Former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa Pali Lehohla. Photo: File
Former Statistician-General for Statistics South Africa Pali Lehohla. Photo: File

Victory in the struggle to attain higher education

By Opinion Time of article published Nov 4, 2020

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DURBAN - The chances of a black person in South Africa making it in life are slim, let alone getting a second chance at life, but it does happen.

Of the 1.2 million learners in South Africa, only 150 000 will pass with a matric exemption. Of the 150 000 who make it to university, most of the black students will fail to obtain a degree.

The picture of a demographic dividend accruing due to higher education is tilted towards whites and Indians.

Senzo Mpungose matriculated in 2008 from a school in rural KwaZulu-Natal with glowing marks, particularly in mathematics. He was admitted at Wits University to study computer science – a dream that was to be short-lived.

In February 2009, I was in New York when I received an email from Mpungose.

Mpungose's journey to higher education captured in his note to me was heart rendering. The village saw him off, like Reverend Stephen Khumalo in Cry the Beloved Country, but he was back a month later because he did not secure a bursary.

On reading about his dilemma, my prejudices collapsed. I replied to the email and dispatched an official from my office to facilitate a scholarship without delay.

Mpungose performed well in his first year, but struggled in his second. It turned out that my office had assisted him with tuition, but not with books or a food allowance. When I found out, I went ballistic.

Although the office paid, the damage had been done. After repeating second year and failing, Mpungose faced exclusion.

Mpungose decided not to continue studying, because of the financial, as well as the emotional, implications if he failed again. He had become scared of failure.

In 2012, I encouraged Mpungose to continue with Unisa, but he was undecided. He took a year off to re-evaluate his decisions leading up to that point.

He said: “I realised my efforts and field of study were almost entirely driven by the need to make as much money as I could and provide for my mother and siblings. During the year, I continued to work part-time at Wits University to provide for myself.

“I also offered high school tutoring services to earn additional income at the Wits Targeting Talent Programme, which helps Grade 10 to 12 learners.

“I then realised that I had a passion for teaching, and so the following year I began studying at the University of Johannesburg for a teaching degree while I continued to work part-time,” Mpungose wrote.

From 2013 to 2016, while continuing with his teaching degree, Mpungose completed a number of data centre management certifications and was permanently employed by Wits as a data centre and infrastructure manager in December 2016.

Mpungose said: “It was a bittersweet moment, since it meant I would not become a full-time teacher. However, it kept me at an educational institution where I could continue using my educational training to help improve education in the country.

“Furthermore, it meant I might be involved in improving the Wits Targeting Talent Programme's curriculum.

“My interest in education and business was the key driver to partnering with my fellow colleague in 2017 to 2018 where we embarked on an ongoing business venture focused on designing bespoke curriculums on demand for robotics and computer programming in high schools. Having gained management experience at Wits University, I applied and was accepted for a Master’s in Business Administration.”

Mpungose said the two-year programme, from February 2018 to March 2020, enabled him to meet individuals from different walks of life who helped him to gain insights into the management of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

As a result, Mpungose decided to conduct research into how South African SMEs could improve their competitiveness through the use of robotics and automation.

Mpungose said: “The research process has taken me to various countries around the world, and although there were delays in finalising it, my data collection is completed and should be able to submit and thereby complete my Master’s degree in two to three months.

“For 2021, I am hoping to register for a PhD, research focused on improving SMEs and training them for sustainable growth.”

Mpungose got married in 2018 and boasts about his “two mothers”: his mother and his wife. He is expecting his first child early next year.

Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa


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