When Thamsanqa Sibiya was kicked out of high school he realised he couldn’t rely on his name – which is Zulu for ‘The Lucky One’ – to get through life.
Today this 22-year-old has almost finished his law degree at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), is a member of the Golden Key Society (for students academically in the top 15% of their university) and made it onto the Dean’s List in his third year.
Thami hails from Newcastle in KZN, the youngest son of a taxi driver and a mother who was unemployed. The family battled financially and, although his father did his best to ensure they ate every night, Thami sometimes had to wear neighbours’ second-hand clothes. “It was hard knowing what other children had that I couldn’t have, but I am so lucky that my parents love us, and we are all very close.”
His father had little education, having grown up working on a farm instead of going to school. “My parents drummed into me that the only way to have a better life was through education,” says Thami. He taught himself to read early, using any material he could get his hands on.
But in Grade 8 and 9 he got involved with the wrong crowd, bunking school, smoking and disrespecting teachers. “I stopped caring about the things that had been important to me.” When Thami brought home a report that had a “no return” on it, his father was very upset.
“I realised I had let him down and I needed to remedy what I had done. I had passed Grade 9, but only just,” explains Thami.
His father begged the principal to give the boy another chance. In the first term of Grade 10, Thami made it into the top 10 of his grade. From then on, he remained one of the top pupils and came third in matric, with a 78% average. In Grade 10, he tagged along with a friend to visit a law firm and was bowled over by what he saw. “I knew instantly that I wanted to be a lawyer.”
Two years later, when he was notified that he had been accepted to study law at UKZN, he was so thrilled he didn’t read that a R500 acceptance fee had to be paid. So, when he got to the front of the queue at registration he had to make a tough decision: pay it or be able to travel the 350km back home. “I had enough for transport. Without R500, I was stuck in Durban, a place I had never been to before.” He paid the fee and walked around the university for ages before bumping into a school friend who was there with his parents. He persuaded them to give him a ride home for only R50. “I was lucky!”
In his first year, Thami couldn’t pay the fees and used up 60% of his family’s income just to survive at university. “I felt so bad that my family had less, so I could have more,” he says. “I had no idea how I was going to pay university fees and if I didn’t pay before the beginning of the second year, I wouldn’t be able to go back. I was really worried as I owed R30 000.” A week before his second year started, Thami got a call to say that he was to be awarded a Moshal Scholarship covering all his university expenses and debts. All he had to do was work hard and pass. “It was a real miracle that came just in time. I have never looked back.”
He made sure his results skyrocketed and started being rewarded for his achievements. “It is hard, though, not to worry that my family is still battling to make ends meet back home. They are relying on me to achieve and help them. Although this puts a lot of pressure on me, I’ve made it in life because my family supports me.”
He refers to the Moshal Scholarship Program as the light on his path. “I wouldn’t be where I am if not for them. It is not just a financial contribution; I am a better person for their belief in me and I am honoured to be a part of the programme. This drives me each day to work harder.”
Thami is part of the UKZN Moshal Scholarship group that tutors high school pupils and inspires and assists them to get into universities.
After he graduates in 2017, he plans to do a master’s in business law. “I also plan to do more pro bono work than I legally have to because I really want to help those in need and make real positive changes to people’s lives.” But those he wants to benefit first are his own family. “It is about time they reap what they sowed.”