PAYING B[L]ACK TAXES
A dedication to those who have to fight a greater fight. – Tatenda Mark, Founder of alumnivalley.com.
I vividly remember my first Valentine’s day at university. Thursday, 14 February 2008, during my res O-Week. This was way back before DMs and “she said yes” posts. I picked a room number from a hat held up high by my Resident Events Coordinator. Whoever was behind that room number would be my Valentine’s for the evening. Her name was Nobuntu*.
By the end of our evening of getting to know each other, I had come to realise that the system she was born into would never truly allow her to be free unless she fought against its oppression on a daily.
Nobuntu had told me that she was the first to go to university from her family. Her hopes were to be a top student, get a good job, pay off her study loan and have enough money to support her siblings when they also wanted to go to university. All of this whilst financially taking care of her mother and grandmother. I sat there thinking to myself, “All I have to worry about is myself, knowing that if everything fails I can go back home and work for my dad or his friend’s company.”
Earlier this year, almost a decade later, we bumped into each by chance. Later that same day I called her. Part of me wanted to know if she had beaten the odds.
(as I remember it)
Tatenda: Hi Nobuntu, it’s Tatenda, your Valentine’s date from res. How have you been?
After exchanging pleasantries, I asked her how she had gotten by over the years.
I knew my journey through university wouldn’t be easy, but I never expected it to be as difficult. Do you know at one point I think I even had a blesser? Let me rather talk about that later. Let me first tell you want happened soon after we met.
First year: Reality check
Within my very first week of classes I soon realised that I didn’t have enough money to buy every textbook that was required for my classes. Soon after that my assignments started to pile up and tests began to loom. I would spend several nights in campus computer labs. I didn’t have the luxury of owning my own laptop to work from.
What had I done to deserve so much suffering? I was merely born into this world, with no choice of where I was born or whom I was born to.
I survived though, but just when I thought it can’t get any worse, it did. In my final year, the most critical year of my studies, I was told that I had to move out of res. Even with the money from my loan I couldn’t afford the pricey apartments close to campus.
As Nobuntu said this, I thought of asking Mfundo, a Harvard University student from Umlazi township, what would have happened to him if he had never secured a full scholarship to go study at Harvard. What actually happens to those who are deserving but don’t have enough funding to make it through university? It seems a bit unfair, not being able to reach your full potential only because you don’t have the necessary funds. Even Liso, a top matriculant student from Khayelitsha township, may not be able to complete his Bachelor of Business Actuarial Sciences at University of Cape Town, despite help from Funda Fund1.
Final year: Barely hanging on
I reluctantly had to ask my friend, Winnie, if I could squat in her flat whilst I looked for an apartment on the outskirts of campus. I spent weeks searching, and after a month Winnie became hostile towards me, but I didn’t blame her. There would be days I would help myself to her food. I really was low on funds.
Finally I found a place on the outskirts of campus. I had to wake up at 5 am just to make my 8 am Maths class. But I told myself it would only be for a year.
In my very first lecture in final year my course convenor told the class that it is best that students don’t take up any extra courses or part-time jobs if they wish to pass and graduate – but what choice did I have? I barely had enough money to cover rent and I now needed to cater for food on my own. So I would study all week, tutor the whole of Saturday and wait tables at night. I don’t know how I survived.
I thought about my friend Tamzon who had spent the first half of her childhood in an impoverished community. She never thought she had it in her to go to university, let alone graduate with a Master of Science in Chemical Engineering (distinction) at the University of Cape Town. She too had to find ways to fund herself as her funding ran out midway through her Masters2.
I unwillingly thought of all the talent that was dying within my community due to lack of opportunity and lack of resources.
Final year: The breakdown
I remember sharing my birthday with a classmate of mine called Stephanie*. She celebrated her 21st birthday by driving off in a car that her dad had bought her, and she had planned a weekend away with her friends to Durban.
