root - January 30, 2024

Poverty, noise, loadshedding and crowded living conditions didn’t stop these learners reaching their academic dreams

Peter Luhanga 

Despite the challenge of living with her two brothers and parents in a single room in an informal settlement, Makanaka Muzuva manage to achieve seven distinctions in her matric exams.

Among the subjects for which she achieved a distinction was Xhosa as a first language, despite it not being her home language as she was born in Zimbabwe and moved to Cape Town with her parents in 2012.

Makanaka Muzuva, 18, from Joe Slovo Park informal settlement near Dunoon, stands out as the top achiever among the top five pupils who wrote their matric exams last year at Joe Slovo Park’s Sinenjongo High School. 

The other four top achievers, all South African children, faced similar challenges. One also lives in Joe Slovo Park, two are from informal settlements in Dunoon, and one is from Dunoon’s formal housing area. They all had to contend with noise, overcrowding, and the financial strain of the R26 daily taxi fare to school and back. 

Muzuva distinctions were in Xhosa, English, mathematics, life orientation, geography, life sciences, and physical sciences.

Her father works as a waiter, while her mother is employed part-time at a launderette, where she only works on weekends.“At home home we’re not that fortunate. The environment where I live is too noisy. We have a shortage of space, we live in a one-room apartment, partitioned, sharing with two brothers aged nine and 15,” says  Muzuva.

In order to deal with the noise of the informal settlement, Muzuva says she would sleep in the afternoon, and then study from 8pm when things had quieted down a bit. But Eskom power cuts posed a challenge. During loadshedding she used a small solar-powered light, and then that became dim, she’s use her cellphone torch. Additionally, the lack of internet at home meant she spent weekends at the school accessing online educational resources. “Our principal gave me a key. Every weekend I’d access the school. It was free space,” she says, adding that her teachers were always ready to provide help and support, both emotionally and academically.

She says shes grateful to be in South Africa, as it has allowed her parents to work and provide for her and her siblings. However, she faces challenges ahead. She has been accepted to study chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town (UCT), but as a Zimbabwean, most bursaries, and access to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), are closed to her. 

She says the lack of bursary opportunities has been “the most stressful thing”, as her family can’t afford university fees. 

Her father, Never Muzuva, earns R8,000 per month, from which R3,500 has to pay for rent. The rest foes to food, electricity, and the needs of his children.

“To be a waiter is more like a chancer. Sometimes we make money, sometimes we don’t. It’s hand to mouth to survival,” says Never.

He says he is very proud of his daughter’s achievement and is hoping to secure sponsors to fund his daughter’s university tuition.

“I can’t allow her to stay at home just because I lack the financial means. Despite being a foreigner without benefits, what she’s going to study would be beneficial to the country,” he said.

Challenges of poverty

Three of Sinenjongo High School’s other top five matric students also had overcome the challenges of poverty and shortage of basic municipal services in informal settlements.

Lilitha Masizana lives in Dunoon’s Ekhupholweni informal settlement in a one-room shack with her mother, yet achieved five distinctions in the 2023 matric exams. Masizana had to contend with noise from a nearby shebeen. Like Muzuva, she, too, had to use a rechargeable light and cellphone torch in order to study during Eskom loadshedding. 

Masizana says finding time to study posed a significant challenge. “There is constant noise in the informal settlement – people fighting. It was just a lot.”

Having earned distinctions in Xhosa, English, life orientation, geography, and life sciences, together with high marks in maths and physical science, she has been accepted for a Bachelor of Science degree at Rhodes University. 

She says she is has also applied to UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch University, University of the Western Cape (UWC), and the University of Johannesburg. 

Her mother, Nyameka Masizana, says as a single parent, she had to be both mother and father to Like, and she is “very proud” of her daughter.

Nyameka  says she struggled to provide taxi fare for her daughter to attend school, often borrowing from neighbours. At times, her daughter had to walk approximately eight kilometres from Dunoon to school.

Regarding noise in the overcrowded informal settlement, she says she purchased inexpensive headphones for her daughter so she could cancel out the noise. 

“When you are a single parent, you’ve to be a father and a mother,” says Nyameka.

Xabiso Jevu, 18, who lives in Bhekela informal settlement, also obtained five distinctions. Jevu says she had to contend with loud music emanating from shebeens, and in order to achieve five distinctions, she stayed at school and studied until 8 pm.

She achieved distinctions in Xhosa, English, life orientation, geography, and life sciences, and also achieved high marks in mathematics and physical sciences.

“If you know what you want you’d do it n matter what,” says Jevu.

She says  she has applied for admission at Wits University and Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (SMU) to study medicine, as well as at the University of the Western Cape to pursue geology, and is awaiting a reply.

Lilitha Masina, 18, who lives in a formal housing area in Dunoon where her mother rents out a backyard room to earn some income, achieved four distinctions. They were in Xhosa, English, agricultural sciences, and life sciences, while also obtaining high marks in maths and physical science. 

Masina has been accepted to study pharmacy at UWC, and nursing at Stellenbosch University. She is currently awaiting feedback for her applications to study medicine at UCT and SMU. Masina also faced challenges with taxi fare to and from school, dealt with neighbourhood noise, and had to be vigilant to avoid potential attacks from criminals when returning home, as crime is prevalent in the area. She also, like her fellow learners, had to cope with Eskom power cuts.

Commitment to learning

School principal Khuselwa Nopote says  her school achieved an 88.7% pass rate, marking a 1% increase from 2022’s achievement. 

Nopote credited the achievement to the learners’ hard work, the dedication of educators, and the Saturday classes sponsored by an educational non-profit organisation and a property company.

“The most challenging part is the areas where they live; crime is very high. It made it difficult for them to study ‘til late, so they had to leave early. Another challenge is child-headed homes. Some learners take care of their siblings. In Dunoon, most parents lost jobs to Covid-19 and haven’t been re-employed. Most learners had to walk to school,” says Nopote.

She says her school accommodates learners from Dunoon, Joe Slovo Park, Summergreens, and children whose parents work in Montague Gardens.

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