Here is to breaking many more generational curses

You need to wake up at 5am so that the nail lady can do your nails. At 10am uMama (mom), uMalume (uncle), and uGogo (grandmother) are going to arrive. At 12pm you have your make-up appointment, at 1pm you should get dressed in your graduation outfit. At 2pm you should fetch your graduation gown, at 3pm, you are breaking free. You are officially breaking curses.

It is 14 April 2022 and I am waking up with a slight headache (probably because I had my hair done the day before). For my big day I have repeatedly gone over the mental checklist of what needs to be done at what time.

I have been looking forward to this day since I first stepped onto the Potchefstroom campus of North-West University (NWU), South Africa, as a registered student.

My graduation is a bitter-sweet moment. Looking back at the struggles I had to go through to obtain what is, essentially, a ‘piece of paper’ that would give me the title of ‘graduate’ is, up to date, my proudest moment.

I expect a chaotic day, filled with excitement, laughter, expectancy yet, most importantly, gratitude. Gratitude for the struggles I had to endure, tears I had to wipe off my cheeks and joy to keep me going.

My upbringing was not easy (which is something many people can relate to): from learning how to adapt to different social cultures, to having to deal with tricky family dynamics.

Entering higher education was no different. In 2018, I was new to the idea of university, with no one to give me a heads-up about how a university works. You can call it the ‘trial and error’ year.

I was registered to study public governance and public administration with politics and law as majors. To date, I cannot explain why I chose that degree and what the supposed end goal was.

A full semester (six months) as a National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) beneficiary, which meant I received financial aid from the government’s scheme, I realised that what I was studying was not what I wanted.

Now look, if you are a first-born who has always met the family’s expectations, who is also from a strict family, you know you will have to fight tooth and nail to change your degree, especially if it’s something like ‘communications’, but that is exactly what I did.

Family meeting

In 2019, without informing my mother, I changed my degree course and went on with my life. In the back of my mind, I had my aunt’s words ringing in my ears: “At the end of the day, you would have to go to work, not your mom.”

On my first visit back home, I told my mom I had changed direction. To this day, I will never forget how her face fell, and when she looked back at me, all I could see was a disappointed mother.

Words failed her and, in true South African style, there was a family meeting, which included my mother, grandmother and aunt. Two of the women wanted to know why I had changed my course, while one remained my cheerleader.

It was during the family meeting that I realised this: If you really want something, sometimes you have to fight for it, even if the family has different ideas. Not only was I fighting to get a degree, I had to prove why I chose this specific degree.

But, the toughest thing about being a student was surviving. As crazy as it may sound, surviving after a failed test, failed assignment, trying to survive hunger, anxiety and just being at university and continuing with this degree was the toughest part for me.

Learning how to survive and simultaneously having to find out who you are, and what your interests are when all seems to be failing, while knowing that finances are a huge issue back home, was really tough.

It is only when you have your circumstances push you into a corner that you understand why, for many, university is a matter of “survival of the fittest test”.

What helped me to survive, believe it or not, was student life, exploring freedom I did not have back home. I was fortunate to have friends who really opened my eyes to a world full of experiences, from going out with friends on a Friday afternoon and only coming back on the Sunday morning.

Yep, I know you’re thinking “what a wildcat”, but most of those weekends would entail my friends and I having movie nights and playing board games, with a little bit of partying ... and finishing our online quizzes that were due the Sunday night in some of our modules.

Facing the odds

Growing up, all odds were stacked against me, from unemployment (affecting the family), to single parenthood, to finances and even going to bed hungry because my siblings were hungry, so I would give my food up so they could eat.

This brought about a new hunger in me. I knew that I needed to get out of the situation I was in – we as a family were in – and, if I could get out, everyone could get out.

This is where I grew a thick skin and realised that, not only would I have to work harder, but I would also have to work smarter. Other people might have come to university to be students only, but I came to varsity to be a student, a worker, a radio presenter, a news anchor, a pageant queen (with a dashing personality), may I add.

All in all, I had to make sure that, when I walked out of varsity, my degree was not the only thing I was walking away with.

My graduation was a testament to that. I was a graduate. The first graduate in my family. Everything that worked against me had failed. And, ultimately, I survived, thanks to my grandmother’s relentless prayers.

I remember a few days after my graduation, my uncle called me. Just for context, this man is not an emotional person. However, he said to me: “Khanyisile, usebenzile (you worked hard), you have set the bar high and you can only go higher from now on. I am proud of you.”

Breaking generational curses is not easy. It comes with battles no one ever prepares you to fight.

Being an undergrad was clearly not enough because, here I am, in 2022, currently studying towards a postgraduate degree in communications, specialising in journalism and media studies, a radio presenter still, and an active advocate of the university and its benefits to the family back home.

Khanyisile Mahlangu graduated with a BA degree in communications from North-West University in South Africa in 2022 after successfully completing her studies in 2021.