It took her six long years of ill health, stress, financial strain and struggle to get to where she is, but former domestic worker Zanele Sibiya (27) never gave up on her dream to get her BSc in physics and electronics from the University of Zululand in KwaZulu-Natal. She qualified earlier this month.
Sibiya is the third of 10 children. Although she knew her mother, a domestic worker, would not be able to pay for her to further her studies, she pressed on to achieve her qualification.
“It was something I had to do,” Zanele says. “It was my dream, even though things were difficult. When I was young, I [realised] I didn’t want to live the way most of my family was living, and I don’t want my kids to live the life I lived. I want to make it better for them.”
Zanele passed matric in 2007 with good results, but because of lack of funds, she had to take a gap year and work to raise money for her education. “I did some jobs like doing people’s hair and doing some domestic work. After a year, I’d raised enough funds to go to varsity.”
In 2009, she registered for her degree with the help of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). But due to the high volume of students registering that year, she was able to get only 50% of the funding she needed.
“So I decided to compromise and started looking for work,” Zanele explains. “My aim was to get good results so I could get a bursary. I applied for bursaries but there was no response.”
In her second year, she continued her studies with the help of the NSFAS. In 2011, what was supposed to be her final year, Zanele fell ill and spent months going in and out of hospital. Doctors were unable to find out what was wrong with her. Three months after several hospital visits, she found out that she was pregnant with twins.
“Things were so bad, I couldn’t focus on work, so I quit,” she says. She didn’t want to leave work but had to. “I was still going while pregnant, but I was very sick.”
The twins were born at the end of 2011, two months premature, and she had to stop studying to spend time with them in hospital.
The following year, Zanele was hospitalised with kidney stones and needed an operation. But on the day of surgery, the doctor who was meant to perform the procedure was unavailable. An intern decided to operate on her, but made an error and perforated her small intestine, which lead to further health complications.
“They were forced to take me to get an emergency operation, which took seven hours,” she says.
While recovering in hospital Zanele asked a friend to register her at varsity for 2012. But by the time she was able to attend classes, students were already getting ready to write their first-semester exams. She also had to take care of her twins. Worried that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with the work, she got a job with her mother as a domestic worker. She later worked for a kind doctor who helped her to finally continue her studies.
“In 2013, I went back to study, with the help of Dr Zanele Bikitsha who was like a sister to me, to try to complete the remaining modules,” Zanele says. “I explained to her that this is the money I’m using to pay for everything that I need for school and for my kids.”
By 2014, she had only one module left but was struggling to complete it because she was juggling raising her kids and working. Fearing that she was running out of time to complete the degree, which was being phased out of the curriculum, she approached her lecturers for an extension.
“I completed the module in June 2015 and I graduated this year,” she says.
Zanele says she still can’t believe she managed to get her degree.
“I am so blessed, because I was struggling, so I thank God for helping me with everything.”