Greener pastures beckon as former gardener graduates from Unisa

Unisa creates greater access to higher education through distance learning

06 August 2019 - 13:48
From gardener to graduate: Patrick Malesu became the first child in a family of nine to get a university qualification.
From gardener to graduate: Patrick Malesu became the first child in a family of nine to get a university qualification.
Image: Supplied/Unisa

Years of hard work, perseverance and a helping hand from former employers who recognised his potential saw former gardener Patrick Malesu graduate with a National Diploma in Electrical Engineering at Unisa in June. 

Malesu, who hails from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, says that he never gave up on his dream of getting a university qualification. "I realised that it was the key to acquiring a better life. Growing up, I was taught that education is the only sustainable way to get out of poverty," he says.

Malesu cares deeply for his family and contributes to the upkeep of his siblings back home. Sadly, his mother passed away last year and did not get to share in the joy of her son’s wonderful achievement.

Malesu became the first child in a family of nine to get a university qualification. He says: “My story is not unique but I hope that through me those who fought hard to change their lives will be encouraged. Many Unisa students are fighters. We are here for a reason, and we have a story to tell. What kept me motivated along the way was the knowledge that if I didn’t complete my studies, my children might endure the same as I did – having no hope to access a better life.”

Humble beginnings

Malesu’s journey started in Waterkloof, an affluent Tshwane suburb. “I went from door to door to look for any job that could change my situation. I was given employment by an Italian woman who taught me how to operate a lawn-mower, and became a full-time gardener,” he says.

Along his journey, he was confronted by the challenge of being a French speaker in a country that conversed mainly in English. To learn the language, he bought an English dictionary and registered with Unisa to study part-time. He refused to succumb to excuses of not finding time to study. Instead, he learnt to be creative and work under pressure.

Malesu’s charming character and perseverance touched many of his employers’ hearts. Some of them helped to pay tuition fees, while others supported his academic endeavours.

Working as a part-time gardener for Unisa academics such as Emeritus Professor Jopie Pretorius and his daughter Dr Antoinette Pretorius, a senior lecturer in the English department, changed his perception of education and class.

"I was impressed by Prof Pretorius, who trusted me and was comfortable enough to leave his house keys with me," says Malesu. "His daughter, Dr Pretorius did not treat me differently, as most employers do. She is young and her example gave me hope that one day I could be called Dr Patrick Malesu if I work hard."

Harnessing technology

A crucial part of his academic success was the use of technology in a distance institution. "There’s no place for excuses. I prepared and recorded my notes every night, and would listen to the notes while I was working. YouTube tutorials also helped me a lot," says Malesu.

"Every module you pass is a step closer to your graduation. My positive attitude caused many people to help me along the way."

Says Prof Pretorius: "It is not often that one meets someone who changes one's life in the way Malesu has changed mine," says , praising his former employee. "We had many conversations in which he expressed his admiration for what I have achieved academically. I reminded him repeatedly that my journey has been a lot smoother and easier than his as I was born into a life of privilege. These were humbling moments for me."

Creativity leads to success

According to Prof Pretorius, Malesu’s academic success is due to his relentless pursuit of ideas. "He worked as a full-time gardener six days a week, and yet he still found time to study through lecture notes over earphones. This creative approach to problem-solving is characteristic of his personality, as is his passion for his studies, his future and his determination to achieve success in life, against tremendous odds."

Says Prof Bhekie Mamba, executive dean of Unisa’s College of Science, Engineering and Technology: "Patrick Malesu's success story should serve as an example to other students that nothing can stand up against hard work and determination in achieving one's academic ambition and career goals.

"It also shows that the quality of learning materials, lecturers' inputs and student support provided by the college ensured that an enabling environment for Malesu to learn was in place."

This article was paid for by the University of South Africa.