For almost two decades Tsepiso Tshivhase had gone through life keeping an “enormous”, tragic secret from his family. The 27-year-old University of Cape Town (UCT) civil engineering graduand was just six years old when his mother was gruesomely murdered in 1999. His father was the alleged perpetrator and took his own life that same day. Despite this, Tsepiso will be one of the many graduands graduating in absentia due to the coronavirus outbreak.
For years, Tsepiso’s family attempted to conceal the truth, admittedly, he said, in an effort to protect him from the horrors of gender-based violence (GBV), which had for years plagued his home.
What they didn’t know, Tsepiso said, was that he found his mother’s charred body and alerted his grandmother to the smoke coming from his parents’ bedroom.
“When I found the bag with my mother’s belongings, every day after school I’d read a bit of it. I wanted to understand what she was like.”
Just a few years after his parents’ death, he found a bag in his grandfather’s bedroom containing letters and other personal documents that belonged to his mother. He also found the police report that highlighted the circumstances surrounding his parents’ death.
“I was always a curious child; I read everything I got my hands on. When I found the bag with my mother’s belongings, every day after school I’d read a bit of it. I wanted to understand what she was like. That’s how I found the police report,” he said.
Spotlight on GBV
When first-year UCT student Uyinene Mrwetyana was killed in August 2019, her murder placed the spotlight on the plight of GBV in the country and took Tsepiso back to a time he had been trying desperately to forget. By then, he was completing his final year at UCT’s Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment (EBE) and was eagerly awaiting his graduation in March 2020.
Fast forward just a few months and Tsepiso will receive his degree in an unconventional setting. Sadly, for him and hundreds of other graduands, UCT has suspended its autumn graduation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s sad that we won’t get hooded, and it’s sad that I had to cancel the flight ticket for my 82-year-old grandfather who is my only surviving [parental] figure. But this suspension is necessary – we can’t endanger the lives of students in our community and their families,” he said.
Tsepiso is one of UCT’s inspirational graduates for this graduation season.
Life at Wits
After matriculating in 2010, Tsepiso left his hometown in Venda, Limpopo, to study mechanical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). But that didn’t go as planned.
“For the first time I felt like an orphan. It was a lonely and depressing time in my life. Moving from a rural area to an urban area and having to mix with kids from privileged backgrounds was a nightmare. We had nothing in common,” he said.
In 2013, because of his results, he was academically excluded and returned home. He spent most of his days assisting with outreach programmes at his church. But things took a positive turn when his good friend Hulisani Tseisi gave him a call one afternoon in 2014.
“For the first time I felt like an orphan. It was a lonely and depressing time in my life.”
“He asked me how things were going at Wits and I told him that I was back home. He thought I was joking,” he said.
Hulisani immediately requested that Tsepiso send him his matric results and other personal documents and promised that he would make work of enrolling him at UCT. At the time, Hulisani was about to start his master’s in tax law at UCT.
“He was determined for me to get into UCT and I regained my confidence that I could make my academic comeback,” Tsepiso said.
“When UCT accepted me, he [Hulisani] mentored me in many areas, including life skills and self-discipline. I am greatly indebted to him.”
Arriving at UCT
Settling in at UCT was a mighty task. Once he was accepted, he opted to enrol in the faculty’s Academic Support Programme for Engineering in Cape Town, which meant the course spanned over a period of five years, instead of the usual four years.
“I was so scared of failing again and thought that I would be more capable of a lesser academic load,” he said.
The demands that came with his degree were immense, and the “huge” secret he had been keeping from his grandparents, aunts and uncles for years often weighed him down. That wasn’t all. Tsepiso said it bothered him “a lot” that his fellow students were younger than him, and he felt like “a lesser person” asking them for help.
“When I started making friends who truly cared for me, things started to change.”
All this changed when he established a proper support structure on campus after he joined UCT’s Student Christian Fellowship society and developed a lasting friendship with his classmate, Tumelo Popela.
“When I started making friends who truly cared for me, things started to change,” he said.
“It no longer bothered me that I was asking someone younger for assistance. I realised that there was absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
Reaching “rock bottom”
Talking to his family about the circumstances surrounding his mother’s death was always on his mind but felt impossible to do – until 2018 when he sat his aunt down and told her what he had known for half his life.
“She cried. She said they wanted to protect me and because I was doing so well in school, they thought that telling me the truth would make me regress. I understood,” he said.
“My family gave me a happy childhood and I didn’t ever feel like I was lacking anything, and I didn’t feel like an orphan at all.”
Tsepiso said the load seemed somewhat less after the conversation with his aunt. However, after Uyinene’s murder, which followed shortly after his grandmother’s death last year, things began to unravel.
“I couldn’t attend my grandmother’s funeral because I was in the middle of a very important project. That broke my heart. A few weeks later Nene [Uyinene] was killed, and suddenly I was staring the effects of GBV straight in the eye again. I was [at] rock bottom,” he said.
Tsepiso said he struggled to cope. He lost his appetite and battled to sleep at night. Popela convinced him that he needed help.
“I felt like I was reliving my childhood and what happened to my mother, and I lost all composure,” he said.
With the assistance of UCT Student Wellness, the in-house EBE psychologist and group therapy sessions with his sponsorship programme, things slowly improved.
“I am so grateful to my faculty for their support, especially last year when I went through such a dark time.”
He said he began to see things differently and his therapy sessions provided him with the courage to speak about his mother’s death.
While he admitted that his academic programme took “a bit of a knock” during this time, once he communicated with his supervisor, Dr Nicky Wolmarans, and his thesis submission deadline was extended, things began to look up.
“I am so grateful to my faculty for their support, especially last year when I went through such a dark time. They could easily have allowed me to drop out, but they didn’t, they believed in me, and here I am – a graduate,” Tsepiso said.
“I am excited for what lies ahead. I believe it will be nothing but good.”
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We understand the disappointment that our students and their families feel about the impact that the global pandemic has had on the normal operations for graduation ceremonies. Please know that the decision to host virtual graduation celebratory events was not taken lightly. We congratulate the March and December 2020 graduates on their academic success during an exceptionally challenging year.
The March 2020 Senate List of Qualifiers was approved at the beginning of March and everyone on that list had technically already graduated in absentia with a confer date of 19 March 2020. The celebratory event video was made available online at 18:00 on Monday, 14 December to honour the March 2020 graduates.
The December 2020 graduands have graduated during the virtual graduation celebratory event at 18:00 on Tuesday, 15 December 2020.
Find full information, including Frequently Asked Questions, on the Graduation page on the Students website. You can also follow the celebrations on UCT’s Twitter page and the #UCTGrad2020 hashtag.
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