mukovhe-masuthaWits alumnus and SRC President (2010/11), Mukovhe Morris Masutha, is helping hundreds of students from rural areas and townships throughout South Africa to succeed at university.

Mukovhe Masutha well deserves the title of Wits Graduate – his qualities of commitment, humanity and intelligence extend far beyond himself and his achievements.

In 2010, while he was a Wits student and the SRC President, he established an educational NGO called the Thusanani Foundation, of which he is now the CEO.

Thusanani is currently assisting 541 students from the rural areas and townships to secure bursaries or loans, and to succeed in a wide range of discipline at twenty universities throughout South Africa, with many achieving distinctions.

What is the key? “Discipline. Discipline is the basic of basics. Without it you cannot flourish in any degree, profession or life in general, which is why the Thusanani Foundation’s motto is ‘Let your marks pay your fees,” he replies.

Masutha says he realised the importance of discipline as a student and started studying incredibly hard. “I never wanted to return to my home village – Mapate in rural Venda – without something to show for myself, and something that could help other young people to get to university and succeed.”

Like millions of South Africans, he grew up without any educational or financial advantages.

“From the age of one I was raised by my Grandmother, Vho Nyamuka, after my mother found work as a cleaner in the closest city of Thohoyandou in 1989,” he explains.

A belief that I could do anything in the world

“My Grandmother never went to school but she made sure I took my education very seriously and instilled in me a belief that I could do anything in the world.”

Fortunately she is still alive today to witness what her grandson, now 26, has achieved, although she doesn’t like it when he travels far from home, especially now that he is doing his PhD at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

Taking over Professor Habib’s job

“Fortunately I’m able to spend a lot of time in South Africa as I am doing a research doctorate on Higher Education Management in South Africa. I’m working towards taking over Professor Adam Habib’s job at some stage!”

He smiles but he is serious about playing a leading role in higher education, and he aims to do this through Wits.

“Wits is my home,” he says. “When people ask me from where I am, I say I am from Wits because Wits took me from someone who could hardly speak English to a successful, well-rounded scholar and SRC president who could speak to large audiences and at large conferences and sound like I knew what I was saying.”

Today, Masutha sits on a number of higher education committees such as the Council for Readmissions Committee at Wits.

Men’s Res – a name I say with pride

“It is important for me to sit on this council because I almost failed my first year as a result of not understanding how the credit system works,” he explains. “I also regularly return to my residence, Men’s Res – a name I say with pride – to talk to students about how best to advance at university and how to access and apply for available funding and bursaries. Everyone needs someone in life who is prepared to guide them or give them a break.”

His breaks in life included his grandmother’s belief in him and a chance meeting with a medical student from the University of Pretoria, named Leanne Brady, who came to his village with a group of volunteers from the South African Students Volunteers Organisation (SASVO). They tutored mathematics and science to learners there and helped build classrooms and a clinic.

“I was a schoolboy at the time and I saw this bunch of white people in my village, so I went to find out what they were doing and met Leanne who is today a doctor in Cape Town and with whom I struck up a friendship. From then on she mentored me and gave me advice about how to get to university.”

200 envelopes and 200 stamps

Another break presented itself when an aunt of his gave him 200 envelopes, 200 stamps, and R1000 for application fees, plus a book that contained a template letter on how to apply for university bursaries: “It helped you sound like you knew what you were saying, but I also paid very particular attention to the entrance requirements,” Masutha recounts.

After being accepted to study at a number of South African universities, he applied for no less than 63 bursaries. He was turned down 62 times but the third bursary got him to Wits.

“I was about to give up when my mother told me she had seen in advert in the Sowetan newspaper for a bursary that the Limpopo Government was offering,” he recalls. “I was despondent about my chances by then but I got it and I made my way to Wits, with everything covered: my tuition, my books and my accommodation in Men’s Res. It was an unbelievable feeling and I am ever grateful to Mr Thaba Mufamadi, the then MEC of Economic Development in Limpopo who made this possible.”

Masutha graduated with a BA in Economic Geography, followed by a BSc Honours in Geography, Food Security and Environmental Management, followed by an MSc in Small Enterprise Development and Local Economic Development from the University of Johannesburg.

