‘I want to reach the places my father did not’

10 December 2018 | Story Carla Bernardo. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 7 min.
Tafadzwa Mushonga replaced setbacks with perseverance to become the first doctoral candidate from the Centre for Environmental Humanities South.
Tafadzwa Mushonga replaced setbacks with perseverance to become the first doctoral candidate from the Centre for Environmental Humanities South.

Tafadzwa Mushonga’s path towards being the first PhD graduate from the Centre for Environmental Humanities South has involved setbacks and perseverance – much as learning to ride a bicycle does. Indeed, learning to cycle was part of her journey towards her graduation on 14 December at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Recalling her time at Wageningen University in the Netherlands where she obtained a master’s degree (MSc Forest and Nature Conservation), Mushonga says that is where she also got to grips with the quintessential Dutch mode of transport, in 2010.

“You know how it is, learning when someone is pushing you from behind and you are falling,” she laughed.

But soon, by applying the same focus that has seen her succeed on her academic journey, Mushonga was cycling to campus each day. Even in winter, as the snow fell, she was on her bike alongside her peers, risking a fall on the icy surface.

“I fell so many times but that was part of the learning process.”

Falling and persevering

That perseverance and understanding of “falling” has stood her in good stead through tough times and setbacks. A big blow came early in her academic career when she suffered the loss of her role model, her father.

“My dad was the one who inspired me the most,” she said.

He was a science teacher who was appointed as the pioneer principal of the first government school in the Mzarabani District in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s. It was a proud moment in the life of a man nicknamed “Genius” by his peers.

Mushonga’s mother was also a community leader. She returned to school to further her education, a step towards her promotion to head sister at the local clinic.

“Both of them were people who really valued education … who knew the importance of education.”


“I could have given up when I lost my parents, but I didn’t because I knew what I wanted.”

Her parents ensured that Mushonga – the first born – and her four siblings all attended the best schools they could afford. Now, each one of them is a university graduate, inspired by a father who was the first in his family to successfully pursue a tertiary education.

His death in 2006 was followed five years later by the loss of her mother.

Mushonga, who had been unable to visit her mother before she died, was devastated. But, after acknowledging where the losses had taken her, she persevered.

“I could have given up when I lost my parents,” she said.

“But I didn’t because I knew what I wanted.”

What she wanted was to go where her father had not, and reach new academic heights. And that’s exactly where she has directed her journey – through sacrifices, and with perseverance and focus.

A dream comes true

After completing her master’s, Mushonga returned to Zimbabwe but was always looking for opportunities to further her education.

Then, on Christmas Day in 2014, she received an email from the Andrew Mellon Foundation. She had applied for PhD funding for research into the militarisation of conservation.

The first word she saw was “Congratulations”.

“I just threw my phone, woke up my daughter and I was jumping up and down and screaming,” she recalled.

“It was like a Christmas present!”

It was a gift she had long dreamt of. When she completed her A levels, Mushonga had had her heart set on studying at UCT. She applied in secret, only informing her family when the prospectus arrived.

“My dad just looked at the prospectus and [put it aside] because obviously he knew we could not afford UCT.”

So many years later, with funding from the Mellon Foundation and the Canon Collins Educational and Legal Trust, Mushonga made it to UCT. She joined the pioneer group at the Centre for Environmental Humanities South under the supervision of Associate Professor Frank Matose.

“It just felt great that finally, finally I am at UCT.”


“I really wish my dad was around to show him I made it to UCT,”

Risks and research

Her research into the militarisation of conservation was a continuation of her work at Zimbabwe’s Forestry Commission. One half of her research on the ground entailed four months with affected communities, the other was spent working with forest guards who patrolled the Hwange National Park in search of illegal activity such as poaching.

For four months, she joined the patrols, travelling some 30 kilometres a day.

“It was risky, but it was interesting, and I learnt a lot.”

Taking that risk has paid off. As well as being the first doctoral candidate from the Centre for Environmental Humanities South, Mushonga will be the first PhD graduate in her family.

“I really wish my dad was around to show him I made it to UCT,” she said.

Fortunately, her paternal grandmother is always reminding her of how she has followed in her father’s footsteps.

“Whenever my grandmother talks about us and school, she always refers to my dad,” said Mushonga. She tells her grandchildren how she “decided not to buy shoes and instead paid school fees” because their father was so intelligent.

As for being the first PhD graduate from the centre, Mushonga said it is a proud moment.

“When you are doing it, it is painful but when you are done, you look back and realise you made it.”

The rest of the ride

Mushonga’s next stop on her journey remains undecided. But, postdoctoral research is certainly a goal. She is also co-authoring a chapter on militarisation of conservation alongside Matose and Professor Maano Ramutsindela. This will form part of the required outputs of the Mellon Foundation.

But for now, after so much time apart, Mushonga is looking forward to seeing her 14-year-old daughter who is travelling from Zimbabwe to attend her mother’s graduation this week.

And just like her father, she wants her daughter to push past her own achievements.

“You need to work hard so you can take your children to greater places,” said Mushonga.

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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.