University of Cape Town (UCT) physiotherapy lecturer Ntsikelelo Pefile knows that serendipity manifests in many ways – and sometimes serially.
His story starts as a young boy helping his aunt with domestic chores at the vice-chancellor’s official residence, Glenara. This was Glenara in the era of the late Dr Stuart Saunders. In 2021 his story comes full circle – at Glenara again – this time as a guest of Vice-Chancellor (VC) Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.
This chapter began with an email from Professor Phakeng inviting Pefile to a staff birthday lunch.
“I thought it was a phishing email. So, I called ICTS and I said: ‘I think my computer is hacked because the VC is sending me a birthday lunch invitation’.”
“The Saunders family were the most beautiful people. They made us, they made me, feel very comfortable.”
In fact, Pefile was one of seven staff members with birthdays in January who had been randomly chosen to join the VC for lunch. But something else on the invitation also caught his attention – the address: 20 Burg Road in Rondebosch. Glenara.
He knew it well from his youth. His mail had gone to Glenara for several years while he was a schoolboy at Rhodes High School in Mowbray while living in KTC township in Nyanga. Dr Saunders had made that possible.
Introduction to Glenara and a mentor
Pefile lost his mother early. His father and aunts took turns to look after the family. His aunt and the family matriarch, Nonceba Francis Pefile, was a domestic worker at Glenara. Every school holiday, and some weekends, she took the young boy to work with her.
There he did what he’d learnt at home: He washed dishes, swept floors and did the laundry.
“It was quite intimidating at first … The divide between the white and the black communities was very, very wide. And I was a bit intimidated by this huge house supposed to be for the university’s principal. But the Saunders family were the most beautiful people. They made us, they made me, feel very comfortable.”
While Pefile was vacuuming Saunders’ study one day, he struck up a conversation with the vice-chancellor. “He asked me about what I was doing. And I told him what grade I was in and that I was interested in mathematics and physics, but battling with the subjects.”
“Tell them you live here, and if they give you problems, let them call me.”
Soon a tutor from upper campus was calling at Glenara to coach Pefile. And at Christmas there were presents for the Pefile family. When he was refused entry to Rhodes High School on the basis of catchment area (he was attending ID Mkize Sen Secondary in Gugulethu at the time), Saunders said: “Tell them you live here, and if they give you problems, let them call me.”
When his aunt moved to a permanent position as cleaner at the former Glendower Residence (now Glenres) on Main Road, Rosebank, Pefile helped in the dining hall and kitchens. Though still at school, it was his first formal job at UCT. Soon he had money in his pocket.
His aunt introduced him to her supervisor, a Mrs Jooste, who took the young man to open his first bank account, a Perm Lazer account, in Rondebosch. His salary cheque, which came in a hard, blue payslip, was paid into this account, and from there Pefile paid his fees at Rhodes High School.
His aunt’s colleagues, SisJoyce and SisDelta, took Pefile under their wings and taught him how to cook.
“They taught me how to do the small things: white sauce, mushroom sauce … then I graduated to the lamb stew, grilling chicken.”
He was soon promoted to assistant cook. It became a lifelong passion.
Twisting his arm
But Pefile’s family had plans for him: physiotherapy. He wasn’t keen; he’d job shadowed at an advertising school and that lit his fire. But he hadn’t reckoned on his elders’ determination.
His aunt and father said, “No, Tyhini, ungade uye e university uyokufundela ukwenza umgaranto? Awuzokwenza lonto apha! Hambo kwenza lanto iyenziwa ngu Vuyo no Nondwe pha eEyona [Eyona supermarket in Gugulethu]. You don’t go to university to come and do adverts!”
By then his aunt was working at the medical school and had lined up a few students to sway the young man to their way of thinking. On the last day for admissions, Pefile’s father dragged him to the University of the Western Cape to enrol.
Pefile passed first year with flying colours. But come second year, he didn’t have money to register.
With Pefile in tow, still fresh from initiation school, his aunt assailed Bremner Building. The finance manager was perplexed. He was not a UCT student. He was not even Nonceba’s son.
It was an unwise remark.
“My brother’s child is my child!” she shouted. She slapped his results on the desk. “Look at his marks! Has this child not performed in first year?”
Pefile said that he was looking for a stone to hide under. The ruckus brought former VC Dr Mamphela Ramphele from her office. It wasn’t long before they were behind her closed door where his aunt related their dilemma.
“I realised that it was through education that I would escape my reality.”
“The upshot was that we left Bremner with a cheque for R2 500,” Pefile said. He was able to register. And in third year he won a scholarship and participated in an exchange programme in the Netherlands.
“That changed the perspective that I had about the world. And it changed my life completely.”
Education is key
Much of that was because Saunders, unknowingly, had opened doors for him, Pefile said – as well as his mind.
“It was in his house at Glenara that I learnt there is something called a university. And also just being in the space where the principal of the university was in close proximity, that stimulated my quest for knowledge; a quest to better myself. I realised that it was through education that I would escape my reality.”
After graduating, Pefile worked at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, MEDUNSA (now Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University) and then in the private sector. He also taught at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. A family health crisis brought him back to Cape Town where he applied for a teaching post at UCT.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. If there are opportunities that come your way, you grab them with both hands.”
“I couldnʼt believe my blessing and the privilege of coming back to UCT where I’d held my first job. I was coming back as an academic, instead of a cleaner. And my aunt made sure: she taught me to be independent and that hard work pays [off].”
And then, so many years later, receiving a lunch invitation to Glenara ... He was so excited that he turned up an hour early. There he related his story to Phakeng and her guests. It was told with purpose.
“To the young physios out there, it’s to say: It’s doable. It doesn’t matter where you come from. If there are opportunities that come your way, you grab them with both hands, and you run with them. I’m the living testament to that.”
Salute to family
He also doffs his cap to the indomitable Nonceba Francis Pefile.
“She only had Standard 6 [Grade 8] but she wanted the best for us. Some people thought that it was wrong for her to take me to work at a very young age. But that created privilege for me because I was exposed to a life that I was not privy to.”
And now his PhD is close enough to touch. He will hand in his dissertation this month. His thesis is a model to guide employment outcomes for people with spinal cord injuries.
How has his family responded to this milestone? They don’t quite understand the fuss about the PhD, said Pefile.
“I said, ‘This is the last one’. And I’m thinking: I’m now interested in health economics. And I’d like to look into rehabilitation economics in low- and middle-income countries.”
For the time being though, Pefile is content to know that he has come full circle.
“I serve an amazing God.”
Note from South African History online: This impressive Victorian double-storeyed house [Glenara] was designed by the architect AW Ackerman, and built by one Mannix for Louis Antony Vintsent in 1882/3. The building has been used since 1925 as the official residence of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. It was declared a National Monument under old NMC legislation on 21 September 1979.
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