached matric, however, she realised that she needed to get higher marks to get into university and to identify a career goal. “I’m an introvert and I used to shy out of orals or any public-speaking event, so I needed guidance and support from my teachers,” she says.
Her Grade 11 teacher Mam Madasi helped Nomakhaya to conquer her nerves in front of other people. “I was also fortunate enough in my last year to have an accounting tutor, Anele Bani, who is also in the Moshal Scholarship Program,” she says.
Once Nomakhaya enrolled at university the biggest hurdle was lack of funding. She went through a whole year without text books, relying mostly on print credits with the assistance of the Masinyusane Development Organisation, an educational non-profit organisation.
“I once had to borrow a textbook from my friend before a test. I also had transport issues and would miss the 7.45am lectures because I needed to take two taxis to get from Kamvelihle to the NMMU campus in Missionvale,” she says.
Socialising and adjusting to the diverse student body at university, on the other hand, was easy. “It’s been a journey of discovery. I enjoy meeting people from all walks of life, who have different values,” she says.
Nomakhaya found out at the beginning of this year that she had been awarded a Moshal Scholarship.
“It was a huge highlight, a blessing that I’m truly thankful for,” she says. “I feel that I am part of a huge family that enables us to grow individually, at our own pace.”
After she completes her degree in 2019, Nomakhaya wants to do honours, then three years training to qualify as a chartered accountant. “Hopefully after that I will do my master's in business administration.”
Nomakhaya is considered a role model by her family. “I have shown that after high school you don’t just sit at home and do what I call ‘location management’. You can go to university. My peers and those older than me respect me, and support me in any way they can.”
“It’s about choosing a more challenging path,” she says. “The easy way out leads nowhere. My philosophy is that if it makes me sweat then it’s worth the sacrifice, as the reward is greater.
“My motto in life is ‘Trying is the process of doing’. Not everyone is academic, but I believe all children should have a chance at something in life. In my case, it was always assumed I would go to university after school,” she says.
Nomakhaya admits she is still shy when asked to make a presentation, but she is working on it. “I may not have mastered the skill of being a confident speaker, but I’m getting there.”
Nomakhaya is living off campus and is quite clear about who and what are most important to her: “My family and my goal.”