Lerato Makamu

Lerato Makamu’s persistence to further her education paid off, and the aspiring actuary brims with the confidence of assured success.

Pink is a feisty North American pop artist known for using her voice and platform to promote equal human rights and women’s issues. The lyrics to her songs are hugely inspirational to a generation of young women – and Lerato Precious Makamu is no exception. She lives by the artist’s hit song, Try.

“The lyrics explain it all: Where there is fire there is gonna be a flame; where there is a flame someone’s bound to get burned. Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die. You gotta get up and try…” The song, says Lerato, spurred her on in the two years she spent applying for a scholarship to further her studies. “I nearly lost hope, but I knew I had to at least try, and keep trying,” she says.

Lerato matriculated in 2015 and was set to study at Wits when the scholarship she had applied to fell through. “I didn’t even have the registration fee, and felt like it was all no use,” she recalls. For two years, she filled in various application forms while working as a brand promoter to earn her keep. “This year, I thought: ‘I really need to go school, let me give it another shot.’”

Lerato’s perseverance finally paid off. “I knew someone from Wits who was a Moshal scholar, and I begged him for a contact; he gave me the numbers of a Moshal student at the University of the Free State who I called and said: ‘I need your co-ordinator’s number.’ She thought I was from Moshal, and gave it to me.”

Free of the cycle of poverty

Being accepted into the Moshal Scholarship Program changed everything for the girl determined to break from the cycle of poverty she was trapped in. “Acceptance meant a lot because I was given an opportunity to at least try to be the person I want to be; my background wouldn’t allow me to progress at all, which meant my children would not progress; the spirit of poverty I was in meant a whole generation does not go to school and is stuck in one place.”

School, for Lerato, was rough. But there, at least she got to eat, thanks to the School Feeding Scheme, she says, revealing that hunger was a constant feature of her poverty-stricken childhood in Soshanguve.  She grew up in the family home with her disabled mother and an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins. “Both my parents are disabled and have been separated for about 15 years. My mom is deaf; she gradually lost her hearing when she was 10,” says Lerato.

The extended family may have provided a roof over their heads, but offered no further support, even taking advantage of her mother’s disability, says Lerato. “At home, we were not given first preferences when it came to food and clothes. My mother cannot read; I had to read for her, and stand up for her when things weren’t going well at home,” she reveals.

Adding fuel to the fire

This, she says, is what fuels her ambition to succeed – and build her mother a house. “When I told my mother I got the scholarship, she was crying, though she didn’t really understand what it entailed.” Her mother, says Lerato, is her role model and greatest inspiration: “Even though she is illiterate, she still tries: in Grade 1 she learned to write my name and, since I’ve been away, she’s learning how to read so she can write me messages. If she can do it at this age…”

Lerato’s spark was further ignited at school, by teachers who encouraged her to excel: “My maths teachers were pushing me all the time, at primary and high school; they used to say ‘you have potential’.” Her affinity for maths inspired her career choice, she says. “I have always been an analytical thinker; from a young age, I would always try to understand why people think in certain ways, and try to find ways to outsmart them. When I learned about Actuarial Science in high school I knew for sure that’s the career I want to pursue,” she affirms.

Working as an actuary would also fit her profile, claims Lerato, adding that she is loving her course studies. “We do insurance, pension funds, and work out expected outcomes. I like advising… I also like predicting things, and my friends say I’m quite judgemental,” she laughs.

The fact that there are few women actuaries is an added incentive for Lerato, who feels that the biggest challenge – getting into university – is over. “I’m not even struggling to become an actuary; I know I will,” she determines. Failure, says this strong, driven young woman, is not an option. “It’s a motivation and stepping stone to do greater things in life; it’s important to have hope, even in the things you can’t can’t see, so that you can prosper,” she notes.

Lerato says the time spent securing a scholarship has taught her valuable lessons, and made the transition from high school to varsity easier to cope with. “Two years back, if I encountered a problem, I would give up easily. Now, I don’t give up – I have to ensure I find solutions.”