How many boys love flying a homemade kite or owning a remote-controlled aeroplane? To them, nothing can replace the fulfilment of seeing the flyers sky-rocket and float in the sky. Njabulo Madonsela was one such boy, but his dream was more ambitious: he had a desire to eventually fly aircraft – in the military.
“I was always fascinated by those big machines. My father used to drive five to six hours to the Joburg airport so we could watch airplanes land and take off. I was only eleven years or so, but I wanted to control that machine,” says the twenty-five-year-old from Mpumalanga.
He made his dream happen and became a qualified pilot – at only twenty-two!
Njabulo stood out from an early age. He says, “I was the head boy at primary and was involved in cricket. I’d stand in for the coach when he was absent. Fortunately for me, I was in the Mpumalanga Schools Cricket team and became the best cricketer in my matric year, 2008.”
He believes that sport prepared him for all the challenges that were awaiting him in the future. “It taught me how to believe in myself. I’m now a self-motivated guy because sport improves your bounce-back ratio. It teaches you how to pick yourself up after a loss,” he says.
How did his passion for flying start and develop?
First, Njabulo understood that having the dream of becoming a pilot meant that he had to pass with flying colours. “Back in high school, I was friends with this guy called Mduduzi Mnguni who’s also a pilot now. We used to dream about it every day. I had a healthy competition with Mdu. We always made fun of whoever got the lowest grades. My dream pushed me to do well academically.”
Then one day, “I got a voice message from him saying the best thing has just happened to him: his mom found him a flying school in Port Alfred. I was so excited for him and I said he should do it, for both of us.” Mduduzi’s enrolment showed him that the dream was attainable.
“He then gave me the estimated fees and it was a very scary figure. I knew that my parents couldn’t afford that much money,” says Njabulo. Both his parents are teachers and he has two siblings, with him in the middle.
“My parents kept on pressurising me to apply [for something] as my matric year was coming to an end. In my mind I said, ‘I don’t know how it’s gonna happen but I’m gonna become a pilot’.”
Njabulo’s unshakeable belief in God kept him going. “November came and still I had not applied. Only faith was pushing me at this point. My hope was in Him, otherwise I would have given up.”
“My dad – what a great guy he is! He took it upon himself to apply for me at all the varsities.” Njabulo by now was considering doing a short course so he could earn money for his fees, but something bigger came up.
“He got me a bursary for IT and other courses. UCT, Wits University and University of Pretoria all accepted me. But I was like, ‘No, no! I want to be a pilot – klaar!’”
His father warned him at that stage that if he didn’t respond to UCT then he’d stay home the whole year. The only thing that Njabulo wanted was to be a pilot but he felt like a dark cloud was hanging over him.
“Mduduzi suggested that I apply for a South African Airways bursary. To my surprise, it was announced the bursary wouldn’t be offered for that year.”
Then, “UCT sent a letter saying that I wouldn’t find placement if I didn’t come for late registrations.” So, he finally decided to go study engineering at UCT, but there was a hitch. “We went to book a flight but only to find out all the systems were offline. So we had to wait another day before we could book.”
“I was exhausted and fell asleep on our way home. I heard the word ‘pilot’ echoing on the radio and woke up. They were about to wrap up the show and just going through a list of possible careers in the military.” He says his father then recalled that he had a military magazine at home as a resource, since he was a Life Orientation teacher.
“We launched a search for the magazine. Everyone gave up and went to sleep but I kept on searching. I found the magazine at twelve midnight.”
“The question was whether to call the military or book the flight. We had only so much time left but I just wanted to be a pilot and nothing else. I made the call and they told me to bring certain documents for selections. That was in February 2009. I asked Mom to pray for me as I was about to undergo the tests and interviews.”
Upon his arrival, Njabulo didn’t realise the nerve-wracking time that awaited him. He was told there was just a slight chance that he would make it: there were 30 000 applicants but they had space for ten people only! The applicants were divided into groups of thirty people.
But that wasn’t enough to put him down. Just like the aircraft he wanted to control, Njabulo always managed to land on his two feet.
“This other guy who had studied aircraft mechanics just sat next to me and started telling me about aircraft and their body parts. I knew I’d be writing a test on it, so I took notes as he recited. God’s been great. Most of the things he told me were on the test. I knew that God is good.”
The burning desire to become a pilot meant that he’d do anything to see his career take off – even approach a stranger.
“I saw this guy who was wearing Air force uniform sweeping the streets [of the airbase] and I saw that as an opportunity to pick his brains. I took my notebook.” His interview was two hours later and something strange happened – again. “The same guy who was sweeping the streets two hours earlier was now seated in the panel of interviewers. He just laughed when he saw me.”
The selection process came to an end and he had to wait for two weeks before his fate was decided.
“My parents said I should book a flight and wait for my results in Cape Town. I refused. I said I’d wait there at home.”
Two weeks came and went. Then finally he received the call – saying he just landed a spot in the coveted top ten!
“I was so excited. I knew God had seen me throughout the whole selection thing. I went to Pretoria for my training in 2009.” Exams and intense training became nothing new to him, but his problems were not over yet.
“The air force announced they wouldn’t be sending anyone on to school any longer due to funds but my friend and I said we would pray about this. I wanted to go study.”
Then, “Just halfway through the course, they changed the policy. They said ‘Anyone who qualifies from this point on onwards has to go to study their course of choice at any university they want.’”
In this way Njabulo became a fully qualified pilot in 2012 and began his first year doing engineering at UCT in 2013, sponsored by the military.
Even though still a student, Njabulo says, “I want to plough back. Back at home, I tutor mathematics and physics during winter schools. I feel like God has called me into community development.”
He wishes the youth could take education more seriously.
“Most of my experiences have happened at school. Disregarding education is disregarding a rather more important part of youth development!” Njabulo exclaims.
To what does he attribute his achievement? Njabulo thanks his parents for believing in him even when he wasn’t confident himself, Mduduzi for contributing to his success and God for his grace.
“My best decision and greatest achievement was finding Christ in my life. None of the things I’m doing would have been possible if it wasn’t for Him.”
Njabulo may be one of the youngest pilots that South Africa has, but he remains a mentally grounded, humble one. “I don’t feel like I have achieved a lot in my life. I don’t think I’ve done great things. It’s God who has been opening these doors for me. It’s Him throughout the whole journey.”
Njabulo is living testimony that: “If you have faith when you pray, you will be given whatever you ask for.” Matthew 21:22
Tell us: What is your one dream that you still aim to achieve? What obstacles stand in your way?