Ntokozo Luthuli had a challenging childhood: he grew up without a mother; had to say goodbye to good friends numerous times to move home; and even attended a school at which everyone but he was Muslim.
But his positive attitude to life helped him defy the odds against him studying towards a Bachelor of Science degree at Wits University in Johannesburg.
Ntokozo, 20, was born in Eshowe in KwaZulu-Natal. His memories of his mother are “a little fuzzy”. She was accidentally shot in a leg, which, although she was rushed to hospital, became infected and she died.
He and his mechanic dad are very close, but they moved around a lot. “My early childhood was filled with different experiences,” he says. “We moved from place to place, living in different environments, so many different people and I just needed to adapt and find ways of identifying with and fitting in with them.
“This expanded my thinking and made me the person I am today,” he says. “I even went to a Muslim school and managed to fit in.”
Ntokozo is a natural scholar and throughout school was in the top five or 10 of his year. “School wasn’t too challenging – I would listen in class and that would be enough – until Grade 10 when I needed to put in more effort.”
In Grade 10, he was selected for extra weekend tuition with the Kutlwanong Pro-Maths Educational Programme for bright scholars from disadvantaged backgrounds. Those who got distinctions at the end of terms were taken for a slap-up restaurant meal. “When I put in effort, got a distinction and got to go out for the meal, I knew I had to keep doing this,” he says. “Being from the township, I wasn’t used to the restaurant type of life. I managed to go five times in two years.”
Ntokozo became determined to go to university, not to study something specific, but to put an end to financial struggles and lead a comfortable life.
Because of the subjects he enjoyed, he applied to study actuarial science and BSc Accounting and was accepted by both Wits and Stellenbosch University. “When they called me from Stellenbosch to congratulate me in Afrikaans, I got a fright because I hadn’t done Afrikaans at all, so Wits and actuarial science it would be,” he says.
Four distinctions in matric earned him a R20 000 discount off his first year fees and he secured a National Students Financial Aid Scheme loan.
So he left KZN for the first time, heading by bus to Johannesburg – a place he had seen on television as dangerous and crime-ridden. Was he nervous? “I had a blank mind, open for anything that would come my way,” he says.
What did scare him a “little” was that his fellow students seemed to know so much more than he did. The first month was tough. He had learnt mostly in a combination of Zulu and English at school, and getting to know his way around campus and how to study at university took a while. “Having an old schoolmate as my roommate helped me get through my first year. It made a big difference being able to share the experiences,” he says.
In his first month at university, he was astounded to hear that he had been awarded a Moshal Scholarship. “When they contacted me to tell me that I had got this, it took until I met the people from the programme at my induction to believe it.”
It was a massive relief not to have to worry about money, but having a strong support structure meant as much to him. “I also learnt masses from the Moshal courses – things people assume we know, but we don’t necessarily,” he explains. “We did a course on brain learning and how to use our minds effectively, which was an eye opener. For me, being taught basic etiquette, like how to eat and conduct myself at a table, was brilliant because it wasn’t a part of my life growing up.”
Ntokozo realised during his first year that he would be better suited to a general BSc, and he hasn’t looked back since. He is now in final year.
He says his father is hugely proud of him. “He is so relieved that I have escaped drugs and bad influences and am going to have a better future.”
“I am a work in progress … I know I want to do honours and a Master’s in Applied Maths, then I will see. Right now I am focusing on the fascinating course material I am learning. I have no idea what lies ahead for me, except that I want to go into business.”