‘I am somebody because of UCT’

10 April 2019 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 7 min.
Graduand Mteteleli Jobela is getting his degree at age 47 and almost 30 years after matriculating.
Graduand Mteteleli Jobela is getting his degree at age 47 and almost 30 years after matriculating.

When Mteteleli Jobela’s friend Portia Klaas called him to suggest he further his studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT), he immediately shut her down. He didn’t believe the institution would want someone like him.

Fortunately, his self-doubt only lasted a week and he called her back to arrange a time when she could join him to go through the prospectus and consider potential courses.

Jobela was filled with trepidation on the day he arrived on campus to write the National Benchmark Test in the Leslie Social Science Building. But he passed and quickly applied for film and media studies, a life-long dream of his.

Fast forward four years and tomorrow, at 47 years of age and almost 30 years after matriculating, Jobela will become the first graduate in his family. It’ll be a major milestone on a long and often difficult journey that began not too far away from the university.

His early childhood memories are of growing up in Constantia where his mother was a domestic worker for a German family. He was the second of four children, all of whom, he recalled, were treated with kindness by his motherʼs employers.

When he was eight, his mother took him to the Eastern Cape where he remained until he matriculated from Saint Cuthberts High School in Tsolo in the late 1980s.


As much as I felt so small in this environment, I kept on pushing.”

Making money

Jobela returned to Cape Town in 1994 to live with his mother in Constantia once more. He began helping her in and around the house, gardening and washing the cars.

Soon afterwards, he enrolled in a computer course in Kenilworth – the first time he’d worked on one. He passed the course, typed out a CV, had it printed and began applying for jobs.

Even though studying further was the dream, he couldn’t afford it and knew he needed to start contributing to his family.

He was soon hired for an administrative position at a life assurance company, but several years and jobs later the dream of studying persisted, nagging at him.

He needed to keep working however: His commission-based salary was required at home, particularly to help support his younger brother.

So, on he went – until an untimely resignation left him unemployed for 18 months.

Reluctant to sit back and do nothing, he decided to use his pension to try and better the family’s conditions. After consulting his mother and younger brother, Jobela bought a taxi and started a small transport business in Umtata for his brother to run.

It was around this time that Klaas made the phone call that would change Jobela’s life.


“I made sure that I was doing the right course so that I didn’t waste any more time.”

Do or die

Once he had been accepted and had registered at UCT, he was fortunate to secure funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Two obstacles down, but many more to go...

“As much as I felt so small in this environment, I kept on pushing.”

The next hurdle to overcome was trying to feel like he fitted in at UCT. He initially struggled with the size of the university, often feeling overwhelmed and out of place. He also found the diversity of the staff and student body daunting.

“I didn't go to a multiracial school. But I think what helped me is that I stayed in Constantia and worked with white and coloured people,” he said.

Along with the dream of studying further, Jobela had also always wanted to anchor a current affairs programme or work for his favourite radio station, KFM. So choosing film and media studies seemed like the perfect fit.

But he soon realised his marks weren’t good enough and, even worse, he was running the risk of academic exclusion.

“My biggest fear was being excluded. Who would employ me at my age with no qualifications?” he said.

“This was a do-or-die situation for me.”

Jobela took stock: While he loved his academic programme, he realised he didn’t need to study film and media to one day pursue a career in the industry. Instead, he decided to focus on the courses where he was excelling and made the change to study sociology.

“I made sure that I was doing the right course so that I didn’t waste any more time.”

“Thank you UCT”

During that first difficult year, Jobela met someone who, like his friend Klaas – now an honours student in the Department of Social Development – would have an enormous impact on his life: the Extended Degree Unit’s Dr Ellen Hurst.

He cannot sing Hurst’s praises enough, saying she always treated him with respect and was adamant that he should reach out if there was anything he didn’t understand.

Jobela is equally grateful for the help he received from other academics, people who were “very friendly to me, very supportive, very professional”.

He named Dr Mantoa Motinyane, Dr Fatima Seedat, Dr Sylvia Croese, Dr Marlon Swai and Shihaam Peplouw as having been crucial to him surviving academia.

He is also grateful for his classmates’ help, and for “the person who is cleaning the toilets, to the one doing the admin, up to management and even our former Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price”.

Now Jobela is also a member of staff, having secured employment as a teaching assistant under Dr Tessa Dowling, senior lecturer in African languages at the School of Languages & Literatures.

“I am falling in love with teaching. I’m happy and my students don’t give me a hard time,” he said.

After encouragement from colleagues and classmates, Jobela is pursuing his honours in African languages and literatures.

“I am somebody because of this institution, because of the people who contributed to my career,” he said.

“I will always look back and say thank you UCT.”

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