Young, gifted and going places: these 4 young South Africans are blazing a trail of brilliance

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Decent Mkhombo, Kialan Pillay, Nicolene Steyn, and Thakgalo Thibela have excelled academically. (PHOTOS: Supplied)
Decent Mkhombo, Kialan Pillay, Nicolene Steyn, and Thakgalo Thibela have excelled academically. (PHOTOS: Supplied)

A 21-year-old leaves home to pursue medical school, a KwaZulu-Natal teen who has graduated from university when many kids his age are still in high school, a 21-year-old doctor who had to jump in at the deep end when she started working as the pandemic broke out and a young woman who has her doctorate at age 25 – read their stories and be inspired.


Decent Mkhombo from Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga recently graduated with a medical degree from the University of Limpopo at the age of just 21. The young boffin was promoted from Grade 4 to 5 at Thulamahashe Lower Primary School early in the school year and also skipped most of Grade 8 and went to straight to Grade 9 when he was at Orhovelani High School. He sailed through the rest of school and then went onto make his mark at university, passing the gruelling medical degree with flying colours.

“I feel very overwhelmed and overjoyed to see everyone celebrating me passing my medical degree,” he told Newzroom AfriKa.

decent mkhombo, doctor
Decent Mkhombo recently graduated as a doctor at the age of 21. (PHOTO: Twitter)

When he was a child he did not think much about skipping grades. “Growing up I was very narrow-minded. I did not really see myself through other people’s eyes. For me it seemed quite normal and it was not anything I could not deal with. It did not seem like anything spectacular,” he said.

At the age of 15 he enrolled for his medical degree. Always the youngest in his class, he never felt his age made it more difficult to complete his degree. He believes the time he spent with older students allowed him to be assertive and mature. 

“All my life I have been the youngest in my class. The youngest in any situation in that matter. And it is nothing that brings me down. It makes me want to prove myself all the time.” 

The most challenging part was being away from his family and having to see death during his studies but he believes it was all part of his development as a person and it led him to be empathetic towards his patients. 

Decent is from a family of five and his sister is also a medical doctor. Brains run in the family: she completed her degree when she was 22. 

Due to his studies, Decent does not have a lot of time to socialise but he does live vicariously through his friends on social media and he would not have it any other way. 

“When you are on the path to achieving great things, you have to isolate yourself and focus on your craft. One thing we all have to take into consideration is that it’s not all glitz and glamour when you are trying to achieve something.”

Decent wants to serve his community and will embark on a two-year medical internship in his home town. 


Most teens his age are fretting about making it through their matric year, but Kialan Pillay (19) has just graduated from university with a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematical statistics. 

READ MORE | Meet South Africa’s own Young Sheldon – he’s only 18 and already he has two degrees

Kialan, who’s from Westville in KwaZulu-Natal, got his degree from the University of Cape Town last month.  

It was clear from the word go that he was a bright kid. He started learning the alphabet when he was a year old, and at age two he could read fluently. When he was three, he learnt to play chess, and at age four he started piano lessons.

kialan pillay, uct grad
Kialan Pillay graduated at the University of Cape Town at the age of 19 with a first class bachelor's degree in computer science and mathematical statistics. (PHOTO: Supplied)

“Reading kind of just kickstarted everything. I was discovering new things through reading,” he says.

His mom, Maheshvari Naidu, is an anthropology professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and his dad, the late Professor Kriben Pillay, was based at the Leadership Centre at the Graduate School of Business at UKZN.

His parents encouraged him to read anything he could lay his hands on.  
When he was six he read all the Harry Potter books in three weeks, and was devouring novelist Dan Brown’s books at seven.
“I was never forced into anything,” he says. “I just got to explore what I was interested in.”
Kialan excelled at maths and science, and skipped three grades at school.  

When he was 10, he started high school at Eden College.

