Mkhuseli Jack: Succeeding despite poverty

I was reminded recently of the hardship faced by citizens to escape poverty. Athenkosi (Athi) Mbetshu was determined to be educated, despite his family’s destitution. The avalanche of stumbling blocks on his way were not to deter his dream of using education to escape poverty. Mbetshu matriculated at Masiphathisane Senior Secondary in Motherwell in 2010. He graduated with a BSc honours degree from the University of Cape Town (UCT). Mbetshu is the pride of his unemployed parents, Thembile and Nokwanda, as well as his four siblings. At the age of 24 he is employed at S S Gida Hospital in Keiskammahoek, as a qualified physiotherapist. He spoke to me about his journey of fighting to be accepted at UCT, and the help he received from numerous friends, strangers and even the government. Mbetshu left home with enough money to travel to Cape Town and back, in the event he failed to secure admission at UCT. He believed his distinction in mathematics would open doors for him, even if there had not been a single member of his family to attend such an institution, let alone UCT. His uncle, who lived in Grabouw, volunteered accommodation. Mbetshu had thought Grabouw would be one of the smart suburbs of Cape Town close to UCT. Little did he know that his uncle lived more than 68km from UCT. The Port Elizabeth to Cape Town bus dropped him at Somerset West in the early morning of that first Monday in February 2011. His uncle, who travelled from Grabouw, had been waiting for him since 3am in Somerset West. The uncle, who himself had no fixed employment, was proud of him, being the first one to aspire to study at UCT. The uncle directed him to the train from there to Cape Town. He took Mbetshu’s bags back to the house at the shanty settlement in Grabouw, where he lived as a lodger in somebody’s back yard. Mbetshu boarded two trains to get to Rosebank, Cape Town. He went straight to the admission offices to inquire as to whether his application for admission to the medical school to study physiotherapy had been accepted. He was told that he would be added to a waiting list. Mbetshu’s choice of university was limited to UCT by default. UCT’s application fee was R100, an amount that could be drawn from his father’s meagre social grant. Rhodes University, his first choice, offered him a place, provided he paid the required deposit of R2 000 to R3 000 to secure a place in the pharmacy faculty. This was out of his league. Mbetshu cannot remember the last time his father had a secure job. His mother never had full-week employment, but rather piecemeal jobs. At UCT, he was instructed to return on the Thursday. He was then told the admissions board would meet on the Friday. He was promised that everything would be concluded by the Monday. On the day, however, he was told there was still no opening for him. Mbetshu met four students who were on their way to CPUT (Cape Peninsula University of Technology) and he join them. Upon their arrival, the queue was so long that they nearly fainted, according to Mbetshu. His results were good enough and were apparently “above average” relative to many of the other students who were queuing there for admission.

After seeing his results, a student representative pulled him to the front of the queue. This was because the student leader knew that with Mbetshu’s results, he would certainly be accepted into the engineering faculty. He made him apply for all the engineering disciplines, including the mechanical, chemical, electrical and civil fields. Mbetshu submitted and left for Grabouw. That following Friday, he returned to UCT. He was still stuck on the waiting list. At this point, Mbetshu says, he was about to abandon his mission. He was close to downgrading his dream. However, the fear of being a statistic was not appetising to him. “I told myself that I wanted to be educated and there was nothing that was going to derail me.” The fact that he got the NSFAS scholarship was enough motivation. This time around, he was informed that he appeared in the lowest ranking of the three groups for admission. A admission was the group of 60 who had already been accepted on the basis of their marks. B was the rank list group of 20 who were ranked from one to 20 in terms of their marks. The C group, the last one, was the waiting list, where he was located. As his hopes diminished, he spoke to a senior medical student from Port Elizabeth, who advised him to change his course of study. He was advised to study speech therapy and audiology. Luzuko Jamela, a medical doctor now, introduced him to the head of admissions, Jason Stofberg, who reluctantly agreed to the change of course, but said Mbetshu must provide a written explanation as to why he was changing courses. As Mbetshu began to believe the game was over for him, three other medical students joined Jamela and they began to draft the letter, before handing it to Stofberg, seconds before he sat down to his board meeting. Mbetshu was told again he would be informed on the Monday as to whether the application was a success or not. That Monday morning, Mbetshu put his phone on the table and guarded it like a hawk, and with all his clothes packed he was ready to take the bus back to Port Elizabeth. In his mind he had done his best and shame was no longer a burden. He was ready to face the world. At 12 noon, his phone rang with a call from UCT and the news was good: he had been accepted for the physiotherapy course. The final sting was that there was no accommodation. For him that was the last straw. Jamela told him to “forget about accommodation”, offering his room until the problem had been solved. Minutes later another call came in: he had been accepted by CPUT, for engineering. He opted for physiotherapy at UCT. Last Sunday, Mbetshu rocked up at my house for breakfast, to seek advice on a wide range of issues. He is well equipped to face the vicissitudes of life. He has a job and he has wellthought-out plans for the future. I was inspired by his guts and I was filled with the hope that there might be many other Mbetshus.