How a former taxi driver inspired me not to quit school

2012-07-16 14:47

Growing up in rural Transkie, I never for a moment thought that I would ever get the opportunity to pursue higher education. But after moving to Cape Town, I soon realised that there is more to life than looking after goats and working the land.

I first looked at my family. Not a single member of the family had completed matric. My mother fell pregnant when she was still busy with standard 10, and she had to look after me so she quit school. She was the only one in the household who had reached standard 10, the rest of her siblings quit school before they could even get to matric.  Others could not even get through primary school so Zuma is not alone with his standard 3.

Then I looked at my surroundings.  There was not a single person in the village that had a university degree.  Most people  who had degrees had recently moved to the village, no one born in the village. Those who had passed standard 10 were mostly unemployed.  If they knew someone in government then they would get a job in the SAPS or the army, but most were uneducated and unemployed so looking after livestock was the general activity.  Couldn’t even sell that as the village is surrounded by other poor villages. Probably with a lot of investment on infrastructure, the area would have become another farming town. There is a lot of land and willing villagers.

In that environment, one cannot help but look for an escape.  Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town are the most popular destinations. Village youth tend to quit school, look for a piece job, and if you cannot get a piece job, drink alcohol and smoke marijuana daily.  Or you can always start your own family by getting married and making babies. I am generalising here but this is the most common life story of children born in rural villages around Libode. The other more attractive alternative is becoming a hooligan or if you have relatives in one of the big cities, move to live with  them. You can always build a shack at the back of that RDP house.  Just go to Philippi, Gugulethu, Nyanga, Delft and Khayelitsha to see this. But most of those who get to the big Cities find employment and some have to support two households; the one in rural Eastern Cape and the one in the big city.

After moving to Cape Town, I went back to school, quit, and went back again.  Of course I quit again. All in all,  I have quit school 8 different times (that I can recall). I set out to find a job. It was  difficult at first but I  eventually found one handing out pamphlets for Finaid (now known as Capitec Bank). I got paid R50 a day, and  this changed to R100 a day when Capitec Bank was born. With that reference on my CV, I left Capitec Bank for Telesales.  I got tired of that, resigned and went back to school.

This time I had everything that I needed.  A bursary would pay for my fees, books, food, accommodation and an allowance. While walking to the bus that would transport me from home to campus, paid for by the sponsor, I decided to quit again. There I was uneducated and looking for a job again.  This was not anyone’s fault but my own. The sponsor was going to hire me after graduation but I was too stupid to see what a golden opportunity I had.

After years of working for peanuts, I decided to go back to school.  No silly, I  am not going to quit this time around. It took a young woman named Sandisiwe Sasa to get me into the class room again. Sandisiwe’s parents were both unemployed but she told her family that she wanted to pursue higher education after completing her matric.

Sandisiwe’s mother sold Ice-cream in summer and cigarettes in winter to provide for her family. Through her small business, she made sure that Sandisiwe had school shoes and tracksuits for winter .

Sandisiwe looked at her surroundings and told herself that she will not join the millions of unemployed young high school graduates. She wanted to study further and started sending applications to institutions of higher learning and to potential sponsors. Because I knew Cape Town like the back of my hand (you would if you had been searching for a job for over a year all over Cape Town), she asked me to drop-off  some of her bursary application forms.

I was amazed at how many forms she had completed, and the amount of money it cost to post most of them. This process showed me just how much Sandisiwe wanted to study further. After this process, Sandisiwe received her matric results and there was more posting to be done.  She had to send a copy to each potential sponsor. To cut the story short, she secured admission at the University of the Western Cape and had secured sponsorships from three different sources  on her first year.

This taught me the importance of determination.  My school had free textbooks, workbooks, pens, pencils, rulers and everything a child needs.  My mother was working, bought me school uniform and all I had to do was show up in class and learn. Sandisiwe with her unemployed mother was living her dream, not because she was lucky but simply because she was determined not to become another statistic and showed this on her school work despite her social circumstances. This year Sandisiwe walked at the University’s Great Hall with her mother sitting in the crowd.

After observing Sandisiwe in her pursuit of higher education, I was inspired to go back to school so as usual I completed the application forms and submitted them.  For some reason my knees turned to jelly when I received the confirmation of admission letter. I was so excited, couldn’t stop the tears in my eyes. That is how I knew that I was ready to study.

In my first class at university, nervous and excited at the same time, I kept looking at the people around me and I saw quite a lot of adults who, like me, had quit school and had made the decision to go back. We were given our first assignment. I looked at the questions, only four of them and thought they are fairly easy for university. When we submitted the assignments on the following week, I had written exactly eight lines and thought that was more than enough to answer four questions; two lines for each question.

Then came time to receive feedback. The marks were shocking. I only got 4 out of 30 and that was for the cover page. I looked around me and thought to myself "I am not ready for university” and wanted to quit again.  But I first looked at the people next to me. Surprisingly there were many students who had gotten a 0/30 and 2/30 so I comforted myself and thought that I did well until the lecturer told us that someone in class had 30/30. We all wanted to know what was so special about her answers. She had written 2 pages answering 1 question and she wrote with her hand while I wasted my time typing my eight lines. She paid more attention to the content instead of the packaging and so she was  rewarded. And that is how I improved on my own academic work.  By making sure that I understand the instructions and provide relevant, well researched feedback.

