Johannesburg - A dreeam has come true for a young man from Soshanguve, north of Pretoria, after he became famous and was saved from the abyss of joblessness and frustration.
Having got his private pilot’s licence last year, Mandla Maseko, 27, recently earned his wings as a helicopter pilot in the South African Air Force.
Maseko’s newfound status is a far cry from the frustration he felt as a young man aimlessly walking the dusty streets of Soshanguve. Now he is heading for the stars.
Called the “Afronaut”, he’ll be jetting to space in March, after winning an Axe deodorant competition in 2013.
Since winning the competition, Maseko has been travelling around the country, telling young people that “the sky is not the limit”.
He has a very busy schedule. Last year he attended the International Astronautical Congress, held in Toronto.
He finished his basic military training in the SANDF in June. The next month he started his officer’s course at the Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria, graduating last week. Early next year he will be doing his final pilot’s course.
Another of his dreams is to train as an aeronautical engineer and qualify as a mission specialist.
Maseko has popularised a career in the defence force in his township. He says he will be using his position to impress upon them the importance of maths and science.
“I wanted something that would help me change how young black kids think in the township.
“I see myself as someone who is making a difference using his career. I want to do anything that will give me an opportunity to be in the sky, be it as an astronaut or a pilot in the air force – (I can show) kids that this can be done,” he said.
Sponsors are coming to the party and Maseko is fast attaining celebrity status. He is expecting delivery of a sponsored car next year and is shooting a documentary about his life’s journey, which will be released in February.
“I was sitting at home with nothing to do. I believed that in South Africa there was a system created for people to fail. And I had failed. I had lost hope, but I had not given up on life. If I had to use the analogy of a soccer match, I would say it was half-time for me. I was coming back in the second half,” he said.
Maseko is one of four siblings. His dad is a tool designer at Nissan and his mother works as supervisor for a cleaning company.
He was stuck at home after having had to abandon his civil engineering studies at the Tshwane University of Technology.
“I saw the ad on TV. You had to go online and enter your details to get people to vote for you. I heard nothing and gave up hope of ever winning.”
But after hearing the same ad again on the radio, he knew he had to try one more time. This time around, the contestants had to send a picture of themselves jumping off a wall. “Using my cellphone, my friend shot pictures of me jumping off my wall at home,” he said.
After a few days, Maseko received a call from Metro FM DJ T-bo Touch, asking him why he wanted to go to space. “I said, I want to defy the laws of gravity. And possibly go down in history as the first black South African in space.”
With that answer, Maseko made it to the top 30 South Africans shortlist. They were all taken to a space camp in Parys, in the Free State, where they underwent rigorous challenges, including a 3 050m skydiving course and the “Vomit Comet” – a Nasa programme that introduces candidate astronauts to the feeling of zero-gravity in space.
The top 30 were then whittled down to six. The biggest challenge was the aeroplane in which they were spun and tossed around.
Within 10 seconds of landing, the contestants were made to sit for an aptitude test.
“They wanted to see how good you were with calming yourself down after an adrenalin rush,” said Maseko.
Maseko eventually made it to the top three, who were taken to the Global Space Camp in Orlando, Florida.
“I was just excited about going to the US because it was my first time travelling outside of South Africa.
“It was after two days at Nasa that it hit me that I was actually worthy of being there,” he said.
More than 100 contestants from 79 countries embarked on a week-long challenge and more aptitude tests. While he was there on December 5, 2013, an announcement was made that Nelson Mandela had died. Three hours later, Maseko was announced as one of the 23 candidates who had qualified to go into space, making him the first black African set to travel into space.
“Winning this was a deep moment for me. Mandela passed on and three hours later I won the competition.
“It was like he was passing on the torch to me, saying, ‘go out there and be the one who brings about hope and change in Africa’. That’s how I look at it. Not many children from the township would even think of entering a competition that takes people to space. But I went for it.
“I saw it as an opportunity to change Africa and to give hope to young kids,” he said earnestly.
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