SANDF captain's journey from herdboy to the top ranks
Wanda Zondi was determined to escape his life of poverty. Losing his father at the age of 10 and almost forced to leave school to become a herdboy and a shepherd in the Libode district of the rural Eastern Cape, life was dire for him, his three siblings and his mother.
The villagers would mock him and his efforts to bring up his family, but Zondi was determined to achieve his dreams and honour his mother.
It would take him several years, moving to Durban for a job and being forced to sleep under a bridge, and then to Cape Town, where his extended family would force him to move out, but eventually he would make it.
There was no job too difficult or too menial. He would work in fish and chip shops at night and unload packs of cement during the day. He’d work as a security guard, a petrol pump attendant and even a data capturer for an insurance company, as he studied after hours, often by candlelight, developing a range of skills including becoming an A+ computer technician.
Eventually he’d build his mother a house and force the villagers to give her the respect she deserved. He would also get his dream job, after trying and failing to get in the first time, joining the SANDF as part of the Military Skills Development System programme at the Youngsfield military base.
Today he’s a captain in the Air Defence Artillery, on secondment as adjutant/PA to the chief of logistics at the SANDF’s Directorate of Logistics in Pretoria, about to graduate with his Master’s in security studies (criminal justice), and he’s a published author.
“I’m not a great one for social media,” he says, but I published a picture in January of myself and a friend while I was working as a petrol pump attendant in Cape Town, which received a huge amount of attention.
This got me thinking that I should use the opportunity to write my own story to encourage others. “I am not unique; there are many others who go to bed hungry every night, who have to stop attending school because there is no money –but that doesn’t mean they have to give up.”
The book, No Easy Battle, took him two months to write and then another two months working with his publisher before it went to print. It’s an incredible story that charts his determination to better himself and provide for his family, working piece jobs and swallowing his pride, learning to deal with the hurt and humiliation, the worst of which often came from his own extended family.
He won’t ever forget coming back from a day’s fruitless job hunting in Cape Town to his cousin’s home. There on the fridge was a freshly made sign: “Ukutya okuse fridge kokwabantu abasenzayo nabantwana beskolo” (the food on the fridge is for workers and schoolchildren).
Shortly afterwards, his cousin told him to move out and Zondi had to rent a shack in Cape Town’s Mfuleni township, which would leak during storms. He would walk almost 10km a day to his job at the petrol station, past gang-infested territory, and get beaten up and robbed.
After Youngsfield, he was sent to Oudtshoorn for basic training and shortly afterwards volunteered for paratrooper training in Bloemfontein– one of 67 out of 300 who passed the gruelling selection phase, going on to qualify as both an airborne and air assault soldier. He then volunteered to join the Air Defence Artillery, which then selected him for officer training.
Throughout all of it, he continued to study through Unisa, building his qualifications; a national diploma in security risk management, a BTech degree in forensic investigation, qualifying as an internationally certified fraud examiner, and now his Master’s, while passing his SANDF exams to prepare him for his next rank in the army, that of major.
He’s eyeing his PhD next, probably in criminal justice. “I love the military,” he says, “and I want to continue serving as long as I can, but I’m also fascinated by criminal justice. Sometimes I think the only channel I ever watch on DStv is Channel 171, Crime Investigation Network.”
It’s something that he could see himself doing in future, either for the military or as a private citizen. “Who knows? The army owes me nothing, it’s given me everything, we’ll just have to see.”
Once the lockdown lifts, though, his first task will be to speak to other soldiers about his own experiences, at the SANDF’s request. “It’s what I set out to do,” he says, “to give others hope, to encourage a culture of reading in the Defence Force and even give others the courage to write their stories. A great power we have been given is the power to choose the direction that our lives take.
“I respect DJ Sbu for breaking boundaries. He risked everything for his dream and ended up losing two jobs for being unapologetic about that. What I’ve learnt from observing him is that you have to step out of your comfort zone if you want to step into your dreams. In challenging yourself, you will unearth the deeper treasures that are within you.”
Many of his commanders would agree with him, especially Major-General TT Xundu, chief of SANDF Corporate Services, who writes in the foreword: “Black history has it that Western Pondoland, where Libode is located, has as its citadel Nyadeni, in recognition of a Xesibe warrior called
Ntontela who devised creative means to cross the Umzimvumbu River. “The plan worked and multitudes crossed. In this book, evidence is replete that ‘Ziwelile izihawkhawu zakwa Zondi’ (the Zondi hawks have crossed). All things being equal, this is the making of a general. Watch this space.”