He’d had big plans to celebrate. Having faced many challenges on his journey to graduation, he wanted to mark the milestone in style. Tsepiso Tshivhase and his grandfather intended to go to a restaurant in Camps Bay to wine and dine like kings before hitting the beach for more festivities after his graduation ceremony at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
“Two weeks before the ceremony, the university sent an email saying it was postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was a bit of a nightmare,” Tsepiso (27) says.
“It was really hard. All those years of hard work . . . but once we sobered up out of our disappointment we understood. We celebrated at home.”
The civil engineering graduate has much to toast. Up until now, his journey had been fraught with difficulty and he wanted to celebrate the milestone that at times had felt nearly impossible to achieve. Tsepiso was just six when his father committed suicide after allegedly murdering his mother.
“When I was younger, I went through some of my mother’s stuff and felt robbed of knowing her,” he tells us. “I was angry at my father for years. “But I realised my mother’s side of the family didn’t harbour any anger towards my father’s side, I could visit there.”
Tsepiso was raised in Muduluni, Limpopo, by his grandfather, Philemon Mathinya, who encouraged him to get to know his paternal family. As a boy he loved making toy cars out of wire and cans so it felt natural for him to study civil engineering. After matriculating with six distinctions, he enrolled at Wits in 2011. But soon he felt like a fish out of water.
Tsepiso didn’t develop any support structures during his first year. “I didn’t know the importance of having a sense of community. I lived alone and had very shallow friendships,” he recalls.
“What made it worse was I wasn’t telling anyone at home I was failing tests. “I’m used to giving them good news only. When they asked how things were going, I’d just say, ‘I’m doing well’, hoping I would do better.”
He didn’t, though. Tsepiso lost his scholarship because of poor results and fell into a deep hole. “When things don’t move forward you start to replay the negative experiences of your life. I started thinking, ‘Yoh, my life is so difficult, my childhood was so rough!’ “I had a happy upbringing, but I started looking for the sad moments, like being an orphan after losing my parents in a very horrible way,” he says.
“That played over and over because I was stuck with my academics. I contemplated suicide a lot during that time. I didn’t realise it was depression.”
He sought professional help and thanks to Hulisani Tseisi, his childhood friend and mentor, Tsepiso left for Cape Town and enrolled at UCT in 2015, where he completed his degree through financial aid.
“After graduating, the first thing I did was call my grandfather.”
Now he’s shadowing at an engineering consulting company while looking for work. Tsepiso understands times are tough, but he’s encouraged by the fact his past doesn’t determine his future.
“All these years of hard work have finally paid off.”