Cheers and applause filled the air as he walked onto the stage to accept his Bachelor of education degree – the cherry on top of four years of hard work that saw him become the first member of his family to graduate from university.
Certificate in hand, he then glanced at the crowd – but unlike most of his fellow graduates, Mthobisi Magagula (25) didn’t catch the eye of his mother, father, grandparent or sibling. The only person in the audience applauding him on his big day was a stranger, Ntokozo Khanyile (31), who had declared on Twitter a few weeks earlier that she would be his cheerleader. “Ouch! Seems like I’m going to my graduation ceremony alone,” Mthobisi tweeted forlornly.
His parents had passed away years before and his gogo, who had raised him and his younger siblings, was too frail to make the trip from Mpumalanga to the University of Johannesburg alone. Completing his degree was bittersweet. The achievement felt great, but it was heartbreaking for Mthobisi to have to attend it alone.
He wasn’t going to attend the ceremony at all, he tells DRUM, as he had planned go to the admin office to collect his degree at a later stage. But as graduation hype intensified among the students, he took to Twitter to share his sadness.
But as graduation hype intensified among the students, he took to Twitter to share his sadness. Although Ntokozo wasn’t one of his followers the tweet ended up on her timeline and she was moved by it. She replied, saying she would cheer for him on his big day and would take him to lunch afterwards. “I first thought she was just one of those people who comments on posts randomly and so I didn’t make much of it,” Mthobisi says.
“Closer to my graduation day she sent another tweet asking if I still needed a cheerleader. I was really stressed about [graduation] but I saw she was serious, so I decided to take her up on her offer.” On the big day Mthobisi watched other students arrive with their people, but Ntokozo was nowhere to be seen.
“I started doubting if she was coming for real.”
Then, moments before the auditorium doors were closed for the graduation ceremony, Ntokozo appeared. And Mthobisi heaved a sigh of relief.
Ntokozi came across Mthobisi’s tweet while scrolling through her timeline at work, at the SABC, where she’s an archivist for the broadcaster.
“I spend a lot of my time on Twitter because I work with news,” she explains. She’s still not sure why she felt compelled to tell Mthobisi she would be his cheerleader. “I can’t explain it because I’m not even that social – something in me just pushed me in that direction. I knew it was graduation season at UJ and that Mthobisi had worked hard for his qualification.
“Coming from a family that goes all out for you on your graduation day, I just couldn’t imagine how it would be for someone to be all alone on such a day.” Mthobisi admits he worried Ntokozo’s offer would turn out to be an April Fool’s Day joke, as that was the day his graduation ceremony took place.
Ntokozo also had a moment of wondering if it was all a joke on his part, but they made plans anyway. She put in for leave for the day so she could attend the ceremony, and all went as planned. Ntokozo says she will never forget the look on his face when she showed up in the hall.
“He was so happy – his face just lit up. I don’t think I would have been able to continue with life as normal if I had disappointed him on such a big day.” Mthobisi had hoped his grandmother, Deliwe Sambo, would have been able to attend the graduation, “but as we got closer to the day, I started weighing the pros and cons of that decision.
If she came to the ceremony, I would’ve had to get her an outfit and pay travel costs for her and my uncle as she couldn’t travel alone from Mpumalanga. “And if I did that, I wouldn’t have been able to send money home like I do every month,” he says.
Mthobis’s gogo raised him and his siblings, Mfanelo (19), Surprise (15) and Lindokuhle (9), after his dad died in a car crash and his mom passed away after a long illness when he was still at school.
Deliwe and the children survive on her social grant and Mthobisi sent a chunk of the living allowance he received through his study bursary from his local municipality home to help his family. His early varsity days weren’t easy, he tells us. Although he had a bursary he had to drop out after three months because he had no money for food and couldn’t pay his accommodation any longer.
The day after he deregistered, he got a call he can only describe as miraculous: the Mpumalanga department of education told him he’d been approved for another bursary. “I went back to campus to try to re-register, but I was told the intermediate phase course I’d been studying was now full. A woman at the admin block told me to rather take foundation phase [teaching] as there was still space there,” he says.
Which he did, and wasted no time getting stuck into his studies. Social media has been good to Mthobisi before too. He recalls a dilemma he faced in his third year when he wanted to buy his siblings clothes for Christmas.
“I sent a tweet to Sakina Kamwendo on SAfm asking her to help me find a job because I wanted to do this for my siblings, and people helped me out from that tweet. One guy got me a food voucher from a grocery store and others sent me money.”
Mthobisi now works at Arrow Academy in Centurion, where he teaches Grade 2 mathematics – a job he got through Twitter. “I tweeted that I was looking for a job teaching foundation phase in 2019, and I mentioned that I was qualified and ready to work.”He was contacted for an interview by the school and is