Siphamandla Mpanza was 14 when his mother died giving birth, leaving him to run the household for his father – who was blind – and his younger brother. Neighbours feared this would make him seek solace in drugs, but it only made Siphamandla stronger.
His story begins in Empangeni (rural KwaZulu-Natal) in 1994, shortly before he was born, when his father was shot and left for dead on his way home from work. “He was a victim of the violence during the transition from apartheid to democracy,” explains Siphamandla. “My father survived but his injuries led to him losing his eyesight.”
As a result, his parents moved to Durban to be close to “support structures”, leaving baby Siphamandla with his grandmother in Empangeni.
His grandmother encouraged his thirst for knowledge, calling him her “curious child” because he asked so many questions. She told him that without an education, by which she meant a matric, he would land up tending cattle for others.
His passion for learning made him insist on walking the hour-long journey to school come rain, thunderstorm or sunshine. After school, he had to wash his own uniform and tend their herd. When there wasn’t enough food, he would look for fruit on the nearby mountain.
At the end of Grade 7, he was awarded a certificate for being the best learner in all subjects. “This meant so much to me because, despite my challenges, school was the only place I felt in control of my life. I still keep that certificate with me,” says Siphamandla.
Before he started high school in 2007, he and his younger brother moved to Durban to live with his parents. His mother was a domestic worker and his dad a cane weaver at the Natal Society for the Blind.
He was happy, until his mother died when he was in Grade 9 and he had to take over all her responsibilities. He had to look after his father, brother and their home, cook, clean and do the washing. He no longer had time for friends or childhood fun. “Life taught me the art of survival and when I learnt about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, I realised that I had mastered the art of adaptation. As Darwin said, it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one that is adaptable to change.”
His life sciences teacher, Sthembiso Khanyile, saw Siphamandla's potential and guided him from Grade 10 to matric. “He became my mentor and was and still is my friend,” he says. “He was there for me, encouraging me and helping me whenever he could.” In truth, Siphamandla’s commitment to education kept him motivated, with his primary objective to get to university. From 2010 he was first in his grade, and he matriculated with a 76% average and four distinctions.
His decision to study law was motivated by his family's eviction from the home they owned. “The previous owner tried to sell the house twice after my mother passed away and because of this we were thrown out last year (2015). The situation still isn’t resolved and my family live in a shack, in someone’s backyard,” he says. “Because of this, I understand the importance of a legal justice system.”
In high school, he was told he would qualify for a government student loan if he got 65% or higher, and his marks were well above that. But when he went to apply, he was turned away because he lived too close to campus. “Because of scarcity of funds, they gave money first to students from rural areas,” Siphamandla explains. His father took a R2750 bank loan for his son to register and, for the rest of his needs, he relied on the church and handouts from relatives.
“There were times I couldn’t go to university because I didn’t have transport money and, other times, we couldn’t get groceries. I couldn’t afford textbooks so did my best with lecture notes,” he says. At varsity, he couldn’t afford food so he only drank water and spent as much time as possible in the library studying. Some nights he would stay in the computer labs working, thereby saving travel money.
Used to learning in Zulu, having every class in English threw Siphamandla, but he worked hard to bring his English up to standard. “So many times I considered quitting, but my father wouldn’t let me. He insisted I finish what I started.”
At the end of his first year, he was turned down again for a government loan. Fortuitously, a young journalist wrote his story for a local newspaper, which led to the local mayor paying for his first year and registration for his second (2014). Then Siphamandla heard about the Moshal Scholarship and made contact.
Within weeks he was invited to a Moshal Scholarship induction weekend. “Jodi (Bailey) welcomed me as a Moshal Scholar. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I wanted to cry. It was the happiest day of my life.”
Next year, when he is doing his articles, he hopes to buy the property on which his family has a shack, and build a house. He hopes to be admitted as an attorney after sitting board exams.
He plans eventually to build his own business, be able to spend time with his family and do things he couldn’t when he was young. “I want to travel and taste different foods and try different cultures.”
Siphamandla has a huge heart and big dreams but, having overcome the obstacles he has, there is no doubt he will realise them, inspiring others en route.