Thabo Msibi was born in a small rural village called Ntabamhlophe in the KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa and, until he was 10, was educated at a township school. Very few children from South African townships go on to higher education – only 14% of young people go on to higher education, compared with 65% of whites.
Under the apartheid system, which ended in 1994 when Thabo was 10, white South African children received good quality schooling, while black children were given what was described as “Bantu education” which prepared them for the unskilled labour market. The legacy remains and the rural provinces like KwaZulu-Natal province present the greatest challenges, with township teachers often been poorly trained.
Thabo has not only completed his undergraduate degree in education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, but won a scholarship to Columbia University to do an advanced masters degree and is now doing a PhD at Cambridge, courtesy of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship Programme.
Thabo’s family life has not been an easy one. His mother had to drop out of school when Thabo was born because she had to look after her father and wanted her children to have an education. She had to seek work far from home and would be gone for long periods of time. His father was studying to be a teacher so Thabo was brought up by his aunt for the first eight years.
When he was nine he moved in with his grandmother in the poorest section of a township near the town of Estcourt. His two younger sisters stayed with his aunt. From age 10, Thabo’s parents were able to buy their own house in the township and in 1994 the whole family moved to Estcourt.
His mother was working long hours as a waitress so was not around much. His father considered it was not his job to look after the children. Thabo says traditionally the man of the house was treated as the master and even had his own special plate to eat from.
It fell to Thabo to take control of the household budget, clean the house and do the cooking. “I was more like a dad to my sisters than a brother,” he says. It is only now that he has been able to build a better relationship with them, particularly his younger sister who is also studying education.
Thabo attended the high school in Estcourt and found it difficult to bring together his home life where he was treated as a traditional Zulu boy with the “middle class white life” of his school. He felt very different from his peers who came from wealthier backgrounds and was not allowed to invite any to his house.
His family life was further complicated by the sudden arrival of an older half brother born as the result of a relationship his father had had before Thabo was born. The family took the boy in and Thabo says he was treated better than the other children. Thabo rebelled and started gambling heavily, continuing even when his parents found out and beat him. “It was an emotional unconscious thing,” he says. “I was breaking down at school and crying.”
A teacher at his school contacted a social worker, but his family refused to let him see her. In the middle of all this turmoil, Thabo set up several ground-breaking initiatives at his school.
He used his lunch money to go to his township to train children to play hockey. He founded the first debating league to bridge the gap between township and urban schools, seeing it as a way of building township children’s fluency in English. “It was the first league to include different races,” he says.
His gambling increased and, at one point, he spent all of his sister’s school registration fee. His parents contacted the police and he spent a day in detention. “I hated myself,” he said. “I couldn’t understand why I had done it.” After talking to a group of Christians visiting from the US, he decided he had to change and live a life he could be proud of. He never gambled again and began to excel at school.
With support from teachers and the school cashier, he was accepted to the University of KwaZulu-Natal to study education. There he met another mentor who encouraged him and helped him to feel good about himself. He set up the Community Development Association, a widening participation initiative aimed at bringing secondary school students from township schools to the University of KwaZulu-Natal for a week to learn leadership skills.
Thabo also founded another debating league. His teaching course was four years long, with a focus on social justice. During it, he won several scholarships, including a Fulbright scholarship to study anthropology at Columbia University’s Teachers College, but he found New York unfriendly and did not enjoy the course. He switched to international education development and realised he already had a masters equivalent from the University of KwaZulu-Natal so could finish his course in one year, rather than two.
During that year he applied for the Gates Scholarship programme, initially for an MPhil. However, when he arrived at Cambridge [where he is based at Pembroke College], he realised he was repeating work, appealed to be allowed to do a PhD and was accepted. He is studying changing attitudes to masculinity in South Africa and aims to produce a DVD about gender, homophobia and HIV/Aids to use in schools next year. He lectures in HIV/Aids education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and says attitudes to homosexuality are changing among younger people, but there is still a lot of prejudice, including among teachers. He is interested in looking at how male teachers construct their sexual and professional identities in post-apartheid South Africa.
“Social justice is my passion,” he says. “Every project I get involved in has to be about empowering people and challenging assumptions about race and gender.”