This does not condemn you to poverty

“My mission today is to ensure that everyone growing up in a rural area or township realises that this does not condemn you to poverty,” he explains.

“Many people have no idea how difficult it is for a learner from the rural areas or townships to find their way to university – from getting hold of and filling out the application form to looking for funding to adapting to campus and the higher education environment, including attending lectures in English.

The odds are stacked against rural and township youth

“The odds are stacked against rural and township youth. This reality pushes more and more of our youth into the NEET category, or what I like to call the NEET Tragedy. These are young people who are ‘Not in Education, Employment or Training’.”

Of the “lucky and privileged few” who manage to access institutions of higher learning and training, he says: “Over 50% drop out without completing their studies, both in universities and TVET Colleges. I wanted to do something to help change this and that’s when I sat down with a fellow Wits student and friend of mine, Ntandokabawo James, and we worked out the model for the Thusanani Foundation.

Model in hand, Masutha’s first call was to the then Dean of Students, Mrs Prem Coopoo, who was extremely supportive and provided the seed funding to cover the car hire and B&B accommodation in the rural areas.

Mustering a team of student volunteers they headed into the rural areas during their student vacation, initially helping ten students from five schools to get into university in 2011.

50% of the students are women

Operating on a budget of R300 000 per year for the first three years, they managed to attract a range of partners and funders to ensure that the 541 students who are currently in 20 South African universities are fully funded through bursaries and loans. Fifty percent of these students are women and over 50% of funded through the National Skills Fund.

The Foundation currently has 1200 volunteers and they are working towards assisting 1000 students.

“The Thusanani Foundation was officially launched at Wits on 10 November 2014 by President Jacob Zuma, the Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mr Mduduzi Manana, Professor Adam Habib and the President of Wits Convocation, Professor Kgethi Phakeng who is a member of our advisory board,” says Masutha. “It was wonderful, there were hundreds of people; it was like a mass meeting!”

The Thusanani Foundation Model

Motto: ‘Let your marks pay your fees’

“We bridge the gap between the rural areas and townships and universities, starting with learners from as early as Grade 9,” says Masutha.

“Our approach is if you give us five bursaries we will give you five academically deserving students who have been guided since Grade 9. If you are a Law Firm, for example, you can stipulate that you want law students and that the bursary recipients need to do their articles with you.

“While the learners are still in school we host winter school programmes to improve their matric pass rates and we help them to pursue funding or bursary opportunities. Once they are at university we host on-campus programmes, including computer and English literacy skills development, to help them succeed in their studies.

“We also have a mentorship programme where a third year student mentors a first year, to shows them the ropes, shows them around campus, show them how the university and res system works, and help them with their studies.”

Complementing this model is the personality of Masutha – he is highly charismatic with an exceptional ability to network – from President Jacob Zuma to local and international higher education partners, including Wits University and Georgia State University.

The Jacob Zuma foundation funded the first two Thusanani Foundation students at Wits, and they are Thusanani’s first two graduates: Kholofelo Phahlamohalaka and Mfundo Khumalo. Phahlamohalaka is the Foundation’s first graduate in Nuclear Physics.

Wits alumni on Thusanani’s Board

Two Wits alumni who have been part of Thusanani from inception and now sit on Thusanani’s Board: Tshibvumo Sikhwivhilu (BSC Hons Electrical Engineering) who is currently pursuing his MBA in Renewable Energy through Wits Business School and Ntandokabawo James BSc Hons Geo; Masters in Engineering, Built Environment: Development Planning (MSc DP) who is working for the City of Tshwane while pursuing his PhD in Renewable Energy through the Engineering Faculty at Wits.

Men’s Res and my student days

“Men’s Res had 400 rural men living under one roof in an environment of unbelievable camaraderie. This is where I grew from a boy into a man, and where I learnt to become an educational activist,” says Masutha who joined the South African Students Congress (SASCO) in 2007 and became the Chair in 2009.

