Passion for science drives star student
Johannesburg - Unlike many other people his age, Wandile Mabanga is not into partying. In fact, the only party that he has ever been to was one that was compulsory at university.
While most students his age are out and about on the weekends, Mabanga spends his time widening his science knowledge.
Science is something that has fascinated Mabanga since he was a youngster. His love of science runs so deep that during one school holiday, he even took a holiday job investigating hydrogen fuel cells as a potential green energy substitute for coal-based energy.
Mabanga recalls his first science lecture in high school.
“We were learning about a flower. I was so fascinated because we were learning about such a beautiful thing on a piece of paper,” he said.
Today Mabanga is completing his MSc (by dissertation) in theoretical physics at Wits.
What makes Mabanga stand out from thousands of other physics students in South Africa, however, is that his thesis in Quantum Gravity is so specialised that there are only two people in the world who are qualified to supervise him.
Mabanga is also a member of the Golden Key society and was the first South African to enter an international maths competition in Bulgaria in 2011. He is also a member of a youth group within the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund called Efeng Bacha.
He has achieved all of this at the age of 22. Mabanga says it’s his passion for science that drives him each day. “It started with doing experiments in high school and constantly watching National Geographic. The environment fascinates me and I’m curious to see how everything works and how things are made. My mind runs wild.”
Mabanga doesn’t kid around. As we sit in his room he starts speaking about his fascination with how beds and chairs are made, how his computer speakers are made, and what will happen if you break the speakers in half.
On his wall is a piece of paper with the question: “Why do we grow up?” written on it.
Mabanga says this is a question he has been trying to answer, so he leaves it on his wall to remind him to write down his thoughts.
“I’m constantly asking myself different questions, challenging my mind to see if I can get answers.”
Mabanga, who grew up in KwaThema, near Springs, Ekurhuleni, likes to inspire others to achieve their dreams.
Although Mabanga’s schedule is hectic he visits his old school Tlakula High School to mentor kids.
“I really enjoy helping the kids at KwaThema with whatever it is that I can do. Whether it be in science, maths or anything else that I can help with.”
Mabanga says he also helps his brother and two cousins with all their school work.
He shares his science knowledge with his sibling, but admits his brother’s heart is set on becoming a soccer player.
“I try and teach him science but he doesn’t find it fun at all,” he laughs. “His passion is soccer so he should follow his dream – just like I have done.”
Mabanga says life wasn’t easy growing up. He attended an “underprivileged school”, where resources were limited and classes were crowded.
His family barely made it through each month. They lived on his brother’s social grant, which was R200 at the time, and the income from his father, who fixed TVs.
Mabanga emerged as one of the top five matriculants in Gauteng, scoring an impressive 100 percent for Mathematics and 93 percent for Physical Sciences.
As a result, he obtained a fellowship from the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation.
Today Mabanga helps pay for his brother’s school fees and helps his mom out with money.
But while he may not spend his weekend partying, Mabanga is making some of his dreams come true.
Last year he learnt how to swim and at the end of this year he will be going scuba diving.
He says he always wanted to play cricket for the Proteas.
“I love Dale Steyn and wanted to be just like him,” he says.
“In university I could not even cut it in the first team so I gave up on that dream.”
However he still plays cricket and he tries to play as much sport as possible.
So where does Mabanga see himself in 10 years?
Humbly, he answers: “I just want to make a contribution to society and hopefully I can inspire others to do the same.
“Hopefully I can travel the world and meet specialists in my field. I would love to learn more from them.”
Mabanga says he looks to tennis player Roger Federer and scientist Juan Maldacena for inspiration.
“I look up to them because they (are) both so good in their respective fields. I have tons of respect for them,” he says.
And then there is Albert Einstein.
“I think that man is damn cool. He did make some mistakes but he was a wonderful scientist.”