A final-year law student who couldn’t afford to settle his R100 000 debt to the University of Pretoria (UP) received a R76 000 donation from ordinary South Africans after posting a video on social media highlighting his plight.
Phumelelo Simelane (22) posted a video of himself on Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In on February 8, pleading with 2 000 South Africans to each deposit R25 into his university account.
His bursary, loan and funding applications were rejected by law firms, banks and bursary schemes, including the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas).
His tuition and residence fees were almost R100 000.
Simelane from Ermelo, Mpumalanga, said he worked as a Taxify driver and did vacation work to raise money to study but it wasn’t enough.
“I joined Taxify last year. It demands crazy hours. You have to literally work 24 hours a day to see profit and be able to pay the owner of the car. I’ve since stopped working as a driver because exam season is near,” he said.
Simelane graduated with a BA law degree in 2016. His single mother Peace resigned her job as a teacher in 2013 to cash in her pension to pay his fees and managed to cover half of them for three years.
“I am essentially the eldest in my household and I have somewhat functioned as a deputy parent.
“Through my mom’s strength and courage, I was able to have a positive upbringing, full of love, kindness and growth,” he said.
“She has constantly broken her back to help me attain the best possible opportunities. She has used her entire life savings to put me through university. But in recent years the financial situation has not been kind to my family.”
Last year his debt meant he would be unable to register for his final-year LLB and he spent hours applying for bursaries and loans but all were rejected.
“Bursary schemes never gave back any responses, and bank loans were simply difficult as no one would take me on without credible surety.
“I reapplied for Nsfas; my application was also rejected because ‘I have a degree’.”
The university’s management told him he would be able to register only if he paid half of his R100 000 debt.
“I was distraught, demotivated and desperate. I had essentially given up. I had made peace with not being able to complete my degree. I called home and alerted my mum; I could hear she was broken. It saddened her that she could do nothing to help me,” he said.
Then his friend and fellow law student Molemo Makhubedu encouraged him to post a video about his plight.
“It was really a long shot, but I was desperate and willing to do anything.
“The goal was to meet the minimum amount. The public response was simply amazing. More than 30 000 people viewed the video and hundreds retweeted and shared it. Hundreds of payments started reflecting on my student account the following week. Individuals were even depositing up to R1 000,” he said.
The Students’ Representative Council donated R10 000 towards his fees.
“Ngolovan, an engineering company in Germiston, sponsored me with a whopping R50 000. I was then notified by the university that I would be able to register. I was brought to my knees and I cried tears of joy,” he said.
“This was truly a miracle from God. I was shocked at the kindness of individuals who had never met me but believed in my cause.”
Ngolovan co-owner Mark Lucas said he heard about Simelane from his son, Jeremy (23), who is also a law student at UP.
“My son told me his friend was in trouble and we helped,” said Lucas.
Simelane said he was extremely moved by Jeremy’s offer to ask for his parents’ help, but he never expected they would donate R50 000.
“When Mrs Lucas called me to affirm that they would be sponsoring me with that amount
I was ecstatic. She mentioned how a student who they had been sponsoring from KwaZulu-Natal had completed his studies and they were looking for someone to help. I had never met Jeremy’s parents, but I was moved by their generosity.”
Next year Simelane will work for a law firm in Pretoria specialising in commercial and property law. He has decided to start a bursary programme “to help individuals like me who fall into that missing middle”.
“The entire experience motivated me to complete my degree, so one day I too can help out. It has demonstrated the passion and love of education the people of South Africa have.”
After receiving donations, Simelane’s balance stood at R24 000.
But now his university account statement shows his outstanding balance of R133 551.41, for this year’s tuition and residential fees.