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YOUTH SPEAK | 'I am now this person I thought I would never be'

I've learnt to do things on my own, writes Thobeka Mkonza

16 June 2021 - 10:00 By Thobeka Mkonza
Thobeka Mkonza, one of the country's 'Covid matriculants', sheds some light on what life has been like in the months since she finished grade 12.
Thobeka Mkonza, one of the country's 'Covid matriculants', sheds some light on what life has been like in the months since she finished grade 12.
Image: Supplied

This essay is part of a June 16 series to be published on TimesLIVE on Youth Day. The Sunday Times last year published extracts from the book Learning under Lockdown, compiled by professor Jonathan Jansen and Emily O’Ryan to celebrate Youth Day. Fast-forward to 2021: some stories reveal further heartbreak while others have happier endings. The series of essays published today on TimesLIVE looks at where these children are now, a year later.

2021: Matriculated last year, now at Wits University

My matric year was really tough, but it was an interesting journey. Writing the matric paper felt different because I knew whatever I was writing would determine my future. I applied at various institutions. I did not do it myself. I was helped by two organisations, I am a "future leader" and Sanele Enock the Brand. They applied for me at UKZN, UCT, Wits University and North West University.

We applied for physics, physiotherapy and mechanical engineering. I have always wanted to be in the health science faculty, but I was also interested in physics and nuclear sciences. I got my results and I got five distinctions.

I was accepted at UCT to study physiotherapy, I got in at North West University, and I was accepted at Wits. It was a difficult choice to make, but I went for Wits because it is the best. The others are good too, but I settled for Wits. I am now doing Bachelor of Science in physiotherapy.

Starting at university was very difficult. I remember I cried a lot because I do not have family here. I am at res alone. I had to learn how to use a computer because I did not know how to use it before. I had to learn to make photocopies and print out documents.

This journey has been a rollercoaster. I would cry, especially at night, because that is when I would reflect on my day. On my first day of class, I could not access the learning site that Wits is using for lectures. I did not know what was going on. I thought it was Wi-Fi. As the day went on, I made a lot of calls; I spoke to my mentor Dr Zamantungwa Khumalo. She suggested that I go on YouTube and do a search on how to use a computer. I ended up missing my first class, but luckily there was a recording of it.

I had to adjust to taking care of myself because there is no-one here to do that for me.
Thobeka Mkonza

I had to adjust to taking care of myself because there is no-one here to do that for me.

What I really enjoy about being at varsity is growing up and being independent. I am now this person I thought I would never be. I have made friends; I am also learning other South African languages. I am happy to have made new connections.

I have started my own business as well. It’s called Thobekaangel Agribusiness. It’s mostly in agriculture. I will be farming. I have met up with people who do agriculture. My mentor connected me with other people who are also in farming.

It’s been really great growing as a person in this space. A lot of doors opened for me since I came here to Wits, but I am in need of a bursary because I have to buy uniforms for my physiotherapy practicals.

I am also trying to raise capital to start my business. I want to do crop and poultry farming. The most important thing for me is to try to increase the food security in SA. The prices of food are high and we are importing a lot of produce.

My journey has been really fun.

I plan to finish my degree and pursue a career in both physiotherapy and farming. I want to do sports physiotherapy and open my own physiotherapy practice.

I love sports. I jog every day.

2020: In grade 12 at Tshanibezwe High School in Bergville, KZN

Thobeka Mkonza in her matric uniform.
Thobeka Mkonza in her matric uniform.
Image: Supplied

For the first time in 11 years of schooling, I had to study from home and this happened at the worst time of all, as I am in matric. Learning under lockdown has been a great and daunting experience for me. Studying from home meant I should have a Wi-Fi connection and at least a smartphone, if not a laptop. In my case things were different — I only had a radio and my textbooks.

I decided not to ask for a smartphone and Wi-Fi connection because that would mean my family had to choose between those facilities and providing food for me, as we depend on social grants for a living.

To be effective in my studies, I created a study plan and a slogan. The study plan helped me to manage my time and to be disciplined. My slogan is “Direction is better than speed”. It has helped me to stay calm and continue to study at my own pace, without being pressured to finish the term’s work. I took each day as a school day.

I was able to listen to classes on radio. These classes gave me clarity on some topics that I could not understand. I struggled a lot with mathematics. Even though there were some maths classes on radio, they were not effective for me. I decided to use different study guides — I had to try to understand maths. It took me more than two weeks to understand differential calculus. My slogan kept on motivating me to work hard. But the time I spent trying to figure out differential calculus was worth it: I did it on my own!

When the lockdown was extended, my school started to teach on WhatsApp. These classes were later closed because most pupils could not afford to buy data. It was difficult to study at home with no code of conduct or a teacher to monitor our progress.

My family played a very important role during this time; they always reminded me to listen to the radio and stay focused. Being disciplined helped me to remain focused and hard-working.

What I love most about studying from home is that there are no bullies and you don’t get competition at home. I was able to work on my own and get information by myself, without having to worry about what my peers would say.

I learnt to be independent and strong during this time. I focused on where I wanted to reach as I was studying and didn’t focus on my speed.

I hope this experience was teaching me the culture of learning at university. Guess what, university: I am ready! I can manage my time and crack complex subject content on my own. My wish is to become a nuclear scientist.