'I was studying in the parking lot': Former car guard studies towards engineering doctorate

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Former car guard Fabrice Kapya, 31, is now an assistant lecturer in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UP as well as a PhD candidate in the subject.
Former car guard Fabrice Kapya, 31, is now an assistant lecturer in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at UP as well as a PhD candidate in the subject.
  • A former car guard is studying towards an engineering doctorate.
  • Fabrice Kapya funded his studies with the little he earned as a car guard and donations he received.
  • Now he works as an assistant lecturer at the University of Pretoria.

A former car guard has left the parking lot of a Pretoria shopping centre for the halls of the University of Pretoria's engineering faculty.

Fabrice Kapya, 31, is an assistant lecturer at the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Pretoria (UP) and a PhD candidate in the subject.

He fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and sought asylum in South Africa in 2018. Although he obtained a degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Likasi in the DRC, he arrived in South Africa with no prospects – only a dream to study further.

He began working as a car guard at Wonderpark Shopping Centre, where he made about R2 000 a month.

"For that, I had to stand in the parking lot every day from 07:00 to 20:00," he recalls. "I had about R900 to R1 000 left a month after covering all expenses, such as rent and groceries."

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In August 2018, a friend applied to UP on his behalf.

"The circumstances around that admission are still a miracle to me. I was returning from the Tshwane University of Technology after submitting my application when a friend who was studying at UP at the time asked me to stop by the university. After a long discussion, she convinced me to apply to UP. But there were only two days left before international applications closed and at most universities, priority is usually given to those who apply first."

In November 2018, Kapya was admitted to study Industrial and Systems Engineering. When he started his course in March 2019, he was still working as a car guard; he had the added difficulties of a language barrier and no background in industrial engineering.

"While I was doing my honours modules, my classmates gave me food, paid for my transport or paid my rent, and assisted me with their notes," he said.

He added:

I used every single coin I earned at Wonderpark mall to pay for my studies. I was studying in the parking lot with my student card around my neck. I stayed strong even though I could not feel my legs or my waist, even though my body was sore.

"When I had a block week, I wouldn't go to the mall; it cost me R240 a week to get to UP, and not working that week put me in a position where I was almost R740 short. As a result, I had difficulty depositing the R1 000 I had planned to pay each month into my student account to reduce my debt."

In December 2019, he caught a lucky break. A donor who parked her car in Kapya's area offered to put up about R18 000 for his studies.

This allowed me to pay up what I owed UP and in July 2020, I completed my honours degree," he said.

In 2021, he was accepted for a master's programme in industrial systems and in February 2021, UP offered him a position as an assistant lecturer in Industrial and Systems Engineering.

"I used a tough situation to remind myself that I was strong enough, that I was smart enough to pass a module and that I was disciplined enough to complete my course. I couldn't change the fact that I didn't have money when I came to UP, but I accepted that reality instead of living in denial. I welcomed the challenge and set myself a goal."

In the future, Kapya hopes to open an NGO to help young people who have gone through difficult times with funding for education. He would also like to work to fight racism and segregation.

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