Hunger for education pays off for KZN man

2015-08-07 14:29
Ntokozo Qwabe, his mother Nomali, and one of his professors at Oxford. (Pictures from Ntokozo Qwabe)

Ntokozo Qwabe, his mother Nomali, and one of his professors at Oxford. (Pictures from Ntokozo Qwabe)

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Durban - A KwaZulu-Natal man went from herding cattle and playing soccer in the dusty streets of his rural village to making his parents proud at Oxford University in England.

Despite failing at a new school because he could not speak English and having to drop out of university to work part-time pushing trolleys, Ntokozo Qwabe, 24, arrived back in the country on Thursday night triumphant.

Now, he said, he could only hope his story would inspire those from disadvantaged backgrounds to dream big.

After receiving 34 distinctions for his law degree and being honoured with summa cum laude by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Qwabe was awarded a two-year scholarship to study in England in 2014. Last Saturday he graduated with a Bachelor of Civil Law degree.

One of 13 children

Born in Eshowe in Northern KwaZulu-Natal, Qwabe is one of 13 children.

“My father was a polygamist. There are seven of us from my mother and six from my other mother. We weren’t wealthy; my mom was a housewife and my father a caretaker at Brettonwood High School in Umbilo.”

Like many children growing up in the rural areas, Qwabe said he used to herd cattle and play soccer in the dusty streets of Oyaya Village.

At the age of 5, his parents enrolled him at Stilo Primary School in the village and thereafter in Oyaya High School. In Grade 9, he went to Brettenwood High School where he lived on the school property with his father.
“I couldn’t speak a word of English and it was a nightmare to move from an under-resourced school that taught in my mother language to a resourced school. I failed three of the four terms and passed the fourth term.”


Qwabe eventually taught himself English by "carefully listening to the other children" and watching television. He said he was often teased about living on the school property, but shrugged it off.

“During class the children used to say, ‘Go home. Oops, we forgot this is your home’.”

Enrolled at university at the age of 16

None of this fazed him, because all that mattered was he was getting an education.

“When I applied [to the University of KwaZulu-Natal], I didn’t think I was going to get accepted. In my application I told them I would need financial assistance.”

He was accepted to study law with financial assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

“I was 16 when I started my first year in 2007 and initially everything went well. I enjoyed the attention of the being one of the youngest students, but later the financial strain caught up with me.

“Although I received assistance, I couldn’t afford simple, but important things, like food, transport, books and USBs, so I decided to drop out.”

Before that, he had to walk about an hour to campus every day.

Not prepared to let go of his dream of an education, Qwabe took up a job pushing trolleys at the Shoprite Checkers at Southway Mall in Rossburgh.

"I was promoted to packing groceries and later to cashier. This allowed me to save every cent I earned.”

In 2010 he decided to return to university.

“I was working at the Shoprite Checkers in Davenport by now and it helped, because it was closer to Howard College.”

34 distinctions

In 2011, Qwabe received a university scholarship and could leave his part-time job to focus on his studies. In his final year in 2013 he applied for the Rhodes Scholarship.

At the end of his fourth year and after completing 40 modules, Qwala received 34 distinctions and was awarded his degree summa cum laude.

He was also awarded the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship which he used towards his master’s degree at the University of Cape Town. However, in mid-year, another great opportunity came knocking when he was awarded the Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University in England.

Last September Qwabe left for England and last week graduated with a Bachelor of Civil Law degree which, he says, was the world's toughest law degree.

Celebrating his achievement with his mother Nomali was a precious moment, he said.

“It was her first time on an aeroplane and she had never left the province. I had to convince her she was going to be fine.”

Qwabe landed in South Africa on Thursday night to a surprise dinner organised by the Office of the Premier and his family at Coastlands in Umhlanga.  

“It was a humbling experience and when I am done with my studies, I am going to give back, because it feels like I am living a dream. I am not sure how at the moment, but I know I want to change people’s lives,” Qwabe said.

He returns to England next year to complete a master’s degree in Public Policy.  

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