Phindelani Ncane grew up in a child-headed household the youngest of five siblings, all at school when his mother died.
This is not a unique situation in South Africa: there are believed to about 150 000 children living in households headed by other children, according to UNICEF.
What was rarer was Phindelani’s determination not to let this prevent him getting a good education so he could break the cycle of poverty.
Today, Phindelani, 22, is in fourth-year medicine at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He has made the Dean’s List every year and is a Golden Key recipient, meaning that he is academically in the top 15% of all students at the university.
Phindelani grew up in a small township on the periphery of Verulam, a town inhabited predominantly by people of Indian descent. His father had left after a fight with his mother, but they lived in a house with all the basic amenities, and Phindelani recalls always having new clothes and a full belly. “My mother was self-employed – she bought and sold clothes,” he says. “She was a strong, independent woman.”
Sadly, she died in 2002 after being very ill… “I still don’t know why she died, nobody was able to tell me,” says Phindelani, who was just eight years old at the time.
With no one to support the family financially, Phindelani’s oldest sister had to leave school in matric to work to feed the others.
“There wasn’t anyone to support us emotionally or tell us right from wrong, so my older brother was influenced by the wrong people and resorted to crime. He had been my male role model.”
Phindelani believes his brother followed in the footsteps of a cousin who had been killed by a community mob as justice for his crimes. “I had seen the end result of crime and I didn’t want to die. I also didn’t want to struggle forever. I matured fast very young after I realised that I needed to dedicate myself to my studies and do well to create a better future.”
From primary school his teachers saw his potential and encouraged him. “I loved school. I did well, I was sporty ..” he says. “I had friends but I didn’t keep relationships. I was too scared of losing people.”
He was sent to Verulam Secondary, a top-performing school, because of his marks. Offended by the fact that the Indian children were put in the top three classes and the black pupils in the rest, he was determined to get the best marks. “I wanted to show them that the colour of a person’s skin does not prove their intellectual and academic ability.”
Although he considered studying law, his science teacher suggested he was better suited to medicine. This resonated with Phindelani, not least because he had never quite got over not knowing the cause of his mother's death.
In Grade 10 he was moved into the top now-mixed-race class.
“All this time my sister managed to make sure we looked presentable and well fed, that we never looked like we came from a family with problems,” Phindelani says.
He was one of the top three students in his Grade 10 class and the first black student at his school to take up public speaking.
He began impromptu after-hours tutoring in Grade 11 and became president of his school’s Youth Empowerment Society.
That year he was reunited with his father, whom his sister traced to the Eastern Cape. “I finally had a parent around and it was so exciting.”
As the top student in matric, Phindelani was awarded R20 000 from UKZN for registration and some of his fees. He was fortunate to be offered a Moshal Scholarship before he started university. “Finding out what the Moshal Scholarship actually meant was the happiest day of my life. I am eternally grateful.”
University wasn’t as foreboding as it might have been because he was only a 45-minute drive from home. Still, Phindelani would have nightmares that he was carrying his bags and knocking on the front door at home to tell his family he had failed. “Because of this fear of failing, I study very very hard to make sure it never happens.”
He has mentored younger medical students since second year.
He dreams of becoming a cardio-thoracic surgeon, but wants to combine that with educating the less privileged about maintaining their health.
Phindelani is set to finish his medical degree in 2018 and graduate as a doctor in 2019.
Then he plans to build a house for his siblings to thank them, especially his oldest sister, for all they have done for him. “My niece, who is nine now, wants to be a doctor and I want to make sure she has the best education to realise this dream.”