A better future through education for the ‘born free’ generation

I am the offspring of South Africa’s current generation of domestics and garden workers, mine labourers, security guards, waitresses and cashiers. We are commonly referred to as the ‘born frees’ – children who have grown up post-apartheid.

Our parents worked to free us from the harsh socio-economic conditions they were victim to, nurturing hopes of a better future for us through higher education.

Having made it through the first year of university – a moment that makes me feel like a proud war veteran – I believe that the struggle my generation faces is not only lack of access to higher education but, even more, lack of knowledge on how to get educated.

I am one of three daughters of a single parent domestic worker. I went to a fairly good school in Johannesburg but faced many painful clashes regarding tuition fee payments, which were later resolved by a scholarship that I was awarded for my academics.

The prospect of tertiary education seemed unrealistic.

I felt trapped in terms of career choices and didn’t know the range of options. The career fairs I attended featured big companies looking for young academic potential and focused on utopian careers in accountancy, science, maths and engineering.

There were never student loan or scholarship stalls to explain how careers outside these sectors could be financed. So I made my career choice based on probability: I had a better chance of bursaries and employment if I studied accountancy. Doubts about whether I wanted to be an accountant dissolved at the thought of an improved standard of living.

I selected school subjects accordingly and was en route to study for a BCom accounting at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). I had applied for several accounting bursaries and been shortlisted for one, subject to my final matric (school-leaving exam) results.

Disaster struck

Unfortunately, I fell ill just before my accounting exam, but refused to be hospitalised so I could write it. I endured the exam but was admitted to hospital the next day with a burst appendix. While my last business studies paper was being written I was in intensive care, much more concerned with the business of staying alive.

Partially recovered, the next month – January 2011 – I was at UJ bright and early on opening day and for three days endured long queues. I was due to write a supplementary exam in March. I had achieved a distinction for business studies in prelims, and also in my favour was that I already had five points above the entry requirement – even without my seventh subject.

Nonetheless my efforts were in vain and I was refused a place. The huge expansion in applications meant that universities were only considering complete matric results.

I was forced to take a gap year, in which I had the opportunity to travel and work, and through these experiences began to think of careers outside accounting, like journalism, diplomacy and law, which I had a genuine interest in. A National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loan would be a means for me to follow a career I enjoyed.

The deceptively attractive salary of a call centre job had me reconsidering studying full-time, as earning an income was so much more appealing than the debts of a study loan. This financial security made me forget, for a while, the importance of an empowering and sustainable job.

Eventually, with advice and mentoring, I applied and was accepted for a law degree at the University of the Western Cape, and set off to finally start my studies. But on the way to the airport, the day before I was due to start first-year orientation, I received an email from the university stating that my application had been declined, with no explanation.

It felt like a nightmarish re-enactment of the previous year at UJ. I got passed from person to person over the phone. With no clear explanation for the sudden rejection, I decided to leave for the Western Cape anyway, fully determined to fight my way in.

It turned out that the law faculty had been full by the time my application reached it. This resulted in rejection although my results far surpassed the requirements. It took almost two weeks of emails, constant calls from my mentors to the faculty, and my own pleading with several people before I was accepted and embarked on the four-year course.

Getting in is just the start

That marked the start of an even bigger battle – the NFSAS loan application. After days of 12-hour queues and long applications forms, I succeeded in securing a loan. The problem was, it was not enough to cover food, transport or accommodation, as I had not been accepted for residence.

Worst of all, the money was only to be released in cash in May. The deficit was all on me to somehow pay. But with great help from my mentor, and personal loans taken by my mom, and doing promotional work part-time, I managed. It made for a tense relationship with the landlord, and almost a semester of tests and assignments with no textbooks.

Nonetheless I improvised, which made for a busy, high pressure and exciting first year of university. I was juggling promotion jobs, lectures, study and little sleep, with just enough space for a social life.

Squeezing in both university and work was a challenge, especially during exam times when I had to rush through an exam to make it to a job on time. But ultimately it taught me essential time management skills.

I had a pretty efficient routine going, starting with late morning lectures, followed by an exhausting 40-minute to two-hour train ride from campus and a three-hour nap. I would then relax a bit, cook and then study until the early hours of the morning.

It was difficult establishing a routine because I was so used to being told what to do at school and by my mom. But as I grew, the nagging became my own voice of reason, which prompted self-discipline. I could not afford to fail or settle for mediocrity in my academics, because I was still on the scout for bursaries.

Keeping sane was vital amid the confusion of how to reference academic work, or search for odd test venues at least two days before in order to be on time. Timetables became a complex process of alternating between departments, sorting out clashes between lectures and puzzling together a schedule that allowed me to sleep. The workload was colossal.

A journey of self-discovery

I was growing into who I am, outside the person my old friends thought I was, the daughter my parents expected me to be, and far beyond the boundaries of my comfort zone. This was the breeding ground for self-discovery.

Knowing who I was also attracted the right type of company to see me through the loneliness of being so far from home and the struggles of the student ‘budget’. Emptying out my piggy bank in search of R3 (US$0.35) to buy a packet of noodles for supper and dining alone was disheartening – until the right friends came along.

Together we rewarded ourselves with trips to the beach, outings and take-outs when we could, and noodles didn’t taste so bad when sharing laughs. My friends provided me with support, additional voices of reason and a homely sense of belonging.

Although my journey to university was peppered with more dragons, witches and evil stepsisters than the average fairytale, I would not trade any of the experiences. They have taught me holistic, empirical lessons that will enable me, though being a graduate, to one day look after my mom and take her on holiday for the first time in her working life.

Education as ammunition

I cannot stress enough how powerful education is as ammunition to fight the new struggles of our generation. We know that our struggles are not those of the previous generation; that our futures do not decay at the hands of hunger and illiteracy. Rather, many young South Africans are suffering from starvation of hope, are blinded by disadvantaged circumstances.

We do not become illiterate and unemployed because of lack of education. We are suffering from a lack of knowledge on how to be educated. Access to this information is the pivotal barrier to growing an educated youth.

Few young disadvantaged South Africans know that tertiary education is attainable through an NSFAS loan even if they are orphaned or merely cannot afford fees. Growth through education is being stunted by this – yet it could easily be prevented by distributing NFSAS pamphlets in high schools or publicising information at career days.

If our parents can achieve all that they did with so little, just imagine what my generation can attain with education.

* Just after writing this article, Kitso Rantao heard that she had won an Allan Gray Fellowship, an initiative aimed at developing Southern Africa’s future leaders. The fellowship includes financial support along with exposure to thought leaders, mentorship and entrepreneurial mindset development. There is also access to postgraduate funding.