“My political involvement started as a result of the big strike at Wits in 2007 when the University wanted to hike the fees by 18%. I was in the library studying for a psychology test when I looked through the window and saw Themba Mkhize, who is now an attorney, and Musa Mtembu, who is now an advocate, holding up a board that said ‘Education For All Or No Education At All’.

“They said they were going to disrupt all tests and I was so excited because I was not ready for mine. I left the library and joined the strike. So my real reason for joining was not as political as you would expect it to be,” continues Masutha who adds that his first experience of selflessness was when he realised that students on full bursaries were striking in support of students who were paying fees or on loans whom the price hike would hit hardest.

Masutha’s first year was very much a year of political initiation and realisation of the need for hard work and discipline if he was to pass. There was fun too, including the legendary annual residence picnic to the Magaliesberg where the young men all hoped to meet young women students from Wits.

Masutha says he was “extremely single” in first year, “half single” in second year and he met his girlfriend in third year. He prefers not to name her but they are still together, and she is currently busy with her Master’s.

“What I really liked about her is that she never looked down on us rural guys, which lots of women did. She treated me like any other guy.”

Masutha on access to university

“The current wave of national student activism is long overdue because it is about substantive issues – about the need for new curricula and just access to higher education. The doors of learning should be open to everyone, not just the privileged few or the lucky few (like myself). It is a public good and the supply is not sufficient,” says Masutha.

“The current funding model, particularly the NSFAS was a good start in the 1990s but it needs to be developed into a much more sustainable funding model for those who are academically deserving but financially needy. NSFAS is also supposed to reach all rural learners but most don’t even know what it is – and people are expected to apply online who don’t even have online access.

“I believe that higher education across the board in South Africa needs to be 100% funded by government as 70% of the population does not have the income to pay for higher education. This creates a very uncomfortable situation in the country.”

Wits students benefitting from Thusanani

Two Wits students currently benefitting from the Thusanani Foundation, describe their experience:

Min’entle Mthelelo, second year Chemical Engineering

“When I was in high school – at Little Flower School in Ixopo, KwaZulu-Natal, a former learner, Lusanda Njenge, who has a PhD in Engineering Management from the University of Johannesburg, came and gave us a motivational talk. I went to speak to her afterwards and she gave me her contact details. I followed up and she became my mentor after that. She was the Chief Operating Officer of Thusanani at the time.

“I worked hard to achieve the results required for entry to Wits, which I got, but I simply could not find funding. I spoke to Lusanda about this and she suggested I apply through Thusanani, which I did, and I was fortunate to receive a National Skills Fund bursary.

“It was exciting and nerve-wracking moving to Joburg and into my residence, Medhurst Hall, and to get used to being at university. What helped is that I met up with other Thusanani students who showed me the way.

“I also met Mukovhe and I could not believe how humble he was and how he remembered all the Thusanani students names. He encouraged us to email him if we have any problems and he encouraged me to pursue my Master’s, which I am going to do. I am now a Thusanani volunteer because the biggest thing I have learnt from Mukovhe is selflessness. He puts others first all the time, and even though he was so young when he started Thusanani, he knew what he needed to do.”

Humbelani Masikhwa, second year BSc Geological Sciences

“When I was in Grade 10 volunteers from Thusanani came to our school and explained what we needed to do to get to university, and how to apply for loans and bursaries.

“It was a giant shift from the reality of my environment where you would be accused of trying to act cool if you spoke English.

“I really wanted to come and study at Wits and so I used to go and study at a friend’s home where they had electricity, which we didn’t. My Mom, who is a primary school teacher, also encouraged me to get good marks.

“Wits accepted me and I managed to secure a NSFAS loan, but it hadn’t come through by the time I needed to register for first year. So I phoned Mukovhe and asked him what to do. He organised a place for me to stay with one of the Thusanani volunteers and my registration was covered until my NSFAS funding came through, and I could move into my residence at Wits, Ernest Oppenheimer Hall, which is amazing.

“Thusanani and Wits has given me the edge. The opportunity to study here and meet motivated people from so many different cultures and backgrounds is inspiring. I had no idea what an institution like this could offer and I am now a volunteer so that I can help others.”

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