From a young age, Sonwabo Ngcelwane has seen education as the key to rising above one’s circumstances – no matter how challenging. Whenever he has faced obstacles, throwing himself into his studies has helped him gain perspective and maintain an even keel.
This week, his lifelong commitment to education will see him receive a master’s degree in Sociology with distinction from the University of Cape Town (UCT) – his third degree and fifth tertiary qualification.
This is an opportunity for him to pay tribute to the “amazing women” who inspired him to “learn and learn and learn”, Ngcelwane said – his grandmother Boniswa Ngcelwane, mother Nompumelelo Ngcelwane and aunts Nomvuyo and Dorothy.
Ngcelwane was born in Gugulethu and spent the early years of his childhood here. However, when it was time for him to start his schooling, his mother decided to send him to boarding school in Libode, a town in the former Transkei.
As a domestic worker, she was not allowed to have her son live on the premises with her and felt that boarding school would be the safest option and most conducive to him receiving a quality education.
He returned to Gugulethu as a teenager and completed his secondary education at Fezeka High School, after which he enrolled for a BA in African Languages and History at UCT in 1987.
Ngcelwane followed this up with a two higher education diplomas – one from UCT and another from the University of the Western Cape (UWC) – as well as a Bachelor of Education from UWC.
With these qualifications behind his name, he turned his attention to sharing his passion for education with the next generation, and began teaching at Intlanganiso High School in Khayelitsha.
He spent 12 years at the school, moving up in the ranks from teacher to head of department to deputy principal, ending his career there as acting principal.
“I’m heading up a portfolio at the Research Office called Engaged Scholarship. So what I did for my master’s degree is research the area as a knowledge field.”
Focus on engaged scholarship
It was while working as a senior planning officer in the Institutional Planning Department at UCT that his academic curiosity started drawing him in a new direction: sociology.
“I’m heading up a portfolio at the Research Office called Engaged Scholarship. So what I did for my master’s degree is research the area as a knowledge field,” he explained.
Ngcelwane’s job entails assisting UCT academics who are using their scholarships to engage with external constituencies, including the government and industry, to solve real-life problems facing South African society as a whole.
“What often happens at research-intensive universities is that the focus tends to be on fundamental research, which means that the work happening around ‘real issues’ tends to get lost,” he said.
“My job has been to surface some of the collaborations happening between academics and the outside world – especially government.”
Judging by the shelf piled high with thickly-bound annual reports, it’s clear that Ngcelwane has done a particularly thorough job of identifying and documenting these collaborations.
He said that what makes this work rewarding is walking a road with initiatives and seeing them blossom.
A recent example of this is the launch of a new book, Partnerships in Action, that has its roots in the Schools Improvement Initiative (SII) started in 2012 to encourage greater enrolment at UCT of pupils from schools in Khayelitsha.
“We didn’t know at the time that it would amount to a knowledge-generation project,” Ngcelwane said.
“We actually just wanted to make sure that the learners from Khayelitsha were being [introduced] to UCT. That was the original intention of the project.”
“I want to set a very good example for [my children].”
With a growing number of students from Khayelitsha enrolling in various faculties across UCT – including medicine, the sciences and business science – as well as the book, there’s no doubt that the initiative is a success.
An inspiration to his children
While Ngcelwane’s drive to educate himself may have started with his mother and grandmother, these days he draws inspiration from a whole new generation: his own children. They are his pride and joy and he wants nothing more than for them to succeed.
“I just want to set a higher path for them – that’s what matters to me all the time. Everything I do, I do for them,” he said.
“I want to set a very good example for them.”
As a busy year of hard work winds down, he is planning to spend some extra-special quality time with his children by revisiting his youth.
“I want to go to the former Transkei and tour the area. It’s always been my wish,” he said.
“I’d like to go back there again and be a child again. I miss being a child. And I just want to go back there and visit all the places I used to know.”
Once he’s drawn breath and feels rejuvenated, Ngcelwane said he will decide what the next step is academically.
“People keep asking me whether I’ll be doing a PhD, but I have the same answer for everyone: Ask me in six months’ time. Only then will I be able to tell you,” he laughed.
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