Nonhlanhla Nhlapo battled to read as a child and had learning difficulties, but with sheer determination she overcame these and the many other barriers to her becoming a chartered accountant and putting poverty behind her.
Today, Nonhlanhla, nearly 20, is in the second year of her Bachelor of Accounting Science (BAccSci) at Wits University and has a dream to create a foundation for autistic children.
“Although my experiences were different, I understand what it is like to be misunderstood and not accepted for who I am,” says Nonhlanhla, who grew up in Alexandra township in Johannesburg.
Nonhlanhla’s mother was still in high school when she was born and they lived with her grandmother. “I knew my dad, but not well,” she says.
When Nonhlanhla was seven an aunt who had moved to England sent air tickets for her, her mother and her grandmother to join her. But her mother was prevented from entering the UK three times.
Despite her mom not being with her, Nonhlanhla loved England and was totally accepted at school – despite her reading difficulties -- and in the community. “I would pick up a book and battle through the reading. It did affect my confidence and self-esteem, but I sharpened my listening skills and worked even harder,” she says.
But a year and a half later the aunt sent them back to South Africa after she met a man who later become her husband. “She stopped being around for us, which didn't make sense to me. I was so hurt by that.”
Back in Alex, Nonhlanhla was bullied at school because she was different – she couldn't speak the vernacular and had a posh accent. “They wouldn’t accept me or understand that I didn’t choose my path,” she says.
A year later, her father insisted she move to Orange Grove Primary school in the suburbs.
“In Grade 4, I still did well, but in Grade 5 the wheels fell off, as did my work ethic. I was having only one meal a day -- pap and gravy and maybe some dry bread. I started stealing food – like a pie – from the garage store near the school and I got caught. While no charges were pressed, the school was notified.”
Although teachers did their best to help Nonhlanhla she couldn’t afford to be at the school and so had to go back to the local school in Alex. “I prayed not to have to go, but I had no choice.”
“I became ambitious because my life didn't make me happy. I know money is not everything, but living without it takes all the joy out of life. I didn’t need anyone to push me, my situation reminded me what I needed to do to get out.”
She worked exceptionally hard on her reading, constantly taking books home and getting people in the neighbourhood to help her with the words and their meanings. Eventually, she fell in love with reading and couldn't do it enough.
She was ecstatic when she found out she had been awarded a bursary to go to Vuleka SSB, a private school in Randburg. “They paid for fees and everything until the end of matric. My tears flooded– finally things were working in my favour.”
In matric she got two distinctions and over 70% in all her subjects , and was accepted to study accountancy at the University of Johannesburg. Her mother, who had started a job as a receptionist at a hair salon, borrowed money from her boss to pay the registration fee.
Nonhlanhla approached Dr Nhlanhla Sithole, a doctor her family knew from Alex who was “big on community empowerment”, to sponsor her. He not only settled her fees and transport costs for that year but also became her mentor.
When she failed one module, he suggested she would be happier at Wits University, his alma mater.
So in 2016 she took the credits for what she had studied at UJ and began her BAccSci at Wits. Shortly thereafter, she was awarded a Moshal Scholarship. “It was as if the heavens opened and God showered down all the blessing he had reserved for me. I made friends at Wits. I stopped being anxious and I am coping with being an adult.”
Nonhlanhla is still living with her grandmother and works on weekends and holidays for Sithole, doing his billing. This year she will be tutoring children in maths at her former school in Alex.
She plans to do her Honours and Masters degrees and complete her studies in 2020, after which she wants to join an accounting firm.
But her big dream is to start a foundation for autistic children. “I want to be their beacon of hope, much like Martin Moshal is mine,” she says.