As Gibson Nzimande strode across the stage of the University of Johannesburg (UJ)’s Sanlam Auditorium on the afternoon of October 19, 2023, it was not merely a moment of receiving his Master’s degree in History. It was a triumphant celebration, the realisation of a lifelong dream, and the culmination of an extraordinary journey characterised by unwavering resilience.
Despite facing insurmountable challenges over the past four years, Nzimande emerged victorious. On this momentous occasion, he was among the hundreds of students who proudly graduated from their respective degrees. Dressed impeccably in a black suit, Nzimande’s appearance starkly contrasted with the image of a homeless umgerezi – a hustler, or waste reclaimer that he had become almost 20 months ago. Today, he stands as a man of immense pride, having completed his Master’s degree at UJ.
Nzimande’s extraordinary odyssey took a bleak turn as 2019 ended. By the dawn of 2020, he was grappling with homelessness, seeking refuge near a Sandton petrol station, his cherished Master’s degree slipping through his fingers. Two long years were marked by enduring unforgettable and harrowing conditions as he navigated the harsh realities of life on the streets. His daily sustenance often amounted to meager sums, sometimes as paltry as R50 to R100 on more fortunate days. Yet, his indomitable dream of becoming an academic, a dream nurtured since childhood, remained the unwavering force that propelled him forward.
Fast forward to October 2023, Nzimande has not just celebrated his graduation but has already embarked on the exciting journey of crafting his PhD proposal. When questioned about his emotions on achieving this remarkable milestone, he responded with a beaming smile, uttering, “I am elated!”
While contemplating his journey, Nzimande offered insights into his enduring determination, stating, “Since my teenage years, I’ve been a young man with unwavering focus. I’ve always harboured the ambition of contributing to academia, whether in the realms of History or Politics. I believe providence guided me towards History, and despite the hurdles and delays, I’ve persevered to reach this point.”
His passion for History was ignited in Grade 6, sparked by his innate curiosity. Growing up under the care of his grandmother in Kwa-Zulu Natal while his mother worked in Johannesburg, Nzimande imbibed the values of tenacity, concentration, and diligent effort, which would sustain him through the trying times of his life’s journey.
Guided by the mentorship of Professor Thembisa Waetjen, Nzimande’s Master’s Degree bears the title “Life Histories of Women Using Nyaope in a South African Township: Four Biographies.” His firsthand experiences as a homeless individual, combined with his upbringing in the sprawling township of Katlehong in the Gauteng Province, endowed him with exceptional insights into the complex interplay of gender and substance use, with a particular focus on young women. His research serves as an illuminating contribution to an often-overlooked perspective, as most studies in this field predominantly centre on the experiences of men.
Nzimande elaborated, saying, “The research perspective I adopted can be likened to an ethnographic lens. Having grown up in the township, regrettably, drug-related issues were pervasive in our environment. My firsthand experiences, both on the streets and within the township, provided me with the necessary vantage point to delve into this complex subject matter.”
Furthermore, he emphasised that substances like nyaope are not novel, as existing literature suggests, but the dynamics of their usage evolve. Nzimande aspires to impart a valuable lesson through his narrative, urging that we refrain from making hasty judgments about individuals experiencing homelessness without delving into the unique stories that shape their lives.
He expressed, “Numerous misconceptions exist regarding individuals experiencing homelessness; some unfairly assume it’s solely a consequence of their own decisions. Homelessness can result from a multitude of factors, including familial issues. We must resist quick judgments and understand that those who find themselves homeless haven’t necessarily abandoned hope in themselves or in life. For some, this might signify a chance at a fresh beginning.”
As a touching gesture, a friend presented Nzimande with a framed photograph depicting him seated on a foam mattress at the very spot where he once sought shelter during his period of homelessness. Overwhelmed by emotion, Nzimande gazed silently at the image, drew a deep breath, and radiated with pride. It’s a poignant moment that encapsulates the profound transformation he has undergone.
Gibson Nzimande’s journey doesn’t conclude here; he is embarking on his PhD journey at UJ with eager anticipation. His story stands as a wellspring of inspiration for all, a testament to the resilience, determination, and relentless pursuit of one’s aspirations.