“In high school all my closest friends were three years my senior. I’ve never been fazed by this and I am completely used to the age discrepancy. Consequently, I’ve matured faster. I had normal challenges like matric exams – I was just blessed to have a solid group of friends and support.”
He was the top matriculant in KZN when he was 15 and was all set to hit varsity –
but then his mom encouraged him to take a gap year and he spent the time travelling the world with her.  

He was delighted when he finally got to start university in 2018, completed his BSc in three years and is now pursuing an honours degree in computer science.  

After that he plans to do his master's at a university in the UK. He wants a career in computer science and artificial intelligence as it offers endless possibilities, but he’s modest about his academic accomplishments.  
"None of this would be possible without my mom,” he says. “I’m blessed to have her.
I will be working soon so I'll be in a position to give back to her.”


Thakgalo Thibela (21) from in Mpumalanga is the youngest practising female doctor in South Africa.

A primary-school prodigy, she skipped Grade 7; sailed through Grade 8; then, after a week in Grade 9 at Lehlasedi High School, she was bumped up to Grade 10.

thakgalo thibela, wits graduate, youngest doctor
Thakgalo Thibela, who is 21, is the youngest active female doctor in South Africa. (PHOTO: Supplied)

“I grew up playing outside, like any other normal child. But when it came to academic
work, I excelled effortlessly,” she says.

She was the top student in her class and enjoyed drama, netball, choir, poetry and debating. Thakgalo matriculated at 15 with seven distinctions then enrolled at Wits University to study medicine, graduating six years later.

Her parents, Nomsa, a school principal, and her father, Niclaas, a health and wellness manager, have always supported and encouraged Thakgalo to do her best and were proud when she graduated from Wits with flying colours.

She started working at Helen Joseph Hospital in Johannesburg right before the
pandemic hit.  
“When you’re in the emergency department you must get to the next patient quickly, but in treating patients in the time of Covid-19, I have learnt that you have to protect yourself first by wearing personal protective equipment."  
As difficult as it’s been, she has enjoyed every moment of becoming a doctor.  

“Even though I look young, patients never refuse to be examined by me. Instead, they are pleasantly surprised and ask me how old I am and often compliment me for being a doctor at an early age."
Thakgalo owes her success to hard work and dedication, she says. “I don’t think I’m special, or different. I believe anyone who works hard enough is capable of achieving
the same or more.” 


Nicolene Steyn has obtained her doctorate at age 25, and she has her sights set on becoming a professor by 30.

The little girl who grew up watching Judge Judy never imagined that she would one day be the youngest person to graduate with a PhD in law from North-West University.  

Nicolene completed her PhD in two years and is the first person in her family to study at university.

nicolene steyn, nwu graduate
At 25 Nicolene Steyn is the youngest PhD law graduate at North West University. (PHOTO: Callvern Harding)

“I remember the early grades in primary school when my mom helped me to study for exams – she would question me on the learning material, even on Sunday nights.”

Her dad, Peet, and mom, Marie, encouraged her to excel – the world would be her oyster, they told her. Nicolene describes herself as “a nerd” when she attended Hoërskool Zeerust as she spent a lot of time with her books. She also took part in public-speaking competitions, which she admits was ironic.

“I was a big introvert and I’m usually very shy. I think public speaking also contributed to my success in academia, since we is required at postgraduate level to speak at national and international conferences.”  

Nicolene enrolled at NWU in 2014 and completed her undergraduate studies in 2017, then her master's in 2018 and her PhD in 2020. 

Her life took a dark turn when her dad died in the third year of her studies, and she was diagnosed with depression and anxiety disorder after finishing her master’s degree. Nicolene also had to deal with loneliness, as she could often not afford to go home, but she pushed through with the support of her family, community and the NWU community.  

She hopes her story will inspire others to succeed. Her family didn’t have a lot of money, she says, and there were some tough times but if you stick something out and don’t lose hope, you can be rewarded.
“Regardless of who you are, your age, your background or the setbacks you may encounter, you always have a chance at succeeding. Determination and discipline can give you a chance at living a life beyond your wildest dreams.”  

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