Thando Gxalaba's hopes of earning a qualification have been revived now that he's a fulltime UCT employee with a range of new studying opportunities.
Gxalaba is a general assistant in the kitchens at Tugwell Hall residence. He is one of 267 employees who were officially insourced from residence catering suppliers C3 Food Services on 1 November this year.
Yes, the months of waiting are finally over, he says.
Due to contractual complexities, C3 staff were the last group to join the UCT community following the university's decision in 2015 to insource service staff. These were workers contracted to provide services such as security, grounds maintenance and gardening, cleaning, and staff and student transport.
Gxalaba, who hails from the Eastern Cape but is now settled in Nyanga, had his sights set on becoming a lawyer. But opportunities were scarce for the young teen from Umtata. And life was hard in the Eastern Cape, he says. And so, armed with some high schooling, Gxalaba headed for Cape Town to join his parents, who were working here to support the family. He enrolled at Thandokhulu Secondary School in Mowbray and put his head down to study. The first stop would be matric.
But things didn't go to plan and he left school after grade 11.
“We were poor; the family was struggling,” he explained.
Honouring his responsibilities as “the man in the family”, Gxalaba set out to find work. He began by distributing community newspapers. For five years he walked the northern suburbs flat, going from house to house in all kinds of weather, clocking up kilometre upon kilometre for “small money”.
Then came his break. His sister was working for catering company Fedics, contracted to the new Khayelitsha Hospital, and pointed him to a job opportunity as a cleaner. Gxalaba said he enjoyed the new environment.
“I'm a person who likes to enjoy my work.”
Transfer to UCT
When a post at the catering company came up at UCT (they were also contracted here), Gxalaba took a shot at it.
“So I got a transfer to UCT and started three years ago. The company trained us in hygiene and I wrote a series of tests. Now I'm working as a general assistant in the kitchen.”
As a high schooler he didn't imagine he'd be working with food − or 610 young women students who eats lots of green salad and love to communicate.
“It feels like they're my younger sisters,” he jokes. “I still dream of being a lawyer, if things work out. UCT gives us opportunities to go to school again.”
He worries that he's too old to tackle this journey. If not, he wouldn't mind learning to be a chef.
Yes, it was hard to be the last group to be insourced during a busy year with so many things happening on campus – especially when residence catering staff were asked to remain at home for seven weeks during the height of student fees protests.
“We were worried we might not be paid,” he said. “It was a difficult time.”
The Orlando Pirates and Barcelona supporter loves to contribute to the youth and to community.
Between his shifts in the kitchen, Gxalaba is an assistant soccer coach at junior level in Nyanga. He once played in the number five jersey until a hit-and-run accident wrecked his knee (“I have a plate and screws in my knee”). The perpetrator was never found and so Gxalaba contents himself with the aspirations of a new generation, the young six- and seven-year-olds with their own dreams of glory.
He is philosophical about his own future.
“I appreciate being at UCT – I waited a long time for this opportunity and I'd like to encourage my colleagues that in everything they do they should not forget God. For everything they want, they should ask God. He will answer them.”
It's what he learnt from his grandmother and his mother long ago, he says.
Story Helen Swingler. Photo Michael Hammond.
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