People often say ‘you have to get lost before you find yourself’ and Tshepo’s story is living proof of this. Tshepo Cyril Phanyane (24) was born in Muduluni Village in Limpopo , and graduated with a Degree of Laws (LLB) at the University of Fort Hare (UFH). You may take the perception that law students have always been A-students, but Tshepo at many stages in his life he felt lost.

“At school I was what they call an ‘underperformer’. I was pushed up from Grade 4 to Grade 10, but failed Grade 10. My principal at the time said I didn’t understand anything” he recalls.

He says his personality is the only thing that carried him to the tenth grade.

“My report cards were always circled in red. My character worked in my favour because that influenced the teachers to push me up through the grades.

Tshepo was raised by both his parents but he was the first one in his family to reach matric, meaning nobody could help him with his schoolwork.

“I didn’t have a skill for studying. I’d read irrelevant stuff just to kill time. I never took my books seriously.” Tshepo has one sibling who’s now in matric.

Parents all wish nothing but the best for their children, so his academic performance must’ve affected worried them.

“I had a hardworking uncle who mentored me. He had courage. I’d get annoyed every time I saw him because he’d ask me to study. He called me a ‘nuisance’ because I didn’t listen to him.”

His father encouraged and assured him that “he failed but that happens to good people as well”.

“He usually told me that if I didn’t pass he wouldn’t buy me clothes. That motivated me ‘cos I’d obviously want new clothes. He’d say ‘It is okay to fall but you don’t have to stay down’ He adds that his father eventually bought him expensive clothes so that he could stay motivated.

Tshepo realised that his snoozing wasn’t doing him any good, so the time to answer the wake-up-call came.

“My failing was an eye-opener. I wasn’t going to realise that I was supposed to study if I didn’t fail. I invested more time in my books and soon became the top student in Grade 10. That’s when I saw the change, gained courage and realised the capability inside me.”

His belief also picked him up and he found refuge under God’s wing.

“As a human being you must believe in something, something that you’ll hold onto when you fail. I started going to church and the bible restored morals in me,” he says.
Tshepo passed his matric in 2010 closing off a challenging period, but the next chapter in his life wasn’t without its challenges either.

“I went to the Eastern Cape hoping to find a placement at Fort Hare, but I was rejected. Then I left for the University of Joburg (UJ) but I was rejected there as well because I did Maths Literacy at school,” he says.

Tshepo faced yet another uncertainty in his life where he didn’t know what the next stop was, but a Good-Samaritan came through for him.

“A friend of mine who worked at [UFH] called and asked me to come over to East London ‘cos he had organised a place for me. I was actually in the last group to be considered for admission.”

Just when he was about to breathe a sigh of relief, he was met with yet another challenge.

“I struggled to understand English in my first year. I came from the rurals where every subject is taught in your mother-tongue. Pronunciation is different; I couldn’t make out what people were saying to me. I wished I could go back home.” He adds that he had to repeat a module in his third year.

“After I passed my degree I wanted to study even further. I am currently serving an internship with KZN Department of Education. I am also studying Masters of Laws in Business Law with University of KZN being funded by UKZN School of Law.”

Tshepo testifies that what your mind can conceive it can achieve.

“I have received a prestigious scholarship from the Human Rights Centre for studying Human Rights and Democratization in Africa. My first semester will be at the University of Pretoria and my second semester will be in one at a partnering university in Africa.”

And he was one in a million, literally.

“Not everyone can easily get an opportunity of studying this Masters because it only takes 3-4 students from South Africa and 30 students from Africa. This was not an easy way considering that … I was never recognized to be one of the smart students [at school].” He continues.

Tshepo has tackled human rights issues through his writing for FunDza, and hopes to enlighten more people.

“There’s power in knowledge, the more you read the more knowledgeable you get. I want people to understand their human rights because they’re unaware that their rights are violated every day.”

Talk about being multilingual, Tshepo has South African official languages figured out.

“I can speak more than eight South African languages. I enjoy interacting with people because the more I engage the more I find out about their views on issues.”

Perhaps, Tshepo proves that it’s not about how many times you’ve fallen down but how you’ve picked yourself up.