Selunathi Sandi had no choice but to fend for herself as a teen – but the resilience and hard work paid off, and she’s now pursuing her dream.
According to Amnesty International, there are an estimated 3.7 million orphans in South Africa – and about 150,000 children living in child-headed households. Selunathi Sandi does not fall within those statistics – but she can relate to those circumstances. She has, after all, had to largely fend for herself as a youngster.
“My mom was a security guard who worked nightshifts and weekends. She would ask my friends to sleep over most nights so I would not be alone,” she recalls. Weekends were spent with family who lived in a different location. “We moved around a lot, because my mother didn’t have a huge income and often struggled to pay the rent,” she explains.
Selunathi’s little sister, who is three years younger, had moved in with her mother’s eldest sister. Soon after, her mother, Fundiswa, built a mud and zinc hut in Phapha Mani, an unserviced location in Grahamstown.
Circumstances improved somewhat when her mother’s younger sister received a government-funded RDP house in Extension 10 and passed it on to the destitute young family. “That’s where we live now,” says Selunathi, explaining that the move allowed for her little sister to return home – but things soon took another turn when her mother lost her job.
“My mother has been unemployed for about five years now. In 2014, a year after she lost her job, she became mentally unwell, and was admitted at a mental institution. My sister went back to my aunt and I had to stay home, on my own for six months,” Selunathi relates.
The experienced strengthened her, says Selunathi. “I learnt a lot from that experience. I had to learn to be responsible at a young age,” she adds. It was during this period that a woman from her church group stepped in to mother the young girl. “Ncumisa took me in when things were bad in my family. She has managed to stay strong despite her own hardships and I really look up to her,” says Selunathi.
Thriving despite adversity
Despite the adverse circumstances at home, Selunathi thrived at high school. “I loved it: I was involved in a lot of stuff,” she smiles. Selunathi not only excelled academically and got on well with her teachers, she also participated in various societies and programs like Soul Buddies, Peer Education and Upstart. “I also took part in the school choir, and drum majorettes,” she says, proudly adding that she was selected Queen of the drum majorette troupe.
Selunathi’s involvement with the “9s and 10s” – a component of her school’s partnership with Gadra Matric School, an education development initiative to help matriculants improve their marks – led to her introduction to the Moshal Scholarship Program. “Gadra took students from Rhodes to mentor high school students, and my school appointed mentors to the top 50 students. When Moshal coordinator Debra Cairns asked Gadra for the top 5 students at my school, I was one of those selected,” explains Selunathi.
Acceptance into the Moshal Program has changed her life, says the quiet-spoken but self-assured young woman. She had been applying for bursaries ever since she got to secondary school, but they were all rejected. “My confidence level had dropped and I had stopped applying by the time Moshal called me up,” she reveals.
With Moshal’s acceptance I felt that there was an opening for me, another chance in life.”
She is now in residence at Rhodes University, while completing a Bachelor of Science Foundation course. The BSc(F) is an Extended Studies Programme for students who have the ability, but not the schooling to adequately prepared them for university. Selunathi’s passion is for pharmacology, but “the university felt I was not ready for it, and suggested I do the BSc(F) to better prepare myself”, she explains.
Selunathi developed her love for life Sciences in high school. “I fell in love with lab work, loved discovering and working with chemicals and want to work with the human body, make medicine…” she enthuses. Initially, she intended studying forensics – “but it’s not offered here” – and admits to being inspired to do so by the drama series Medical Detectives.
She’s determined to pursue pharmacology, though, and says she motivated by the people who look up to her as their hope for the future. “I am the first in my family to attend university, and I know they would be disappointed if I didn’t make it,” she says.
Her dream is to buy her mother a house. “She has never owned a house of her own; her and her younger sister fight often, and she threatens to throw my mother out, so I wish she can have peace of mind, in a home of her own,” says Selunathi. Her sister, too, is a great motivational force: “I want to see my sister happy, as she has been through a lot – I want to be successful and provide for my family,” she says.
Her faith sustains her. To relax, Selunathi sings, and especially loves listening to Gospel music. She is further motivated by a verse from the Bible, in Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. “Through everything I go through, God knows why I have to go through that, and he plans to see me successful,” affirms Selunathi.