He didn’t know if things would work out, or if he had enough money to register, but figured he’d at least be the first person in his family to see Cape Town, even if his studies didn’t work out.
Today, Dr Mthembu, 38, is one of the top graduates at UWC, having received his PhD in occupational therapy, publishing eight academic articles along the way.
Mthembu overcame many obstacles to get to where he is, and said the poverty his family endured and the bursary he received three days after his arrival in Cape Town from the Department of Health in Mpumalanga spurred him on.
“I stayed in Schoemansdal in a house made of Mampara bricks. My mother would collect the bricks and carry them home.
“I would walk to school, 10km every day, and wear a black plastic bag in the rain.
“One day I went to school wearing no shoes and my foot was caught by a rusted nail. I was so worried.
“Looking back, I am always telling my brother that getting my PhD is a dream, and it’s a pity my mom isn't here to see me,” said Mthembu.
He said his mother insisted that all her children complete matric and made sure that there was always a plate of food on the table, even if the whole family had to share it.
She died in March 2014, a month after his father.
After finishing matric, Mthembu worked as a part-time caretaker in a clinic in Mpumalanga and even opened his own salon, but he knew that his destiny lay elsewhere.
“I wanted to study nursing but there were no bursaries for nursing.
“At the clinic I met an occupational therapist and decided to do occupational therapy. After I received a bursary from the Department of Health in Mpumalanga, I was excited.
“I told myself I don’t want to go back to the situation I was in before, else the bursary would be gone.
“Going back I would not be working and my mother’s R650 pension would not be enough for the family,” said Mthembu.
He pushed himself to do his best in his studies and obtained six distinctions in his first year and four in his second.
He completed his BSc Occupational Therapy in 2004, and then worked in Mpumalanga, where he was promoted to chief occupational therapist.
In 2010 he completed his master's in public health, and in 2011 he was appointed as a lecturer in the department of occupational therapy at UWC, where he inspired and mentored many students.
Mthembu has now completed his PhD after four years of studying, and said he hopes one day to return to Mpumalanga and uplift others through his research.