Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

My dream was to matter and not be invisible

By Lisa Thelma Sidambe

Most of us enjoy a juicy, delicious and well-cut steak. Some like to have it casually and others have it to punctuate a celebratory mood. I am sure even now some of us are impatiently waiting for these festivities to be over so that we can have a lusciously juicy steak in celebration of this momentous occasion. When I think of steak on a plate, tears threaten to overwhelm me because steak is a symbol of the realisation of my African dream. It is a vivid and harsh reminder of the cows my grandfather sold when I was in primary and high school just so he could afford to buy me school uniforms, shoes, books and pay for my tuition.

This great compliment that Monash South Africa has afforded to me today is both an honour and a privilege. It is an opportunity to narrate the journey of my grandfather’s cows and how they helped me overcome adversity.

I am standing before you today proud to be a “fresh graduate” of the school of social sciences. A school that epitomises the spirit of Ubuntu in every aspect and facet. Coming here from a high-density suburb called Mpopoma, in Bulawayo, I only had one dream. My dream was to matter and not be invisible. That same dream punctuated the journey of many of my peers who are graduating today. My female colleagues, by virtue of their gender, were subjected to all forms of sexism. My African brothers and sisters were victims of xenophobia, a gross violation of human rights. My white friends were perceived to be racist and discriminated against by virtue of their skin pigmentation. The sense of community we found in the school of social sciences created an environment that allowed and encouraged us to reclaim our identity. The intellectual rigor in the school, combined with our intellectual curiosity transcended all our identity markers. The values that were inculcated made us realise that what we were becoming was far more important than our perceived mediocrity; even more important than our gender, race and nationality. We found a home here. A global village that made us matter. A community that made us visible.

As I look back, I am reminded that the journey of my grandfather’s cows started with an African reality. An African reality that almost ran away with my African dream.

***

I was born to a stunningly beautiful 15-year-old woman who later died of an Aids-related illness. My father, a man I have never seen, was allegedly abducted due to politically motivated action.

I taught myself how to speak English. From a tender age I observed that my immediate world was structured in such a way that those who got the most incredible opportunities were not chosen on the basis of their intellectual capacity or academic aptitude. Instead, they were chosen on the basis of their command for the English language. I am sure some of you will agree with me when I say some government schools in the ghetto consider it to be such a phenomenon to have any student with impeccable English. I knew I had to work extremely hard to fit into that framework of how achievement had been conceptualised – and here I am today.

An African reality has the capacity to suffocate our ability to rethink, reinvent and reimagine an African dream. I am so proud to be standing before you now as a graduate who has been taught that my African reality is an enabler and not a deterrent. Here, African realities are being transformed into African dreams that are just as authentic and as legitimate as the proverbial American dream.

In the four years I was here I achieved a first class honours, became a Mandela Rhodes Scholar and was awarded a Sir John Monash Medal. I also got the opportunity to travel to Hong Kong, China and Brussels, Belgium. That to me is beyond comprehension when aligned with the imaginations I had had while sitting under my grandmother’s mango tree in Mpopoma. The global exposure my peers and I have been afforded while at this institution has been a canvas onto which we have mapped out our destinies. The relentless encouragement and prodding we have received from our lecturers extends beyond tutorial and lecture rooms. We are so incredibly fortunate to have been shaped into confident, civil and socially minded individuals who will unequivocally define their place in any organisation in Africa and beyond.

Congratulations class of 2015. Today is an affirmation of our relevance in the global community. As Robin Sharma rightly says, may we be “devoted to being the First, the Most, the only and the Best. May we reach our end and bask in the staggering glory of our phenomenal achievements, along with the rich value of having contributed to the lives of people we were lucky to serve”.

To faculty and family members here today, thank you for your prayers, love and guidance. I know I stand before you today not just as a Sidambe child but as an African seed and a kindred child to every single person present today. My grandparents could not afford to be with us today but they could not be any prouder. To my mum and dad – wherever you may be, I hope you are proud of your daughter.

Lisa Thelma Sidambe is a 2015 Mandela Rhodes Scholar and Sir John Monash medallist. She recently completed her honours in international studies (summa cum laude) at Monash South Africa. She aspires to strike a balance between being both a leader and an intellectual. This is an edited version of her graduation speech delivered on April 9, 2016.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Aesthetics of power and questioning what a ‘good’ university is
  • Equality and intellectual emancipation
  • The pro-poor rhetoric of the ANC government has failed to translate into meaningful economic policy
  • Has the time for ‘talks about talks’ come in SA?
    • Wellington Maruma

      I was so moved to hear your speech. You are such a strong, amazing woman and I am so proud to have graduated at the same institution as you. You have really made us proud. You are such an inspiration to every young child with a dream to overcome adversity. Stay blessed and I wish you all the best in all your future endeavours.

    • Suntosh Pillay

      We are all richer for you having shared your story with us. Thank you Lisa!