Getting to varsity – The perils of blackness…

By Dr Ntevheleni Brian Tshivhase (MBCHB, MBA)

Navigating through township life was a journey marred with challenges, the attainment of a better life and access to opportunity was central to our struggle. As children, our earlier dreams were to live in better neighbourhoods with appropriate amenities. As a township child you are not aware of how limited your world view is until you reach matric.

Matric is the culmination of everything; it is not only the ultimate test to your scholastic abilities, it is when you are in matric that you suddenly become aware of how society works, how the bureaucracy works and its inefficiencies. To a black child, matric year is that year when it dawns on you that you don’t have what it takes. To most of my peers whose families were fractured by migrant labour realities, matric was that year when they confronted the reality of single parenting. Most of the critical choices were peer driven with no parental supervision.

It was a time when you experienced the brutality of the policies of separatism. That most of us were in a similar predicament did not normalise this anomalous situation. We were children making critical decisions about our lives with no guiding parental supervision. We were children doing the work of adults. In my specific circumstance, growing up in Venda we spoke very little English. It was when I was in Matric when I realised I could not converse competently in English. Because of the constant riotous disruptions, a lot of my high school work was self-taught. Credit to Boiki Tsedu (my political initiator), a lot of my reading came through reading “Work In Progress’, a quarterly bulletin that had a heavy socialist slant and a lot of ‘isms’. These were scouted from his brother Mathatha Tsedu who had links with MWASA. Boiki taught us proper English and politics.

When our white counterparts got exposed to bureaucracy in their late teens post matric, we were conscripted to politics much earlier. I learned about ‘dialectical materialism’ before I could fathom the dynamics of my bodily functions

Matric exposes you to your own family dynamics, the reality of lack of resources and the rationing process that confronts a black family. It was in that year, when I learnt that my father earned a meagre R 870.00 as a senior teacher and mother earned R600.00 in the same profession. This money was not sufficient at all. My parents were committed community activists. Their church commitments found ecumenical expression in their politics.

Entanglement in politics is a reality of blackness, and growing up in a political household -you grow up fast and become conversant with a number societal dynamics. I was 15 when my mother assumed a somewhat full time role in politics. A salary increase of R200 came with a number of family adjustments. As my father became husband-cum-speechwriter-chauffer, the move immediately saddled me with an administrative responsibility for the household and doubled as errand boy for their political work. Before door-to-door campaigns were fashionable, I was distributing pamphlets to targeted homes and soliciting donations for the ANC on my BMX (bicycle) on most Sunday mornings. School work and raging teenage hormones were excuses not good enough for organisational and church work.

That I would pass matric was not the question, I knew I would and become a doctor. In hindsight I was to learn later, that I although I loved Medicine, my choice of a career was premised on naivety and lack of guidance about alternative career paths. On one occasion in my matric year, we were hand-picked for possible engineering careers by some white official from Anglo American Co. I was so disorientated that his talk on Engineering seems so purposeless like a conversation about male nipples.

Reading was my way of life. My father encouraged reading. Although I was a science learner, I read a lot of History to deepen my understanding of world issues. These were augmented by borrowing some of my father’s university books. He had enrolled at the University of Venda and had History as a major. I was to learn the art of networking during these years. When a number of my friends were to move from my school en mass to pursue technical subjects in the newly opened safer Thohoyandou Technical High School, I assimilated into a new group of friends (The Duthuni boys) through a school friend Avhasei.

These were a group of village boys who shared a fascination for numbers. Although we were not going to school, these boys had a fascinating camaraderie and eagerness to learn. It was during my time at Duthuni that I came to understand Tshilidzi Marwala’s wizardry (now UJ Vice- Chancellor). Tshilidzi’s journey inspired our collective mathematical ideations. He was a fascinating mind.

The matric examination process was also characterised by many bureaucratic hurdles. Our examinations were designed in a chaotic manner. Our schools received results a week before schools reopened and some after we had reopened. The difficulty that you faced then was; when the schools reopen do you reregister for matric and hope for a good mark when the full results come out or do you stay at home and hope that you have passed? Either way it was nerve wrecking. This critical stage in your life had no certainty. When our white counterparts had received their matric results in early December and provisional acceptance at varsity, we had no idea if our scripts would be marked.

Getting good grades was an anti-climax for a black child. Although my results were excellent, I did not get placement to my preferred universities. There were two key reasons that were provided; there were no placement and I had no sponsorship. Out of the eight medical schools, black matriculants could only apply to two –MEDUNSA and NATAL. Although Wits and UCT were accepting of blacks (in policy at least), their bizarre quota system made it nearly impossible for black male applicants to succeed.

The historically Afrikaans Universities were not having it! Their rules were clear- WHITES ONLY. So clear, that it was even captioned on the application form. The application forms were written in Afrikaans. Should you dare send back the application, the response was even more scathing. Apartheid was blatant and daring.    

When I got news that I had been admitted to MEDUNSA for my Medical studies, I had resigned myself to pursuing a Bachelor of Science with the University of Venda. The news was delivered by my father. On the way home, he showed me the telegraph that confirmed the offer. Sitting under a shade I realised how ill prepared my father was for this moment, reading through the telegraph my father looked defeated and with some resoluteness said “…we will sell the house”.

Our lack of viable and dependable networks was heightened by this moment. I had just seen my father at his lowest. He had no plan. This moment had a dual effect on him – it had a ‘demasculinization’ and serious embarrassing effect. The system had for a brief moment depicted my father as an incapable and useless father. Naturally, he did not relent. There was too much vested on this moment. Getting a child to University is a big deal for black parents given the odds that they endure and navigate.

The plan was to raise R900 for registration whilst the sale gets underway. His aim was to sell the house for R2000. When I got to MEDUNSA learnt of a merit scholarship that had been awarded by the Australian Government. I was thrown a life line by Joe Mathebula who had been working for the Educational Aid Program Northern Transvaal. They covered the full tuition and gave me R250 for books.

Looking back at my high school years and family circumstances, they were not unique, but characteristic of many black families’ experiences. There were lessons in our respective journeys.


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