A passion for education

10 December 2018 | Story Nadia Krige. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 6 min.
Sonwabo Ngcelwane will receive his master’s degree in Sociology, with distinction, this week. It is his third degree and fifth tertiary qualification.
Sonwabo Ngcelwane will receive his master’s degree in Sociology, with distinction, this week. It is his third degree and fifth tertiary qualification.

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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Creative works and book awards

UCT recognises and celebrates major creative works and outstanding books produced by members of staff at the university.

Twin cities connect struggle and liberation sites Associate Professor Svea Josephy received a Creative Works Award for her solo exhibition, Satellite Cities, at today’s graduation. It is one of three such awards. 13 Dec 2018
Symphony of elements wins Creative Works Award Professor Hendrik Hofmeyr, of the South African College of Music, receives a Creative Works Award at today’s graduation for his composition Second Symphony – The Elements. 13 Dec 2018
Creative Works Award for Womb of Fire Dr Sara Matchett’s Creative Works Award winner, Womb of Fire, addresses how centuries of violence in South Africa continue to play out on women’s bodies. 13 Dec 2018
UCT Book Award for classics scholar Professor David Wardle’s work Suetonius: Life of Augustus has won him the 2018 UCT Book Award. 13 Dec 2018

Inspired to achieve

Read about some of our remarkable students who are graduating this season.

Four doctors, two families make it a double It’s not often that two sets of brothers who are close friends graduate from the same two faculties – and each with the title of doctor. 14 Dec 2018
Commitment, passion and dogged determination Due to graduate with a PhD in Medical Biochemistry, Kehilwe Nakedi reflects on her academic journey and the pleasure of seeing things finally fall into place. 12 Dec 2018
UCT remedies a past injustice The story of Raymond Suttner receiving his LLM from UCT almost half a century after withdrawing his thesis from examination has captured imaginations around the country. 11 Dec 2018
Unspeakable tragedy yields master’s degree When Mabuyi Mhlanga’s young daughter died in a car accident two years ago, she channelled her grief into addressing the issue of road safety around schools. 11 Dec 2018
‘I want to reach the places my father did not’ Tafadzwa Mushonga will be the first PhD graduate from the Centre for Environmental Humanities South, forging ahead from where her father left off. 10 Dec 2018
A passion for education From a young age, masterʼs graduand Sonwabo Ngcelwane has seen education as the key to rising above one’s circumstances – no matter how challenging. 10 Dec 2018
Never too late to overcome the odds PhD candidate Witness Kozanayi relied on his determination, the support and sacrifice of others, and a fascination for his homeland to fuel his academic success. 07 Dec 2018
Growing pesticide, lead threat to vultures Vultures play a vital housekeeping role in the wild, but like many African raptors they’re threatened by pesticide and heavy metal poisoning, says PhD candidate Beckie Garbett. 07 Dec 2018

Golden memories

Members of the University of Cape Town’s class of 1968 will reunite to celebrate their Golden Graduation this week. Madi Gray, a veteran of the nine-day Bremner sit-in of 1968, will be among those UCT alumni celebrating this milestone.