That same day, on my birthday, my 5 pm bus back home was delayed because of riots. I got home just after 9 pm and cried my heart out. The little birthday money I got from mom was used to pay back Winnie for money I borrowed from her to buy groceries. I couldn’t believe it. I literally couldn’t even afford to buy a cake with candles to blow out. That was my worst birthday ever.
The weight of expectation from my family and community was getting to me as I drew closer to my final exams. For someone like Stephanie, the cost of failure wouldn’t have affected her much. But for me, I would have had to live with that failure for life.
…my mother…wanted me to have a better future than hers.
Everything depended on me passing. Everything. My siblings would not have been able to go to university. If anything, our lives would have actually been worse off as I would have had to pay back a hefty student loan but with no degree to show for it.
The one Sunday I turned to my pastor. It felt like God had forsaken me despite all my good deeds and actions. What had I done to deserve so much suffering? I was merely born into this world, with no choice of where I was born or whom I was born to. I was not sure who to blame for my circumstance. My government? My people’s previous oppressors? God?
I tried to feel grateful knowing that I was one of a select few from my community who got a chance to study further. I unwillingly thought of all the talent that was dying within my community due to lack of opportunity and lack of resources. If we just had those two, opportunities and resources, our communities and the rest of the country would be in such a better place I tell you.
Soon I felt grateful for all the hard work and sacrifices my mother had made. She worked a basic job and saved up money each month so that I could have the right environment to just focus on school. She wanted me to have a better future than hers.
Spurred on by this, graduation finally became a reality. The first in my family to graduate!
On graduation day I recalled all the battles I fought in university. I was happy and relieved that I had overcome them. I had to pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Graduation day was my best day ever.
As she said this, it reminded me of Refilwe, a self-taught chef and baker, who despite many odds, made it to become a MasterChef South Africa top 10 Finalist. She too said she had to pinch herself a few times just to make sure she wasn’t dreaming3.
The conversation was getting too deep for me. Had I been living in a bubble, oblivious to the struggles of others? Had the media desensitised me? How is it possible that we can be so disconnected from the struggles of people we interact with daily? Maybe it’s just easier to pretend that everything is okay, and continue to brush of the problems other people around us are facing day-to-day.
Nobuntu: But this world is crazy I must say. After graduating, I realised my university struggle was just the beginning. The battle was over, but the war had just begun. I now had to find a job.
I cut the phone, and before I tried to call her again, my phone rang. I picked it up.
My phone was ringing, even though I would press answer. It rang again, I tried to answer. That’s when I realised, it was not a phone call. It was my alarm. The whole conversation had been a dream…
* * * * * * *
Despite the continuous imbalances in society, there are still flowers that blossom amongst the thorns and rocks.
Read Liso’s story and find out how you can contribute to his dream of graduating with a Bachelor of Business Actuarial Sciences from the University of Cape Town.
Link1: Liso’s story: Meet Liso!
Below is Mfundo Radebe’s inspiring story on how he made it to Harvard University. Do feel free to offer your help towards his initiative, The Dlulisa Initiative. The Dlulisa Initiative collects unused books, textbooks, study guides and dictionaries that are then given to less-privileged schools in South Africa. Let’s make a difference.
Be inspired by Tamzon’s story. How she wound up at the highest ranked university in Africa, graduation with a distinction in her Master’s of Science – Chemical Engineering.
Read about how Refilwe Tselanyane ended up as a MasterChef top 10 finalist, having taught herself how to cook and bake, and the success she has had since then.
*not their real names.
Tatenda Mark is the Founder of alumnivalley.com, an online platform that supports, features and promotes entrepreneurs, ranging from small business owners, activists to artists. alumnivalley.com aims to empower, support and inspire people who follow their true passion, and believes that these are truly the minds that will change the world. For more stories and information, visit alumnivalley.com and be sure to like us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/alumnivalley. Any questions? Please feel free to email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.