Footsteps Forward: The #JutaPayItForward Graduate Story

Inspiring Possibilities

In 2016, Juta ran a #PayItForward initiative, where students could be nominated to write an essay, hopefully to win R40,000 in study aid. At the University of Fort Hare, one professor saw a student stand out from the rest. Not just because he walked with a frame, but because he was determined to succeed.

That student was Fikile Ngcani, who had been a victim of robbery shooting that had not only put him in hospital for three months in 2008, but left with permanent disabilities. Despite this, Fikile had persevered to complete matric at age 31 in 2013, with a bachelor pass, and enter his degree course at UFH.

Fikile Ngcani graduating at the University of Fort Hare (Photo credit: Mr Tim Wilson, UFH)

It was with admiration and pride that we heard of Fikile’s graduation last month, where he wore his cap and gown to accept his Bachelor of Arts Degree. We caught up with not only Fikile, but the professor who nominated him for the programme.

Prof. Willie Tafadzwa Chinyamurindi

What made you decide to nominate Fikile for the #JutaPayItForward competition?

Before Covid I taught a module to a class of 220 students. I started to notice that Fikile was always late for class; this was because he had to travel up the stairs – an effort that took him at least 3 to 5 minutes, given his condition. Given the module I was teaching, where the focus included diversity management, I thought this was a great opportunity to get the class to rally together and assist one of their own. As part of this we scheduled the class to begin 5 minutes later, allowing Fikile to get to class, and some of the classmates volunteered to assist him navigate the challenges with the stairs, and ultimately moved the venue of the class to a ground level room.

The highlight was the rally call: “My footsteps may be slow, but I will get there” – become the mantra for all in the class and trying to assist Fikile. In a special way, the motivation from taking part in the competition helped to drive messages of responsibility and sensitivity towards each and every person.

As someone who works with many students, what top attributes do you believe separate the cream from the rest?

Resilience, the ability to be able to bounce back from all the challenges that come with student life. Coupled with this, a spirit of hard work is essential in ensuring that one succeeds.

You said that Fikile’s quote “My footsteps may be slow but I will get there,” applies to all of us in the different types of conditions we struggle with as human beings. In a post-covid world – and one where he has now graduated – what would you highlight as the greatest struggle facing students and academia in South Africa?

Teaching during the pandemic times has been very difficult. More students are beginning to face mental health challenges given the challenges they face, both inside and outside the classroom. The high unemployment rate makes the situation even worse.

You seem to be passionate about entrepreneurial career development – what advice do you have for other students leaving university and seeking to make a life for themselves, especially someone like Fikile who – having now completed one hurdle – finds yet another challenge awaiting in the employment field?

Don’t be afraid to venture out. Yes, things may look bleak but keep pushing yourself – Fikile has personally taught me this. He kept going despite the challenges before him, and that is the spirit we need. Support systems are also important: for me, an entire class started a project to help one of their own. As much as we must be willing to receive this support, we need to avail ourselves to offer it when possible.

Fikile Ngcani:

Your story is an astonishing one to read, and inspiring for so many who face incredible odds on a daily basis. What motivated you to keep persevering, beyond the bursary to changing degrees, and ultimately completing your degree, “never giving up”?

I have a deep need to elevate my life, it is the ultimate drive to keep me going. My focus has always stayed where I need to go, even when there were obstacles, I knew what my end goal was.

Fikile Ngcani graduating at the University of Fort Hare (Photo credit: Mr Tim Wilson, UFH)

Applying for bursaries is a lotto, and funding studies can be very stressful – what is your advice to others looking to persevere with their education, or apply for support programmes?

Keep going! It is not easy, but you must fight and continue to fight. Besides perseverance, and continuing to apply, reach out, and connect, even when faced by rejection, I would urge students to be patient. Sometimes you cast many nets out and need to wait for something to come.

How did this particular programme assist you and enable you to continue your education?

It is impossible to study in South Africa without funding, but we need education in order to access funding as well as to generate funding. This means that too many people like myself are neglected for too long. While I persevered and pushed myself past my personal challenges, it ultimately always came down to myself to keep the flame burning – but if not for funding from institutions such as Juta, I would be even further delayed. Even with the wonderful assistance, I still have over three hundred thousand rands of study debt – my heart aches when I think of the debt that not only I am grounded to, but so many students.

What is in your plans in your ideal future?

I am currently completing an internship at the Department of Education till March 2023 and have been accepted to UFH to complete my Honours in English, but am unable to accept at this time due to my debt. I would like to overcome this, earn my honours, and pursue literature. My favourite book is a collection of short stories called The Lonely Sea, which inspired me to keep going.

Juta’s theme for the funding programme was to #PayItForward – once you are in a position to do so, how would you like to #PayItForward? 

I would love to help other students with their academic journey, but also AFTER – I feel this is where we often leave them without much-needed guidance. I would love to use my experience to motivate and mentor other students to not only find the fortitude to carry on, but to truly achieve and excel.


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