Swimming upstream – the second-chance graduand

10 December 2019 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Je’nine May. Read time 9 min.
One beautiful, wild life: Nombuso Shabalala, head of media liaison at UCT’s Communication and Marketing Department, will graduate with a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice from the GSB on Friday.
One beautiful, wild life: Nombuso Shabalala, head of media liaison at UCT’s Communication and Marketing Department, will graduate with a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice from the GSB on Friday.

When graduand Nombuso Shabalala was bound hand and foot by five armed men during a home invasion in Johannesburg, she wondered if she would live. That she did marked the start of a journey of ‘rebirth’ built on a philosophy of intentional living – and giving hope to others.

Head of media liaison at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Nombuso will graduate this week with a Postgraduate Diploma in Management Practice from the Graduate School of Business (GSB). Even on top of a demanding full-time job, it was an opportunity she couldn’t miss.

“When they say life is too short, I know what that means,” said Nombuso. “You don’t postpone things. You’re very intentional.”

After her ordeal in 2017, when she lay alone, tied and covered, listening to her home being ransacked, Nombuso said she was shaken to the core. In the aftermath, she lost interest in everything – even running, her great passion. (They’d also taken her collection of running shoes, carefully curated over the years.)


“You are not the bad things that happen to you. Those things don’t define you.”

“It happened three years ago, but it changed my life and my outlook on life and informs a lot of what I do and don’t do. I realise you carry that trauma for the rest of your life … violence leaves its invisible mark. You have to be bigger than that. Or you’ll stay in the same dark place.”

She added, “You are not the bad things that happen to you. Those things don’t define you, and as much as possible those things shouldn’t derail you from the plans you have for your life.”

Therapy helped her recovery, as well as a complete change of scene: a new job at UCT. In October 2017 she headed south to heal in the Mother City.

“Honestly, it could have been Kuruman,” she said. “I just wanted to get out of Joburg.”

She resolved never to put off big decisions. It taught her to plan and prioritise the most important things.

Education and growth

Schooled in South Africa, Swaziland and Namibia, Nombuso returned to her birthplace to study towards a degree in journalism at the Durban University of Technology. She also completed a postgraduate qualification in marketing at the University of Johannesburg.

Afterwards, she interned for the South African Broadcasting Corporation and then worked for Oxfam and the NGO Agenda Feminist Media project and the Commission for Gender Equality in Johannesburg. Those opportunities developed her keen awareness of social issues. She joined UCT from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

At UCT something dormant awoke. Nombuso had always been interested in business leadership and the GSB offered an opportunity to tackle the postgraduate diploma in 2018, just a year into her new job.

“I thought, let me apply and see. Because life is short, nothing is guaranteed, let me go for it.”

The student colleague

Studying part-time stretched her, especially as the course was structured in blocks, resulting in intense Monday-to-Monday work hours, without structured study times.

“It’s very, very hard,” she said. “People don’t tell you the full extent of what that means. I’d come home after a busy day and then pull an all-nighter and be back again the next day. You don’t have a life. For me that was tough.”

Support from management is critical, Nombuso said. And with her family in Durban, many of her colleagues fulfilled a vital support role, encouraging her to focus on the goal.

“I don’t think they were even aware of how important that was to me.”

Working in groups was also hard – “You have to make it work” – but through that process another “uncomfortable” transformation began as participants were encouraged to examine personal contexts and belief systems, key to understanding different perspectives.

“It was like someone putting a mirror in front of me.”


“I thought, let me apply and see. Because life is short, nothing is guaranteed, let me go for it.”

The highlight was lecturer Professor Kurt April’s teachings on values-based leadership, but Nombuso surprised herself in other ways.

“For someone who’s not a numbers person – financial accounting was a bit daunting – I discovered I do like statistics.”

There are many elements of her learning that she’s been able to bring to her work and to her life.

“I’m really interested in leadership, which is why I want to tackle the Executive Management MBA at the GSB next year.”

In at the deep end

Cape Town has been the haven she sought; the Mother City.

“You’re in the city, but in the mountains. I started running and hiking again, getting back to the things I used to like.”

And then she took on another challenge: she learnt to swim. And it wasn’t comfortable.

“When you’ve been a victim of crime or trauma, you lose so much: your self-worth. The studying was taking my power back, thinking ‘I can achieve; I can do so much’. Learning to swim was part of that. Also to prove to myself, wow, I can do this.”

She took lessons at the gym, faithfully turning up three times a week, overcoming her self-consciousness.

“I was often the only black swimmer in the pool.”

Nombuso Shabalala took on the challenge of learning how to swim, one of many goals she set for herself.

Nombuso has now mastered all four strokes, though backstroke is her favourite. Next up is a bicycle; she is determined to tackle the Ironman Triathlon, a triad of running, swimming and cycling. There’s also that PhD, one day, to explore the dearth of black women in leadership, especially the barriers to black women leaders in the corporate sector and Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies.

“I suppose I just want to be part of the solution,” she said.

Come this graduation, Nombuso will have two ardent supporters on Friday afternoon: her mother, Sibongile Shabalala, and her aunt, Nikiwe Shabalala. Her mother reminded her how proud her father would have been to see her graduate (he died when she was very young). But the name he gave her, her second name, Nomfundo (which means education), is almost prophetic, even though he didn’t see her go full circle.

“That was his wish for me. So, this is also to honour his memory. It’s not that I’m pressurised to – it’s that I want to because education was a big deal in our family. Even my late grandmother placed so much emphasis on education. She said, ‘There are two things that can never be taken from you: education and your faith.’”

“Yes, they took everything [I owned], but not those things.”

Many of those close to her don’t know what happened in 2017, and don’t understand why she is so committed to seizing moments. In sharing her ordeal, Nombuso said she is not after pity.


“I flipped the script. I rewrote my own narrative.”

“I was a crime victim. So are a lot of South Africans. It can happen to anyone ... I was reluctant to speak about it, but you never know who it might help. That’s my thing. Even if those who haven’t gone through that … Just live your life. If you planned to do something, just do it.

“I start with what I’m uncomfortable with. I flipped the script. I rewrote my own narrative. They didn’t steal my life or will to succeed or achieve in life.”

The late South African newsman Xolani Gwala’s quote has also been her mantra: “We have two lives; the second life begins when you realise you only have one life.”

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