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From struggling gardener to graduate in social sciences

Just seven years ago Lukhanyo Mafu was tending and pruning plants at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), where he was employed as a gardener, earning a meagre R50 a day.
But this week, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences from the same university he had beautified in 2012 when he was employed by a cooperative contracted by UFH to maintain the Alice campus grounds.
While carrying out his daily duties one day, which included raking leaves, cutting grass and pruning plants, Mafu, 39, approached an academic staff member, Awonke Tshefu, and told him about his dream to study.
“I showed him my matric certificate and told him about my dream of becoming a social worker one day. He gave me R200 to apply and here I am today,” said Mafu.
On the day of his graduation, in a moving Facebook post, Tshefu referred to Mafu as his “hero” who broke through the chains of impossibilities.
“When he came to me and told me about his dream, I believed him. I saw the hunger in his soul. I saw what poverty had done to him. With tears in my eyes I looked at him and told him he would make it and his story would inspire millions of people,” wrote Tshefu.
The post had almost 3,000 reactions, 200 comments and was shared by hundreds of Facebook users.
Mafu’s remarkable journey to his graduation saw him receiving a standing ovation from fellow graduates, who clapped and cheered him on as he walked on to the stage to receive his qualification at the Alice graduation ceremony on Wednesday.
Speaking to the Dispatch on Friday as he prepared for his father’s funeral on Sunday, Mafu described his life journey as one with many hurdles, but ones he managed to overcome.
After passing his matric in 1999, Mafu left his village home of Gaga Skolweni in Alice and went to Cape Town to look for a job.
After barely two years in Cape Town, he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison, for a crime he still maintains he did not commit.
“I was sent to Pollsmoor [Prison in Cape Town] and later transferred to Middledrift prison,” he said.
In 2011, he was released from jail and returned to his village home in Alice.
“I started looking for a job to help support my family and to make up for the time lost in prison. In 2012 I got the job at the co-op working as a gardener at Fort Hare.”
Mafu said his initial application to study at Fort Hare was not accepted, but he was advised to re-apply and was successful the second time around.
In 2014 he enrolled at the university and managed to secure funding from the National Student Aid Financial Scheme (NSFAS) to pay for his studies.
On his graduation day he was accompanied by his brother, his sister and a family friend.
“My mother could not attend because she was mourning my father’s death.”
Mafu’s father died of natural causes last week on Tuesday.
“I so wish he was here to witness my graduation.”
While getting a qualification is meant to open doors to success for many, Mafu fears that his criminal record might make it difficult for him to enter those doors.
“I would like to get my criminal record expunged as I believe prison is a place of rehabilitation and I can safely say I have been rehabilitated.
“All I want to do is make my mother and siblings proud by getting a decent job and building them a decent home,” said Mafu.

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