Like many kids, he grew up working the fields and herding cattle and when he was a teenager he took odd jobs as a gardener to help his family make ends meet.
But he’s come a long way since those days – because now Sizwe Mkhwanazi is off to Oxford University in England to study towards a PhD in education.
The hallowed halls of Oxford, one of the world’s most prestigious institutions, will soon be his new home and he sometimes still has to pinch himself to make sure he isn’t dreaming. Growing up in Platrand, a little farm outside Standerton in Mpumalanga, Sizwe (24) always knew he was destined for greater things. So he did everything in his power to get money to help him achieve his dreams.
He was 14 when he got his first gardening job, he tells DRUM when we meet him at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) where he’s involved in a research project.
“I made R300 with every garden job.”
He also formed strong relationships with some of his employers, who offered to help him buy school books. Even though he’s swopped his gardening overalls for the occasional suit and academic gown, he’s still passionate about gardening – but education is undoubtedly his greatest love, says Sizwe, a Mandela Rhodes scholar.
He was just five on his first day at the small farm school in Platrand. “There was no one to babysit me,” Sizwe recalls.
His mother, Delisile (42), had him when she was 18 and she was trying to put food on the table for her only son at the time. She worked as a farm worker wherever there was work and so, to keep her son as safe as possible when she wasn’t at home, she sent him to school.
Once little Sizwe was over the shock of being left in a strange environment, he started enjoying himself.
Sizwe didn’t know what he wanted to be one day but he knew he wanted more for himself. After primary school he enrolled at Qondulwazi High School, but he only stayed until Grade 9 because he felt the government high-school system “wasn’t good enough”.
“Learners didn’t have access to much-needed facilities like the internet.”
He completed the rest of his studies at Gert Sibande TVET college, where he completed a national certificate vocational programme, which is equivalent to matric. He juggled school and his gardening job throughout his time at college, then applied to study at UJ in 2011.
“But despite being an A-student at college, the university rejected my application.”
Fortunately, Blade Nzimande – then minister for higher education and training – heard about Sizwe’s struggles through someone at the college and wrote a letter to the university requesting them to take the boy in.
They obliged and he graduated with a diploma in entrepreneurship as well as a BTech. Sizwe’s academic brilliance won him a Mandela Rhodes scholarship to study his MTech and do a postgraduate diploma in management and entrepreneurship at North-West University in 2015.
“The following year I started a great adventure as a business management lecturer at UJ,” he tells us.
He thought he was done with studying until close friends convinced him to apply for the Mandela Rhodes scholarship to study for his master’s and PhD in the UK – and he got it!
He completed his master’s degree in education at the smaller Oxford Brookes public university on the outskirts of Oxford recently and will be going to the prestigious main campus this month to start his PhD.
He likes England, Sizwe says. “It has always felt like home. I have never felt like an outcast there.”
Sizwe was home from June to September to conduct research on the evaluation of skills and credentials needed to teach entrepreneurship at university level.
He has been collecting data and he also attended the Brics summit, which was held in July in Durban, for his research.
Being raised by a single mother made him passionate about helping other young people who were raised by single parents. That’s why he started an organization called Youth for Action Foundation that aims to help the youth in rural areas to achieve better results in school.
He has fond memories of growing up on the farm, especially the times he spent with his grandfather, Amos Nkwali Mkhwanazi (70), and grandmother, Poppy Topsy Mkhwanazi (72). He doesn’t know who his father is but it hasn’t really affected his life.
“Growing up on a farm was nice. Whenever you needed something, you could ask your neighbour.”
He often couldn’t tell whether his family was struggling or not because the community helped one another so much during times of hardship, he adds.
“We were the village’s kids. We ate at different houses. Wherever we played the mother who was there had the responsibility of feeding us all that day. The struggles were there but as kids we couldn’t see them,” says Sizwe, who has three younger siblings, Kamohelo (15), Londeka (8) and Mncendisi (4).
His siblings didn’t really experience rural life like their older brother because he got them a nice apartment in a security complex in Protea Glen, west of Soweto in Joburg, where they have been living for the past four years with their mother.
Sizwe is actively involved in the Royal Commonwealth Society, which is a network of individuals and organisations committed to improving the lives and prospects of Commonwealth citizens.
His involvement in these organisations has earned him a place as a runner-up in The Queen’s Young Leaders Awards, which recognises and celebrates exceptional people between the ages of 18 and 29 from across the Commonwealth.
Having achieved what he set for himself, Sizwe says there’s been a great spirit – not only in his hometown, but in other local communities too – since he got the opportunity to study in the UK.
“A young single mother from my community in Protea Glen approached me and said, ‘Sizwe, now that you’re going to be doing your PhD remember you’re not doing it just for yourself, but you are doing it for our children too’.”
His main goal is to become a professor of entrepreneurship education and he believes this is his calling.
“I’ve really been fortunate,” he says.
“But I’ll never forget the people who helped me get here.”