Siyamthanda Mtyeku studied for matric in the one-roomed shack he shares with four other people in the Marikana informal settlement in Cape Town - and he achieved seven distinctions, GroundUp reported.
The 18-year-old had to contend with loud music blaring at the shebeen across the road. On some days, the feeding scheme meal he received at school was his only meal for the day.
Yet Mtyeku emerged the top matric pupil at Sinenjongo High School after he achieved distinctions in all seven of his subjects and an 85% aggregate.
He received distinctions for physical science, mathematics, English, computer applications technology, isiXhosa, life science, and life orientation.
He said he adopted the motto "nothing is impossible" to motivate himself.
"You can achieve anything that you put your mind and soul into and have the drive and ambition to achieve," said Mtyeku, who lives with his deceased brother's girlfriend, Bonnita Buswana, and her three children.
"She (Buswana) has been like my biological mother, very supportive and attending all school meetings, constantly checking up on me and accommodating me."
"The main obstacle was our home. Money was also a big problem. There were days I went to school on an empty stomach but ate at school because there is a feeding scheme," he said.
'He stood firm'
Mtyeku said he intended to pursue a degree in medicine at Stellenbosch University.
His parents live in East London. His father is a pensioner and his mother is the breadwinner. She would sometimes send R1 000 to help them buy groceries in Cape Town.
Mtyeku was also accepted to pursue an engineering degree at the University of Cape Town but his first choice is a medical degree.
He wants to specialise in neurology and pursue medical research.
Buswana said she was very happy that Mtyeku excelled despite the challenging circumstances in a home where the main income was a state child grant.
She said she thought poverty was going to prevent Mtyeku's success and that he would become a "skollie" (thug), but he stood firm and the situation just made him stronger.
"I am so happy to see him pass with flying colours," she said.
At Sinenjongo High School, of the 146 pupils 53 achieved bachelors' passes, 32 achieved diploma passes and 29 achieved higher certificate passes.
"We are proud of our top learner, Siyamthanda Mtyeku," said principal, Khuselwa Nopote. "The boy was so dedicated to his work. He was the first one to arrive at school and last to leave and lock the school premises."
Nopote said Mtyeku also took the lead and taught his classmates.
"With the attitude and mindset that he has, he is going to make it at Stellenbosch. We wish all our learners the best in all the institutions that they are going to."