Often, students complain that they do not have resources but the first and most important resource is your brain.  With the ability to use it and use it well alone one can succeed. The girl did not worry about having a laptop or the long queue at the university’s computer lab. All she did was think and write her thoughts. But of course you are required to type your assignments, how then will you learn to write 6 pages on an exam paper if all you have been doing is type, and you only have 3 hours to do this without Google? This is a whole different issue but the point is, complaining that one doesn’t have resources is not necessary going to help you. Like Sandisiwe, it is most important to do your best with the ‘little’ resources you have. Bill Gates would not be where he is today if he had waited until he could afford a big building to start his business.

Then the very same lecturer who had given me 4/30 shared her life story with the class.  It’s a bit long but I will make it shorter. Venicia McGhie had moved to the Western Cape with her two children and had no confirmed accommodation before she got onto the train. She wasn’t moving because she could but her circumstances were such that she could not continue to live in her home due to the abusive relationship she was in. Someone gave her a roof until she could stand on her own.

McGhie found a job, worked as a domestic worker and at some point became a taxi driver; all this was to provide for her children. 20 years ago McGhie made the decision to go back to school and secured admission at the University of the Western Cape. McGhie completed her first degree and decided to go for another one, and another, and another. She has been studying for the past 20 years and today the woman who boarded a train to the Cape with little formal education, money and no roof over her head, is now Dr Venicia McGhie and has enabled her children to also pursue higher education.

Dr McGhie’s perseverance and determination inspired me to stay in school. I would’ve dropped out after that first assignment if she hadn’t shared her life story. Remember that at the University of the Western Cape,  English is the language of instruction. Both Dr McGhie and I are not English. it’s my 5th language, so it is incredibly difficult to express myself in a foreign language. She also had difficulty as her home language is Afrikaans but received her first degree in linguistics and now has a doctorate in linguistics.

Although resources are important, I have learnt that even with the best resources, one might not actually succeed unless there is a willingness or determination to succeed. And no minister Angie Motshekga, this is not an excuse for failing to deliver textbooks. Of course you can have as much determination to be educated as you like, but if there is no school, teacher, books and all; there won’t be any learning. But this is not the case in most of the high school drop outs. In Delft there are three new schools, each with a library and textbooks actually get delivered. The high school has empty classrooms but you will see quite a number of young school leavers playing soccer on the streets right next to the school. If they are not playing soccer, they are pushing rubbish bins collecting scrap metal, sometimes stealing just to get money for drugs and booze. And when they can’t find scrap to sell, they will rob the hard working folk, fight them and you are dead. For girls it’s different.  Find a sugar daddy, taxi drivers are the best because they always have money; not gonna wait for pay day to get money for the weekend jol, then comes the pregnancy, and diseases.

This is the story of many young people who could be building their communities but instead, they have made many bad choices and some do realise this and make attempts to sort their lives out but this leaves many dead, with preventable diseases, or get addicted to drugs which often leads to   other criminal activities. As cruel as it might sound, we all make choices in life and only we must live with the consequences of those choices. This is one lesson that I would have learnt the hard way had it not been for Sandisiwe and Dr McGhie’s life stories.

We often blame government for not doing enough to improve the education system but forget that many people studied in far more difficult circumstances.  People such as Dr Rholihlahla Mandela, who did not complain about not having textbooks or school uniform, and went to school anyway. Of course a government’s job is to create conditions where citizens can pursue their ambitions and live the lives they desire, but in our case, it has been proven time and again that waiting for government to change your life is a waste of time. So it is best to make use of the current system regardless of the kind of education it offers.  Only the voting population can change this, not the children but then again, an uneducated population that does not think before voting would suit most politicians as it can be very easy to control or manipulate.

So there is no guarantee that changing government will help improve it but citizen participation might help.  I cannot for the life of me recall the last time I saw my mother at school,  looking at my books, or attending a parent’s meeting. The only time I remember seeing her at school was the day she enrolled me. But Sandisiwe’s mother attended every meeting and participated in many SGB activities. She helped out with the school’s feeding scheme and was an invigilator at some point. That is an example of a parent who takes interest in the education of their child. Just look at the poor attendance the next time you go to a school meeting, and then tell me that the parents care. How then will the parents/voter hold a government accountable for our failing education system if they do not know what goes on at the school? Or do they assume that everything is going well when half of the children make it to matric?

Then there are those who  argue that education does not necessarily lead to employment. But education certainly helps. Ask anyone who has ever been told that they do not qualify for a post or promotion simply because they do not have the basic qualification. I should hope that they are not suggesting that more and more young people should quit school because they do not have a guarantee that they will be employed. There are no guarantees in life but one must make an effort and hope for the best. Thank you Dr McGhie!

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