Zanele Shezi

“When this woman spoke, she motivated me. She was black, fierce and very wise.” and “I have learnt about myself, growing from a very shy girl to a confident woman.”

Zanele Shezi has always dreamt of being CEO of a top company. While this is a fairly common aspiration for young people, this 22-year-old’s determination, academic prowess and hard work make her a good candidate to achieve her goal. She has a BCom degree and will complete her accounting honours this year at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, before starting her articles next year. Despite having had a financially tough upbringing and suffering a great deal of loss, she has a ‘never-give-up’ attitude and lots of spunk. “I want to own my own business, but my life’s dream is to make my parents happy and myself proud of me,” she says. “I also want to give back to each and every one who has had a positive impact on my life.”

As a little child Zanele lived with her grandparents in a small rural town in KwaZulu-Natal as her parents – her father a librarian clerk and her mother a nurse — were working in Pietermaritzburg. “I was expected to go fetch water and wood and learn to cook at a young age,” she says. “That taught me a lot about taking responsibility and how to live with different kinds of people.” She moved back to her parents after primary school. “They taught me to be grateful for everything I have and to work hard and have patience in what I do,” Zanele says. She describes her childhood as beautiful, saying she was a happy child. But her happiness was marred by the tragic death of her two brothers and the stroke her mother suffered when Zanele was in high school. She spent several months in hospital. “Those were some of the darkest days in our family when doctors had said she might not make it,” says Zanele. “I learnt a lot from my mom during that time because she kept fighting and eventually got much better.” But she wasn’t able to work again.

Zanele was an “exceptional learner” and teachers loved her. After she passed Grade 7 with excellent results her father was determined to send her to a top high school in Pietermaritzburg. He contributed some of his small salary to school fees and his employer at the time paid the rest. “I had to adjust to the different environment, where most of the people were well off, while I didn’t have a financially good background.” Zanele was always in the top five in her grade, held many leadership positions, was awarded academic colours and became head girl in matric. She had a number of teachers who encouraged her, supporting her through tough times at home, but her high school accounting teacher, Mr Singh, became her mentor. “He made me fall in love with accounting – he was motivational, and he believed in me.” But it was when she heard a female chartered accountant speak at a school awards ceremony that she realised this was what she wanted to become. “When this woman spoke, she motivated me. She was black, fierce and very wise.” Although she applied for for bursaries, Zanele’s five distinctions got her only a National Student Financial Aid Scheme loan. Her first few months at university were overwhelming, the transition from high school huge. “I struggled a lot with the workload and the different level of testing,” she says. Her financial worries, however, abated a few months into the year when she was given a Moshal Scholarship, “one of the best things that ever happened to me”. Zanele says the scholarship has enabled her to grow as a person, giving her skills her peers don’t have. “I have been a work in progress since day one and now I am more than ready to take on the workplace. I have learnt about myself, growing from a very shy girl to a confident woman.” Her confidence was tested in her second year when her best friend and a cousin died. “The emotional breakdown of losing my loved ones was so hard to deal with.” Zanele reached out to a mentor and to Jodi Baily, the SA coordinator of the Moshal Scholarship Program. “Jodi was so supportive and made herself available to me all the time.” Zanele got through it and got her BCom last year. “My family think I am the bravest child and very determined to succeed,” she says. She and other UKZN Moshal Scholars have been helping disadvantaged high school learners and she mentors first-year students. “Martin Moshal, the man behind the program, has left an indelible imprint on my life. His vision to help disadvantaged children like me has inspired me and changed my life.”

And one day when Zanele becomes a CEO and then owner of her own company she, too, is likely to change the lives of young people.