Phali was born in Sebokeng, Vereeniging, and is one of three brothers. He matriculated in 2004, and getting to university the following year proved to be challenging.
“After my father, who was the sole breadwinner, passed away [in 2003], my brothers had to take over from him,” he says. “And when it was time for me to go to university, they could not afford it. This was one of my biggest challenges. But my uncle, aunt and grandfather tried their best to put money together and could only manage to pay for my first year.”
When he got to university, Phali knew he had to work harder than anyone else because he needed to get a bursary. If he didn’t, it would mean the end of his academic career.
In his second year, he got a bursary from the National Energy Corporation of South Africa, which sponsored his undergraduate standards as well as his honours and master’s degrees. For his PhD, Phali got a studentship at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
“My first challenge was a financial challenge, and my other challenge was continuing studying while a lot of my friends were going into the workplace and earning an income,” he says.
Phali says that at home, he was looked to when it came to many of the household responsibilities once he’d finished his degree. So telling his family that he wanted to study further seemed like a burden, not only to them but to himself as well.
“But my family understood. They never pressured me to leave school and go to work. They actually supported the fact that I wanted to continue with my studies although it was difficult for them,” he says.
FINISHING IN RECORD TIME
Phali completed all his degrees in record time, but didn’t finish his PhD quite as quickly. Just before he was meant to submit his thesis, his supervisor, Professor Matthew Khambule, passed away.
“I had to find someone to take over from him and this proved to be a struggle. When I eventually found someone, he didn’t know anything about what I was doing. I had to explain it to him, which took some time – that’s why I wasn’t able to finish in record time.”
He understood where he came from, which is why Phali got through university with a very clear understanding of why he was there in the first place. He says he never succumbed to peer pressure because of this.
“I always knew that applied mathematics was a scarce programme, and if I was good at that, then I would be filling a gap in the market because there aren’t a lot of black people in this field.”
“I learnt that hard work pays off and that if you know what you want in life, go on and get it, however difficult it is,” Phali says. “I know it sounds easy, but if you are consistent and don’t allow the challenges to define your journey, you will eventually reap the fruits of your work,” he says.
Phali says he isn’t surprised that he’s the youngest at North- West University to get a PhD in applied mathematics, because he started varsity quite young. He was 16 when he started his tertiary education.
“I finished matric when I was 16. Even when I got to high school, I was the youngest in my school. So just following on that path, I wasn’t really surprised,” he says.
Phali currently lectures at the university and plans to publish research articles in the future.
He is the perfect example of a person who didn’t allow his circumstances to dictate his future. With the right support structure, the right mindset and a clear vision, any dream is achievable.